COPE-ing with divorce: Program helps Vt. families through rough transitionsJeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo
COPE presenters Rob Chickering of East Montpelier and Judy Cyprian of Plainfield stand outside a courtroom at Barre District Court.
Heather Twombley Ruggles faced the unraveling of her marriage and the reorganization of her family in 2011.
She was aware of the repercussions for children caught in the crossfire of divorce, but did not know how to shield her own daughter, Molly, then 12, from its effects.
“I knew what I didn’t want to happen, but I couldn’t exactly say what I wanted to happen,” she recalled.
Shortly after filing for divorce in St. Johnsbury, Ruggles attended her county’s Coping with Separation and Divorce Seminar, referred to as COPE. All family court judges in Vermont require the four-hour workshop for parents of minor children who file for separation, divorce, dissolution, establishment of parentage, and changes in parental rights and responsibilities, formerly referred to as custody.
Marriages end every day. The estimated likelihood of divorce is 40 percent to 50 percent; a seemingly mere coin flip between happily ever after and a painful, often messy, end. Divorce is at once a commonplace experience and a solitary one, and one that is additionally complicated for parents.
COPE helps parents sort through the confusion and move forward.
“I don’t think any two parents think they’re going to end up in our class. When they start having children their intention is to be together,” said Susan Fay, an instructor for the program since its inception 20 years ago.
“It’s completely up to them how to behave, but if both parents focus on the needs of the children, the children can come out of this really just fine,” she said.
Approximately 200 parents each month attend a COPE seminar at one of 12 locations around the state, including Barre and Rutland. While developed for those going through a family transition, anyone can take the four-hour class, which costs $50, although the court offers a sliding fee upon request.
The class reassures parents they can successfully guide their children through the upheaval and without it, Ruggles said, she had little direction.
“There’s no one to guide you or give you advice, you’re just trying to feel your way in the dark,” she said.
On a cool, overcast afternoon in September, 17 participants gathered in Barre’s family court for the workshop, led by Judy Cyprian and Rob Chickering. Filling the court benches, the group was a typical cross-section of Vermont: young and baseball hat-clad, middle-aged professionals, the slightly bohemian and the more utilitarian-dressed. On this day they were bound by their role as parents — to 33 children, ages 7 months to 31 years all together — and their changes at home.
As they entered the courtroom, the participants were handed a short anonymous survey asking their thoughts on attending the class and what they wanted for their children. Once the surveys were collected, Cyprian and Chickering read the answers aloud, with responses to the first question ranging from feeling tortured to emotional to optimistic.
Fay, who has led the exercise in her workshops, said participants’ emotions run the gamut when they enter the class. But responses to the second question are universally consistent.
“We’ve asked that of thousands of parents and the answers are always that they want their children to have a happy life, to love and know both parents, to come out with the least possible harm; for them to feel safe and loved,” she said.
Each seminar is led by a female and male set of instructors, many of whom have backgrounds in social services, according to program manager Marcia Bedig. They help participants see separation and divorce from a child’s perspective, and explain the grief and loss process.
The instructors use role-play exercises to demonstrate how quickly communications between parent and child can break down, and participants offer advice on how to avoid those conflicts.
Selling the concept
Fay contributed to the handbook for COPE, which began to take shape in the early 1990s, coinciding with passage of a state law that created a separate family court in 1990.
At that time, University of Vermont professor Larry Shelton, a trained clinical child psychologist, had spent about a decade working with the court on behalf of children in parental rights cases. That experience led him to create a course for graduate students in 1991 called Parenting through Separation and Divorce.
One of the women in that first class was UVM Extension agent Judy Brook, who researched an Atlanta workshop for parents that became the basis for Vermont’s program. By 1992, with the backing of prominent Judge Shireen Avis Fisher and the support of UVM Extension Services, Shelton and Brook were piloting the first COPE program in Orange County.
Within three years, the presiding judges in every county had adopted the program, Shelton said.
“It turned out to be very helpful to the parents and to the court,” Shelton said. “We began to get requests to extend it to other counties. We did many presentations of the course and had to assure [judges] that we were educators.”
It was a harder sell to attorneys, who Shelton said were initially wary of the kind of advice their clients might hear at the seminar. But they, too, came around, and now encourage clients to take the course early in the process.
“What we brought to them was a different model that was focused on parenting the kids,” Shelton said. “We see now far more cases where parents want to share custody.”
Programs like COPE vary across the country, by state and sometimes by county. Unlike Vermont, though, the majority are voluntary, Shelton said, and some have gone to online programs, an option Vermont may explore in the future.
In its 20 years, COPE has been rewritten and revised from the original Atlanta model to incorporate current research and the experiences of its instructors, who meet once a year to compare notes and evaluate the materials.
“Everyone who has taught it is transformed by it,” Shelton said. “We try to get together, share new experiences and new solutions, and tweak the curriculum. The exercises and presentation pieces contributed by the instructors are one of the most collaborative I’ve been involved with. They all are committed to it because of the feedback we get from parents.”
Of course, not every parent wants to be there. The workshop eats up four hours of a workweek, which likely means lost wages or arranging for child care. Defenses are up, emotions raw.
Ruggles, who remembers sobbing through much of the sometimes poignant presentation, said many parents in her workshop seemed resentful and the angrier parents often dominated the discussion. In the Barre class, the atmosphere was more subdued, and parents commiserated on the conflict that arises from different expectations at different households and what to do when the other parent is mired in sadness.
“I went into it not sure what to expect,” said Ruggles, but the message to put the child’s needs first and the parent’s needs second resonated. “If you act in their best interest, they’re going to be OK.”
Parents often wonder how much to tell children about the reasons behind the divorce. The instructors suggest parents ask themselves in what way that information will benefit the child.
The program emphasizes the damage to children when parents fight in front of them or within earshot, and offers productive ways to communicate with an ex. The instructors point out children often need to be told repeatedly the split is not their fault, and parents should make a concerted effort not to pressure children into taking sides or acting as spies or messengers.
“Often what we do is validate what parents feel is right,” said UVM Professor Shelton, who is currently networking with programs around the country to share information and resources.
Yet he still sees so much more that can be done for families. Many divorces involve people with significant problems, like alcohol and drug abuse, anger issues, or mental health challenges; problems the workshop touches on, but is not able to fix in just four hours.
“Half of the families in Vermont will walk through a door in family court at a time when everybody’s hurting and it would be the perfect time as a society to put them in touch with every kind of therapeutic, counseling and educational services available,” he said. “Family court gave us a way to find out how many problems there really were, but we still haven’t done much to tackle those problems.”
At the very heart of the program, Shelton said, is a lesson in interpersonal skills — actively listening to children, keeping grown-up communications respectful and business-like, and practicing empathy for all involved.
Those are skills Ruggles, who teaches 3- to 5-year-olds at a Head Start preschool, took to heart. They not only helped her navigate divorce’s aftermath, but also continue to guide her professionally.
“Since that point, I am able to relate better with families that I work with. For people that are going through this, this is a main focus for them and other parts of their life take a back seat,” she said.
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