© 2012 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.
On Jan. 24 and 25, I did a whirlwind tour of three cities in southern Alberta in Canada, training 60 judges in the New Ways for Families method. For those who aren’t aware, Calgary and Medicine Hat (a city of 60,000) received 3-year grants from the Alberta Safe Communities Initiative Fund totaling about $500,000 each. This week Medicine Hat starts taking cases and they expect to help about 200 families by the end of 2012. For more information on this method, go to www.NewWays4Families.com.
When I say it was a whirlwind tour, I didn’t realize that I would be driving across southern Alberta in 150 kilimeter per hour winds! I rode with the New Ways team from Medicine Hat, including their New Ways Coordinator, Cassidy Sheehan, the driving force behind the grant, Janis Pritchard, and the Medicine Hat Family Services staff person for the New Ways program, Keri. Since the judges rotate around southern Alberta, we trained them where they are now in three different cities: Lethbridge (a city of about 100,000), Calgary and Medicine Hat – and we trained in them all from 4:30 Tuesday to 9:00pm Wednesday.
The judges were fantastic! They are committed to helping families stop being high conflict in divorce. They will refer most families who have a parenting conflict that they have brought to court. We discussed the fact that approximately 80% of divorcing parents or unmarried separating parents never ask the court to become involved in their parenting decisions. In other words, it is a clear sign of a serious problem when one parent asks the court to make orders restricting the other parent’s involvement with the children. Perhaps a parent really does need to be restricted (domestic violence, child abuse, alienation, etc.), or perhaps it’s the parent who says the other parent needs restrictions (one making false allegations or engaged in alienating behaviors), or perhaps it’s both parents.
In any of these situations, it will help both parents and the children to be ordered into New Ways, so that they can get conflict resolution skills BEFORE the big decisions are made. We believe that after going through the skills counseling of New Ways that many – perhaps half or more – of these families will be able to make their own good decisions with assistance from lawyers, mediators and others, without having to return to court.
The judges raised many important questions and we discussed them in depth, regarding how to streamline the case flow from the initial order in the courtroom, to managing the cases that do return to court with the quizzing process of asking the parents what they learned and how they would resolve a new potential parenting conflict if it arose in the future. We compared this quizzing process to taking the bar exam. I believe that it is harder for high-conflict parents to change their high-conflict behavior than it is for lawyers and judges to pass the bar exam. Therefore, it’s very important that parents know that they will be quizzed on their conflict resolution skills if they return to court without making their own agreements. The three skills are: flexible thinking, managed emotions and moderate behaviors – and constantly “checking themselves” to make sure they are using these skills whenever they have a difficult decision to make as parents. Of course, these broad skills are broken down into very specific skills for managing stress, protecting children from their parent’s upset emotions, communicating respectfully by email, how to make proposals, how to respond to proposals, etc.
The significant benefit of this method, as the judges pointed out, is that it provides parents with skills as well as decisions. Currently, when parents ask the court to make parenting decisions (custody, access time, etc.), the court just hands down a decision. Parents spend weeks and sometimes months preparing for these decision-making hearings, then leave the courtroom with a decision that one or both parents dislike. Without any new skills, high-conflict parents simply continue the battle outside of court by refusing to follow the court’s order or manipulating the children or preparing for the next court hearing where they hope to change the decision. With New Ways for Families, the parents get skills and practice these skills before the big decisions are made, so that they can make their own reasonable decisions or accept decisions the judge makes. Then, they can go on to raise their children using these skills for years to come – although they often need reminders to use these skills.
It won’t be perfect, but we have a study being done by Alliant University in San Diego, so that we can look at what works and what could be improved. Overall, we’re very excited about seeing New Ways for Families® get funding and support from all family law professionals in two court jurisdictions. We want to truly see if we can help families reduce the conflict and raise happy and healthy children – instead of passing high-conflict behaviors from generation to generation, as is increasingly common in up to 20% of cases around the world today when parents get divorced.
Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist, and mediator. He is the co-founder and Training Director of the High Conflict Institute, a training and consultation firm that trains professionals to deal with high conflict people and situations. He is the author of several books and methods for handling high conflict personalities and high conflict disputes with the most difficult people.