Rankin County Chancery Judge orders divorcing parents and their children to attend counseling classes
November 7, 2001
Divorcing parents with children in Rankin County Chancery Judge Thomas L. Zebert's court are required to attend classes designed to prepare them for life apart.
While Chancery Courts traditionally work out the legal issues of divorce, child custody and support payments, Judge Zebert says he believes it's important for parents and their children to also discuss and prepare themselves for how the court orders will affect their daily lives.
That's the objective of Focus on Children in Separation (FOCIS).
"We are the last bastion between the children and the parents going out into the world," said Zebert, who was a Youth Court judge for 26 years before he became a chancery judge.
"The whole issue is how to make the transition bearable," Zebert said. "The kids don't know how to deal with it."
And sometimes the parents don't either. Zebert said he wants parents to learn "how to be better to your children."
Psychotherapist Paul Davey, program coordinator for Rankin County FOCIS, said, "Our immediate objective is to try to get the parents to communicate with each other without the emotion in it. Our short-term goal is to get the parents to be able to have a civil relationship with each other that addresses the needs of the children first and to help them to be able to set aside their own issues and concerns, and to a certain extent to set aside their own resentment and to do a better job of working together for the benefit of their children during what is a difficult process."
"The divorce process itself is especially hard on children," Davey said.
"We talk to the parents about how they communicate with their soon-to-be ex-partner, and how they can communicate more effectively to really address what the children need and how to get to that first," Davey said.
Zebert made the classes a requirement in his court two years ago.
"Children 6 to 17 years old and their parents are mandated to attend, or I don't grant the divorce," Zebert said.
In Rankin County, each parent pays $30 for two classes. Parents and children attend two evening classes at the Rankin County Chancery Court for a total of four hours. Separate classes are conducted for parents and children age groups 6 to 12 and 13 to 17.
In Zebert's court between July 2000 and June 2001, 240 adults, 115 children age 6 to 12 and 40 children age 13 to 17 attended the FOCIS program.
Rankin County Chancellor John S. Grant III makes the classes optional to most divorcing parents in his court.
Chancellor Jaye Bradley plans to implement a similar program in her court in George County in December, and later expand it to Greene and Jackson counties in the 16th Chancery District.
Bradley, who followed the lead of the Rankin County FOCIS program, said, "It provides a counseling service to the children that is not available to them through any other service organization, and children are the innocent victims of divorce. This is just a means that will help them deal with the breakup of their family and better cope with the stress from that breakup."
Bradley said the program in George County will be optional in the beginning, but she may require it later.
The George County program will be free, since it is operated by the private, nonprofit George County Families First. Funding comes from the state Department of Human Services and flows through the Gulf Coast YMCA, said Tammy Goff, community counselor with George County Families First.
Goff said there is a strong need for a program to help children and their parents cope with separation and divorce. Goff said problems continue long after a divorce is final. She wants to make the FOCIS program available for judges in George County to use in cases in which divorced parents come back to court over issues such as custody and child support.
"Our court systems are being flooded with people who are using their kids to fight," Goff said. The FOCIS program is intended "to try to teach them how to deal with each other without using the children."
Bradley said the free program will enable some parents to obtain a service that they could not afford in the private sector.
Before, "The only way to obtain that was through private counseling, and most families cannot afford that. It's a short and inexpensive and effective way for parents and children to cope with the stresses from the divorce."
None of the judges see it as an attempt to keep couples from divorcing. Reconciliation programs are available, but the FOCIS program is for couples who split.
"It wasn't ever meant to be forced mediation to try to force people to go back together," Zebert said.
Becky Williams told a recent class of eight divorcing parents at the Rankin County Chancery Court, "Your relationship has not ended. It has simply changed, and you will be in a relationship with this person until the day you die. Even if that person has abandoned you or gone off to Canada, they are still a part of your children's lives."
Williams, who has a master's degree in social work, said, "I can stand here and tell you that I am totally convinced that divorced parents can learn to work together well for the benefit of their children."
Part of the parents' first class discussion dealt with feelings of anxiety, anger, denial, guilt, loss, sadness, and acceptance.
Williams paused. "Now I want to ask you something. Do you think your children have felt any of these? I guarantee you they have. And they are experts at covering it up," she said.
"The kids go through this stuff just like we do. They do it at a little different level," Williams said.
Children during their second class produce a newsletter to share their feelings, anonymously, with their parents.
Davey said, "It's a forum for children to be able to say things to their parents that they hadn't been able to say, or that they had thought but had not verbalized. We have had parents in the FOCIS group who will tell us that they really didn't think their children were being affected by the divorce, and once we put the newsletter in their hands, we see a lot of parents getting tears in their eyes and coming to the realization that the kids really have been affected by this."
During a recent class, seven children took turns at the easel. They wrote:
"What we want the grown-ups to know":
"What we want the grown-ups to do":
Donna Smith, a licensed professional counselor who teaches a children's FOCIS group in Rankin County, said during a break, "What we strive to do with the program with the kids is to give them a safe environment to process their feelings and express their feelings about the divorce."
Carol Booth, a retired teacher who also works with the children, said, "The little ones come in and even if they don't admit it, they feel like they caused this. They need to know it's not their fault."
One girl during the second class session said what she really wanted was to see her parents reunite.
Booth said many children think that if they work hard enough, they can get their parents back together. Booth said it's like Haley Mills in the cinema classic The Parent Trap. Counselors tell them that may not work, and it's not their fault if it doesn't.
Booth said, "You hate to burst their bubble, but it's almost a relief that they know, 'I don't have to work at this any more.' "
Smith said, "We try to normalize their feelings. They come in feeling like, 'I'm the only one who feels like this.' " They open up in a discussion with other children who are experiencing the same thing, she said. "It's like, 'I'm not weird. I'm not the only one who feels this way.' "
Smith said, "I always come away with a feeling that I have done something somehow to make a difference for these kids. They are so energizing."
Williams, a divorced parent, attended the classes before she became one of the teachers.
"This is one of the most rewarding things I have ever done in my career, and I think I would feel that way even if I was not divorced," Williams said.
For more information, contact Beverly Pettigrew Kraft, court public information officer, at 601-354-7452.