On October 23, 2015, the University of Baltimore School of Law Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center for Families, Children, and the Courts (CFCC) and the National Family Resiliency Center (NFRC) convened the “Family Transitions: Issues Solutions, and Policies Conference” at the University of Baltimore School of Law. The conference was well attended by approximately 300 lawyers, judges, services providers, law students, school personnel, and the faith community, and focused on the myriad issues affecting families in transition (i.e., families experiencing divorce or separation). Employing a multi-disciplinary approach through keynote speakers and a wide range of panelists, the conference identified issues affecting families in transition, with an aim to collaborate in the future to design family policies that assist families in transition.
Dr. Robert Emery, Professor of Psychology and Director of the Center for Children, Families, and the Law at the University of Virginia, was the morning keynote speaker. Dr. Emery discussed his new book, “Two Homes: One Childhood,” due out next summer. He summed up the general consensus in the room in one slide, “Divorce stinks.” He defined divorce as all family separations, as 40% of children in the United States are born outside of marriage. When parents decide to separate, he urged the audience that “parents [need to] be parents, so kids can be kids.” Parents need to put their emotions aside and focus on what is best for the children; they need to try to see things from their child’s perspective. Equal sharing of custody is not necessarily in the best interests of the child, especially for young infants. As a result, he urged the audience to consider the developmental stage of the child when creating parenting plans. Parenting never ends, and no arrangement can last a lifetime. Thus, when children grow and change, so should parenting plans. In the end, Dr. Emery used the image of a funnel to urge the promotion of a wide range of dispute resolution alternatives. Not every couple ends up in an adversarial trial (the narrow tip of the funnel). By having a range of alternatives that includes self-represented litigants (working out their differences at the kitchen table), mediation, collaborative law, and arbitration, for example, most couples will filter through the funnel. Only a small number will get stuck at the tip—or in an adversarial trial.
The morning keynote address was followed by two panels: “Families in Transition – What Are the Issues?” (Panel 1) and “Families in Transition – What Are the Solutions? “(Panel 2). Shay Bilchik, Founder and Director of the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, moderated both panels. The first panel included judges, physicians, and social workers, as well as representatives from the military, the school system, and the faith-based community. Panel 1 identified the issues faced by families in transition, particularly for low-income families, military families, and families with disabilities and/or mental health concerns. Following up on the issues identified by the first panel, Panel 2 sought to discuss possible solutions. Panel 2 included mental health treatment providers and advocates (including crisis responders), attorneys, law enforcement, and the faith-based community.
Delegate Kathleen Dumais, Vice Chair of the Maryland House Judiciary Committee, gave the afternoon keynote address, “Moving Forward: Recommendations of the Commission on Child Custody Decision-Making.” Delegate Dumais gave a brief overview of the Child Custody Decision-Making Commission, created through House Bill 687, and presented the commission’s guiding principles and recommendations. These principles included: no presumed schedule of parenting time; increased judicial training; establishing a civil right to counsel; implementing non-discriminatory and gender neutral language into statues, rules, court forms, etc.; and establishing clear guidance that considers the needs of all parties (e.g., consider the developmental needs of the child, look into relationships with other family members – grandparents, aunts/uncles, siblings, etc.).
The afternoon’s keynote address was followed by a series of three panels: “What Policies Exist to Support Families in Transition” (Panel 3), “The Voices of Children, Youth, and Parents” (Panel 4), and “Fostering Family Resiliency: Messages of Hope” (Panel 5). Panel 3 featured judges, legislators, attorneys, and a mental health expert. Each panelist was asked, “What would you fix in the current system to make the whole thing better?” Responses included pleas for greater civility among parents, lawyers, and others involved in the process; greater focus on how trauma affects children; removing presumptions for joint custody; and more funding to allow for attorneys for families and children for low-income individuals.
Panel 4, comprised of children, youth, and parents, provided perhaps the most intimate look at the devastating effects of divorce and separation. Panelists spoke from the heart and shared their own experiences, accentuated by struggles with addiction, mental health issues, and concerns for the children, simply being caught in the middle of two feuding parents. Members of the panel urged parents to seek counseling for themselves and their children, while lauding the support they each received from the National Family Resiliency Center.
Finally, Panel 5 concluded the conference with “Fostering Family Resilience: Messages of Hope.” Panelists representing the military, mental health service providers, NFRC, attorneys, and the faith-based community each discussed something new they learned at the conference and something that could be replicated to support families in transition. Suggested strategies included offering greater translation services to assist Spanish-speaking families, greater focus on finding interdisciplinary solutions to address transition, and using schools and social media to educate and inform the public about issues impacting families in transition.
CFCC and NFRC welcome any feedback about the conference and plan to continue the conversation about how to support families in transition. Please feel free to contact us (email@example.com) with any suggestions, questions, and/or concerns.