—The public is regularly confronted with the topic of divorce. Whether it be a newscast, soap opera, talk show, or even a sitcom–the issue of divorce and its devastating effects on the couple is often acknowledged (and sometimes made light of). Since 1974, the number of divorces in the United States has exceeded one million per year, and statistics predict that one in two marriages will end in divorce. About one half of those divorces occur in the first seven years of marriage. With all of the focus and attention on the feuding spouses and their attorneys as they trudge through the divorce process in an often cumbersome judicial system, why is there so little time and attention directed toward the feelings of children of divorce? Each year, more than one million children are, like it or not, the unwilling participants in their parents’ divorce—an issue for children which is more prevalent than drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, or the death of a parent.
Parents in the middle of a divorce—bewildered angered and confused—often fail to recognize and understand how their children feel about the divorce and its effects on them. So, in light of these statistics regarding children and divorce, what is actually being done in New Jersey and across the United States to help the children of divorcing parents? Who will take the responsibility of assisting these children?
Recent surveys reveal a startling lack of programs for children of divorcing parents. Fortunately, however, New Jersey and other states have come a long way in the development of divorce laws and, most importantly, laws governing custody disputes. Through these developments, although divorce is still parent/litigant-focused, the laws have tried to balance the interests of the children. Still, it is the divorcing parents the judges see and with whom they interact. Only in a few contested cases does the Court hear directly from the children, which takes place in the form of an interview pursuant to the Rules of Court.
It is this Judge’s opinion that the time has come for New Jersey, a leader in the development of family law nationwide, to establish a mandatory program to aid children of divorcing parents through a quality and comprehensive educational process. New Jersey could lead the way in providing progressive programs and exemplary practices for other states to follow.
In New Jersey, the Parent’s Education Program is required by the Court Rules. But, there are only a few programs for the approximately 36,000 New Jersey children involved in their parents’ divorce each year.
Realizing that the children’s feelings have long been left out of the equation in the divorcing parents’ battle, it occurred to this Judge that something needed to change. So, I helped develop a kids program for children of divorce and separation in 1995, called Kids Count. The Program was implemented in Cumberland County and stands as an example of how the court system can help children who are often collateral damage in their parents’ divorce battle.
The Kids Count program was not designed as traditional therapy; it was designed as an educational tool, allowing the children to visit the courtroom, spend some time with the Family Court Judge, and have the ability to share their concerns about their changing families with each other. The program was divided into three age groups and was offered on a one-time basis for two hours. It can be operated most effectively in-house within each county’s family division at a minimal cost. Despite the success of Kids Count in Cumberland County, beneficial programs like it unfortunately are not available statewide and our children are suffering as a result.
In working with the children in Cumberland County in the Kids Count program, this Judge learned that parents are sometimes reluctant to recognize their child’s pain and how the child may actually blames himself for the divorce. This was reflected vividly in the art created by the children during the art therapy portion of the session.The vast majority of children of divorce express a variety of feelings including sadness, confusion, anger and guilt. In addition to these feelings, children often believe they will have to go to court, see a judge, and choose one parent over the other.
We have a responsibility to educate and help divorcing parents focus on their children and to open the lines of communication not only between the parents and their children, but also between the parents themselves, with a common goal in mind: teaching children they can and will move on from their parents’ divorce and be happy once again. Although the adversarial process is not conducive to this goal, with a concerted effort in our state, we can help divorcing parents focus on society’s most precious asset and resource – our KIDS.
In the words of Margaret Mead, “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has.” A change in the New Jersey Rules of Court can have a substantial effect on thousands of children. Let’s open our eyes and see their faces, open our ears and hear their voices, open our hearts and feel their pain, and then open our minds and bring about the change in our State so that we can ensure that our kids really do count.
During his judicial career, Judge Joseph P. Testa (Ret.) presented the Cumberland County Kids Count program to the New Jersey Supreme Court, the National Judicial College in Reno, Nevada, and many other judicial meetings and conferences in an effort to gain support to make Kids Count a mandatory, statewide program. In his retirement, Judge Testa hopes to revitalize the Kids Count Program which was discontinued in 2000. In response to the question “what does divorce mean to you?”, one Kids Count participant created a drawing that so touched Judge Testa that he made it the program logo displayed above.