Starting in February, Multnomah County will join at least half a dozen other counties that require divorcing parents to take a class in putting their differences aside for the good of their children.
Multnomah County became the latest to join the trend when county commissioners unanimously approved the requirement Thursday.
The idea sprang from a concern about the effects of marital breakups on children in Oregon, which has one of the highest divorce rates in the country, said Dan Saltzman, who proposed the classes in Multnomah County.
“We’re not trying to say you’re bad parents by going to these classes,” said Saltzman, a county commissioner and divorced father. “We want to make you and keep you good parents through the divorce.”
Under a 1995 state law, counties are permitted to require the classes before divorce decrees are granted. And although classes may not help every family, counselors, judges and parents believe they will help many.
Other counties that require the classes are Clackamas, Crook, Deschutes, Jackson, Marion and Polk, said Marion County Circuit Judge Pamela Abernethy, who helped establish a divorced parents class for Marion County last April.
Neighboring Linn and Polk counties also send parents to the Marion County program, which is run by the YWCA, Abernethy said.
“We decided to go with a vetted national program that had a track record and was being used in various parts of the country,” Abernethy said.
She said formal court mandates requiring the classes exist in at least 396 jurisdictions in 35 states.
In Clackamas County, the program as benefited many parents, said David Katz, a Portland psychologist.
Some parents are so wrapped up in their own anger and frustration that they bad-mouth each other and undermine each other’s authority, he said.
As a result, the children become depressed, anxious and angry.
Their self-esteem also suffers, he said, because children tend to place themselves at the center of the world and blame themselves for everything.
“The kids tend to excuse their parents and feel they are the source of the pain,” Katz said.
The classes also help parents deal with their own actions and emotions.
“I think it’s a great idea, especially with how quickly communication can break down between spouses and children during a divorce,” said Shawn Huntley, who filed for divorce and custody of his children last week.
Elizabeth Welch, Multnomah County’s chief family law judge, would like a more in-depth program for high-conflict parents. She calls them “career cases,” parents who battle over custody, visitation and other matters - in and out of court - years after the divorce.
“These people are not OK, and their children won’t be OK,” she said, “because it never stops.”
Nevertheless, she is supportive of the classes.