CFLE in Context: Families and the Legal System

A Child-Focused and Ecological Model to Support Families in Transition
CFLE Network
Content Area
Family Law and Public Policy

by Risa J. Garon, LCSW-C, BCD, CFLE

My family of origin had a significant influence on my desire to become a health professional. I grew up in a very loving family with two parents who loved each other's families and supported and helped each other out of love and kindness, not obligation. We did not have an abundance of money, rather an abundance of love and caring. My parents always had something to give to those less fortunate. We had guests who attended many dinners who had no family locally, were in financial need and were a welcomed part of our family. This became a tradition when I had my own family as well. When I was a sophomore in high school in New York City, I became so tired of reading about poverty that I made up my mind to do something about it. I started a group at my high school, Bayside High, called Teenagers Pitch In. I called settlement houses all over the city and three of them welcomed our program which recruited other youth from the inner city to reach out to younger children in friendship and recreation. The program became known as the Pied Piper Program. The settlement house directors and my guidance counselor at school ­- with whom I am still friends - were models for me, along with my parents. They taught me to give to others, believe in myself, and hold on to my ideals. Together, these threads of guidance became the "ropes" of a helping profession.

I was very fortunate to attend Cornell University where the backbone of my education in child development and family relations significantly influenced my journey into the field of working with children and adults. I was also very fortunate to study with professors, Urie Bronfenbrenner, John Condry and others who taught me so much about a systems approach, an ecological model of family and child and family development. Although I went on to receive two masters degrees, one in education, the other in social work, my education at Cornell remains my cornerstone of learning.

If you were to shadow me, you might conclude that I have very long days and wear two hats: that of directing a nonprofit mental health center specializing in working with families in transition, the other doing clinical and educational work. The fundamental outcome of my wearing these hats is that I have been able to develop a center that is based on client needs. I "fell" into working with families in transition; I had actually planned to specialize in gerontology. I was working part-time at a wonderful nonprofit mental health center and found myself working with an increasing number of single parent families. There were few services and families were confused, hurting and angry because professionals from different disciplines were not coordinating their work, making it difficult for families to move forward. Another therapist and colleague at this center and I founded the Children of Separation and Divorce Center, which in 1991 became its own private nonprofit mental health center. Since we trained judges across the country, gave presentations nationally, wrote several professional publications that were used nationally, our Board of Directors felt that we needed to change our name; thus, we became the National Family Resiliency Center, (NFRC).

We provide many services to children (ages 3 and up) and adults. Since we practice an ecological approach, which is so much a part of family life education, we view our service delivery as just one part of helping families. An ecological model looks at all the systems that impact families and vice versa. In our case, systems include faith, school, legal/judicial, other mental health professionals and school staff. Rather than working with families in isolation, we model working with these other systems and help families learn how to interact with them as well. The services we provide include: individual, family and group therapy, co-parent consultation, reunification therapy, blended family therapy, educational programs for co-parents experiencing a family transition as well as their children in separate children's programs. Clients are self-referred, referred by friends, relatives, pediatricians, school counselors, lawyers and mediators, as well as court-ordered. We train professionals in these systems, collaborate on a case-by-case basis, and advocate for families interacting with these systems to strengthen families and provide appropriate support.

This author will describe the work our center does with the legal and judicial system. When we first started working with families in transition, it became clear that we needed to work with other professionals working with the same families. Courts see parents in the highest conflict. Often, this conflict reflects untreated mental illness, anger management and substance abuse issues as well as pain and fear stemming from fear of losing their children. Court becomes a boxing ring in which to fight it out. We train judges to understand the grief process, the impact of family transitions on children and adults and, most importantly, to consider our child-focused decision making model that explains child development (infancy through young adulthood) as well as the possible impact of a family transition, how parents can meet the needs of each child, and what is needed based on the degree of conflict between parents.

The use of this model has helped Best Interest Attorneys, who are also trained by us, become trained to interview children and understand the impact of family transitions. It also enables them to work with parents and their attorneys to better address the needs of children and negotiate child-focused agreements rather than battle it out in court. The individual and family development cycle or stages taught in family life education provide a critical framework for teaching other professionals what they need to know.

Our center firmly believes that parents need to be the decision makers about their children; however, they need to demonstrate their parenting competency in behavioral terms and use criteria they have agreed to when working together as co-parents. For example, many middle school adolescents define themselves through their peer acceptance. Regardless of which parent's time it is, it is so important to the adolescent to be with peers during weekend times. If a parent demands that the teen stays with the parent and isn't allowed to have peer contact, that parent is not demonstrating appropriate and child-focused parenting. At the same time, if parents aren't educated in child development and are stretched in many directions, grief stricken about family transitions, or in conflict about custody, we need to identify what is needed to respect and assist them. Our most recent work, FamilyConnex, is an online self-guided program that uses our child-focused model and breaks it down into what this author described previously: developmental considerations, possible impact of transitions, parenting responsibilities to meet needs of each child in the family, and what needs to be considered based on the degree of conflict between parents. When parents are able to complete the first of three programs - the description of each child's needs - they can work together to make child-focused decisions and complete a parent plan rather than demand a percentage of time they want with their children. These decisions can then be crafted into Part II of FamilyConnex, which is the parent plan or roadmap through which parents can record their agreements about each area of development and submit it with their legal documents. Even if they don't complete the agreement, they can present their plan for parenting to the court.

A judge or magistrate who may have been a criminal attorney or a judge who heard criminal cases before being assigned to family court, needs to receive education, publications, and follow-up work to ensure that children's needs will be addressed. This applies to parents in terms of what we as professionals expect of them: to act rationally and in an informed way. They need to have the same knowledge base that we learn in our family life education training.

Currently, I am a member of the Statutes Committee of the Maryland Family Law Commission. Through working on an interdisciplinary committee and reviewing the impact of family transitions on children and the need for parents to demonstrate their ability to meet children's developmental needs, changes will be adopted to further define factors that will be considered in custody decisions. The significant change from the past is including children's developmental needs and their parent's demonstrated ability to meet those needs as a predominant factor in making decisions about custody. Having the Certified Family Life Educator background and training and incorporating it in to our work has helped me to hold onto a steady anchor of support in continuing to advocate and actually participate in making  recommended changes as to how custody decisions are made. Many years ago, when I was a member of the Maryland Governor's Task Force on Family Law, it was a real challenge to have my voice heard. It took even more time for the legislature to pass the bill regarding co-parent education which our center pioneered in the state of Maryland. We learn in family life education to review current policy and make changes to family policies by being family advocates.

In summary, our work with the court ranges from advocacy to training and writing publications sponsored by the American Bar Association, to working with families ordered by the court to co-parent education programs and/or other services. Judges are able to make more appropriate decisions when they have a developmental framework. They are more comfortable with parents involved with our center who include work with a neutral professional in their agreement.

It is very rewarding to learn of the difference we can make in a family's life. For example, to hear parents who were headed for a custody battle report, after working at our center, that they attended a child's concert together for the first time. It is also rewarding – albeit painful –to hear a 7-year-old tell his or her parents that it "hurts" when he hears his parents fighting. Many times, this communication marks the beginning of healing.

As a family life educator I have the strength of understanding the enormous impact families have on other systems and vice versa, the importance of understanding and respecting different cultures, and the critical need to help others use a child and family focused model that takes into consideration one of our core principles: child and family development. If I hadn't had this kind of training, I may have zoomed in on my clinical work in an office and not seen the global perspective that family life education has taught me.

Risa Garon, CFLE, is Executive Director and co-founder of the National Family Resiliency Center, Inc., a mental health center serving children and families in Howard, Montgomery, Prince George's and other surrounding counties for the past 29 years. NFRC has received national awards for its innovative work with children and families experiencing major family transitions. Risa is a licensed clinical social worker, and board certified diplomate and is trained and certified in collaborative divorce. Risa has co- authored several books and written numerous articles in professional journals. She developed the Child and Family Focused Decision Making Model, a nationally recognized model that helps both parents and professionals better address the needs of children and helps parents remain decision makers about their children.