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Learning to live apart

14 July 08

Parenting classes for the newly separated, now common in the USA, are about to be trialled in Scotland, following a visit by Texan divorce coach Christina McGhee

by Roger Mackenzie

Parent education classes are set to be promoted in Scotland, as a possible aid in restricting the number of cases where issues over contact or residence arrangements for children see parents engage in costly, and ultimately unsatisfactory, court actions.

Relationships Scotland – the new organisation which has been formed by a coming together of Family Mediation Scotland and Relate – is to pilot the classes after a successful awareness-raising project, run in conjunction with Texan divorce coach and parent educator Christina McGhee.

Having already worked with Resolution in England in assisting lawyers to guide clients towards child-centred arrangements, McGhee, who featured in the Channel 4 documentary series How to Divorce without Screwing Up your Kids, joined Relationships Scotland and the Scottish Collaborative Family Lawyers Group in a programme of events which included meeting with MSPs, as well as providing a seminar for family lawyers at HBJ Gateley Wareing’s office in Edinburgh.

Language shift

For an audience who have been at the sharp end of the most intractable, virulent disputes between parents, McGhee’s outlook offered a refreshing perspective.

Most noticeable was her subtle shift in language. Lawyers are seen as “points of influence” for clients, and can shape their client’s divorce experience in the same way as parents can shape the separation experience for a child. Terms such as contact and access are shelved, and instead the focus is on “on duty” and “off duty” parents. Indeed McGhee’s central philosophy that children need not just survive divorce, but can thrive, is itself at odds with some of the doctrinal divorce thinking.

In Texas, parent education classes have been mandatory for eight years and similar classes are compulsory in numerous US states. While the idea of mandatory classes seems contrary to the political rejection of the “nanny state”, McGhee argues that governments have intervened to make people wear seatbelts or to ban smoking in public places. She also argues that by making classes compulsory, you destigmatise them. Those in need are least likely to seek out parent education classes.

Gateway factor

Yet McGhee does not see it as essential to the success of classes that they are mandatory. Instead, she anticipates that a culture will develop where rather than a judge ordering attendance, it will become the norm as collaborative lawyers use it as a tool as a matter of course.

McGhee views lawyers as the gateway for parents to access classes, and from her experience of meeting family lawyers in Scotland is positive that lawyers are up to the task of steering parents to a better way of doing things. “The lawyers I have met and spoken with are very receptive and very open to change. There are many excellent family lawyers, but in every jurisdiction I have encountered or heard about those that do not make it easy for the family and indeed contribute to the pain of the divorce.”

Therefore for McGhee, one of the keys to a positive divorce is access to early information. With early information, clients are less likely to fall victim to negative influences. As research shows that 81% of parents see a lawyer first, it becomes apparent that responsibility for providing that first, positive influence usually falls on family solicitors. For McGhee, a passionate advocate of collaborative law, that means setting up a non-adversarial process as a community, and particularly in the legal community.

“Legal professionals working with parents in the early stages of divorce have the potential to significantly shape a family’s divorce experience. Therefore while the legal system in its adversarial form can aggravate or sustain parental conflict, the legal system can also be a powerful vehicle for decreasing parental conflict, leading to better outcomes for parents and children. Lawyers are under pressure to produce outcomes, but research supports the view that clients care most about the process, and having their problems or disputes settled in a way they view as fair. Satisfaction is gauged more by the relationship with their lawyer and feeling a sense of control over the process.”

Rethinking the lawyer’s role

According to McGhee, for lawyers this means being more aware of the emotional aspect of divorce and how it impacts their work with clients, which in turn helps lawyers become more effective, allows clients to “divorce with integrity”, and leads to higher client satisfaction.

Intervention at an early stage is vital, as that is when most families will feel their strongest emotions. The legal system can become an outlet for that anger, which can then see the parent become desensitised to the impact on their children.

For lawyers this might mean rethinking their role. McGhee identifies the family lawyer as at various times expert, mentor and consultant. Shifting between these roles might require lawyers to adopt approaches that are alien or uncomfortable, such as helping clients to disengage from negative intimacy, for example by encouraging parents to redefine the relationship with the other parent as a business partnership, or supporting “big picture thinking”.

Hopes for Scotland

Chair of the Family Law Association Helen Hughes attended the event. She said: “As all family lawyers are aware, many cases involve high levels of conflict which can continue for months, years and beyond. It is clear that for parents and children to cope with parental separation and the ensuing difficulties that arise, intervention at an early stage is vital. I have no doubt that parent education classes would work in Scotland.”

Until now parents have not been able easily to access information on how best to deal with the conflict that often arises when they and their children’s other parent separate. Relationships Scotland’s aim is that by introducing classes at a local level, parents will at an early stage become aware of the issues that can arise and be better equipped to deal with them.

Helen Hughes hopes that in the future parent education classes would be as routine as ante-natal classes, so that when parents separate they automatically go to as many classes as they need, in order to address whatever issues are arising for their particular family.

But she is not persuaded that such classes ought to be mandatory. “It is difficult to see what level of co-operation there would be if parents felt they were being forced to attend. However if the advantages were explained, in terms that are easily understandable to parents, I have no doubt that the vast majority of parents would welcome attending classes, particularly if they became the norm rather than the exception.”

Clients’ integrity

For Morton Fraser’s Amanda Masson, the most enlightening aspect of the seminar was the emphasis on lawyers’ communication styles.

“To make the process productive for clients, solicitors need not only to have greater consciousness of how their own actions and reactions shape a case, but also to be aware of the need to take responsibility for re-framing the context within which family actions unfold to enable clients to ‘divorce with integrity’.

“The hope is if family law solicitors have knowledge of the emotional stages of divorce, the effects of these upon clients and their children, and how the various stages of the process manifest themselves, we can divert clients from the dynamic of ‘blame’ and guide them toward a more productive, healthy and child focused solution.”

Masson added that the seminar highlighted the need for joined up support services for families facing relationship breakdown. The introduction of mandatory parenting classes would constitute a welcome step towards helping to realise Relationships Scotland’s vision of  “accessible and appropriately resourced family and relationship support services in every community in Scotland as a right, not a privilege”.

For better, for worse

Orkney family lawyer Georgette Herd admits she attended the conference with a degree of scepticism, but came away absolutely convinced that the information that was made available should be part of the continuing professional development core component for every solicitor involved in family law.

“As one of the solicitors said on the course, when a couple are separating we tend to ‘parachute in’, do the legal work and then come out again. However, when we do this we leave our clients to work through not only the consequences of the breakup of the relationship, but the consequences of how it was handled.

“We have all seen a separation which is relatively amicable (or at least the parents are communicating with each other to a tolerable level) completely torpedoed by an initial solicitor’s letter which expresses far too much opinion and judgment on the other party’s behaviour.

“This course assisted in reminding us that as family lawyers we are not only providing our clients with legal advice but, drawing on our experience of such situations, we should also be trying to assist our clients to manage a difficult situation and to emerge from the other end of the process with a manageable way forward.”

In Orkney, Herd explained, there are now two people who are locally qualified to teach the parent education course to separating parents and there is consideration, with the support of the local sheriff, as to whether the course can be somehow incorporated into the legal process of contact and residence issues.

Overall, the verdict at the seminar seemed unanimous that the ideas expressed by McGhee ware eminently sensible, and that as family lawyers we have a duty to constantly re-evaluate how we approach cases involving children, and a particular duty not to inflame an already difficult situation. But there was also a sense that McGhee was preaching to the converted, and that in every jurisdiction there are family lawyers whose instinct or training is incontrovertibly adversarial. The question of how to engage them in a more enlightened way of dealing with child cases was not resolved, though one answer may be a guidance and protocol for family lawyers – a subject which is currently under discussion at the FLA committee.

Roger Mackenzie is a solicitor in the family law unit at Maclay Murray & Spens, Glasgow, and a former deputy editor of the Journal

www.relationships-scotland.org.uk

www.divorceandchildren.com

www.scottish-collaborativelawyers.coms


Make the difference: benefits of a supportive approach

Outcomes for families without support

  • Increased level of conflict
  • Potential for continued involvement in litigation
  • Diminished parenting
  • Delayed adjustment for parents and children
  • Intensified emotional process
  • Ongoing contact between child and non-residential parent compromised and at risk
  • Children at greater risk of future problems
  • Decreased potential for professionals to be effective
  • Higher rate of dissatisfaction with lawyer/client relationship
Legal process as a gateway for coordinated intervention

  • Increased potential awareness of impact on children
  • Increased potential for minimal involvement in litigation
  • More effective parenting
  • Ability for post-divorce adjustment for parents and children
  • Parents and children likely to move through emotional process more successfully
  • Relationship between child and non-residential parent preserved
  • Parents more likely to support a two home concept
  • Children less likely to have future problems
  • Increased potential for professional services to be effective
  • Higher rate of satisfaction with lawyer/client relationship


Christina McGhee’s 10 point plan

Connecting with clients

  • Assess where your client is at in the process
  • Develop a co-operative relationship with your client
  • Honour the client’s agenda (except when the goal is destructive or harmful to children’s needs)
  • Be supportive of client’s emotional process
  • Use powerful questions
  • Support child-focused approach
  • Ask questions, listen without fixing
  • Use language that conveys support for children and places
  • Value importance of child’s relationship with both parents
  • Appropriate use of self or metaphorrs