Mitigating the Effects of Divorce on Children Through Family­-Focused Court Reform

August 1997 / Abell Reports / Community Development, Health and Human Services

A growing body of social science evidence suggests that divorce poses significant and long-lasting risks for children.

More than 1.2 million American children experience the divorce or separation of their parents each year. Although divorce rates in the United States have declined slightly from their peak in the early 1980’s, the divorce rate today is more than double what it was in 1960. Demographers estimate that, if current divorce rates hold steady, nearly half of all children born in the United States today will experience the divorce or separation of their parents.

There is a growing consensus among social scientists that divorce poses significant and long-lasting risks for children. At the same time, the social science evidence suggests that the detrimental effects of divorce on
children are neither inevitable nor irreparable. Indeed, research is accumulating that indicates that a combination of responsible parenting, a sensitive and family-focused court system, and strong community and school-based support programs can significantly help children and parents deal successfully with divorce-related transitions and problems. While additional research is needed, this social science evidence is beginning to point the way toward promising judicial and policy reforms.

This article examines and evaluates a number of court-connected programs that have been designed and implemented across the country to reduce the negative effects of parental separation and divorce on children. After summarizing the relevant social science evidence, the paper examines the content and effectiveness of four specific types of interventions: parent education programs, court-connected divorce and custody mediation, school and community-based support groups for children, and parenting plan requirements. It also describes the Unified Family Court Initiative currently underway in Baltimore City. The article concludes by recommending family-focused policy and court reforms for Maryland.