The Early Identification and Streaming
of Cases of High Conflict Separation and Divorce: A Review


The Special Joint Committee on Child Custody and Access heard from several witnesses who extolled the value of education programs for divorcing families. These witnesses promoted the idea that if parents were made aware of the overall dangers of divorce for children and the specific harm caused by high conflict, the effects of both could be reduced. In other words, divorce education was seen as a preventive measure that might steer some families away from divorce and help others avoid escalating their differences into high conflict situations. Proponents of this intervention suggest that it is a relatively low cost solution to divorce conflict, and some claim that education programs can be offered in the form of videos, thus making this intervention available in distant and isolated communities.

Critics of these education programs caution against expecting too much in the way of either prevention or solution to divorce hostilities in most families. These critics, including Rhonda Freeman of Families in Transition and Birnbaum and Martin of the Ontario Office of the Children’s Lawyer, point out that many education programs offer information only about the divorce process, options such as litigation and mediation, and perhaps some of the associated emotional hazards for children. These programs, the critics say, are not truly educational, since they do not help divorcing parents learn new skills to deal effectively with their children in this new life situation.

These programs do have a high satisfaction rate from participants, however. Kramer and Washo (1993) found that a significant majority of 168 participants in a group program (which includes two 90?minute group sessions, followed by six group viewings of video programs) reported a high rate of satisfaction with the program. The participants claimed that the program helped them deal with their children’s needs more effectively, and this group, when compared to a control group three months after the program, scored higher on child management and personal adaptation to divorce. This study did not look at how custody, access and support issues were eventually resolved, nor did it identify the level of conflict in these families.

Arbuthnot, Poole and Gordon (1996) designed a project in which 3,658 families who had registered with the court for divorce filings were mailed a 32-page educational booklet describing the major effects of divorce and remarriage on children and offering practical suggestions for eliminating or minimizing harmful effects, particularly those resulting from parental conflict. The study showed no immediate changes in these families in terms of inter-parental conflict or visitation arrangements by the three-month follow-up date. But it did show a reduction of loyalty conflict behaviour by the children. At the one-year follow-up, there was more positive communication between parents and the non-residential parent tended to have greater access to his or her children than did the parents in families in the control group. There was no identification of levels of conflict in these families, nor any identification of stressful factors such as relocation or remarriage. Participants were not streamed into this project according to any criteria, but rather on the basis of random sampling.

Arbuthnot and Gordon (1996) evaluated the outcomes for 131 parents who attended one two-hour mandatory education class. The authors claim that the course content focussed on the needs of children and on the parenting skills necessary to meet their needs and minimize the stresses associated with being caught in the middle of parents’ conflict. The six-month follow-up of these families showed that the majority of parents valued the program, learned useful parenting and communication skills, and lowered the exposure of the children to parental conflict.

Analysis of studies of divorce education programs

There are several problems with these kinds of studies. First, as with research connected with counselling/therapy programs and mediation programs, these studies do not begin with a clear picture of how the children and parents in these families are coping with the divorce before any intervention takes place. Second, while the last study looked at participants whose attendance was mandatory, there is no sense of the parents’ pre-intervention cooperation. As a result, even in mandatory programs, it is impossible to determine the parents’ level of compliance. Third, other stressful factors for these families, such as relocation or remarriage, are not identified or included. Fourth, no attempt is made to determine levels of conflict between the parents, so it is impossible to measure whether these programs are effective in reducing conflict in these families.