Four-Hour Parenting Classes
Twelve-Hour Parenting Classes---
What's A Lawyer To Do?
We have a new Parenting Plan statute in Tennessee, Tenn. Code Ann. §36-6-401 et seq. It requires that parents going through divorces take parental education seminars. That has produced some landscape changes in Knox County, with our local courts applying the statute substantially differently. The following is a discussion of where Tennessee's parenting classes came from, where they may be going, and our ethics as practitioners.
As Judge of Circuit Court Division Four, I have had the privilege of serving this bench since my election in 1982. In 1984, I began Tennessee's first parenting classes. They were taught by Child and Family Services (then a local not-for-profit serving Knox County only), and were called Fourth Circuit Court's “classes for divorcing parents.” They were optional back in those days, but every parent filing for divorce in Circuit Four received a strong personal letter from me, urging attendance. About one-third of all parents attended.
The classes began with three two-hour sessions, one class per week. The classes were extremely popular with the graduates, who made suggestions for improvement and for the addition of new materials. In 1985, the classes grew to four, then five weeks long, and stayed at five weeks for many years, until the passage of the Parenting Plan statute.
Through the years since 1984, many judges in Tennessee asked me about our classes. Some began their own classes, modeled on Circuit Four. Now, with the Parenting Plan statute, the state has mandated parenting classes statewide. It was the legislature's high hope that the children of Tennessee would be healthier because of the Parenting Plan statute; that education and co-operative planning would minimize the effects of divorce upon children.
The legislature required, at §36-6-408, that the seminars cover six topics:
(1) how to protect and enhance the child's emotional development
(2) the legal process
(3) alternative dispute resolution
(4) marriage counseling
(5) the judicial process
(6) common perpetrator attitudes and conduct involving domestic violence
So long as the subject matter areas are properly dealt with, each court in Tennessee is free to decide the general characteristics and duration of the education. Each judge is encouraged to form a broad-based community committee to certify content and approach of the courses; to establish minimum credentials of providers; and to monitor the performance of education providers.
The legislature set a minimum (four hours) for the classes, but no maximum, and set forth the subject matter of the classes as noted. Immediately, a cottage industry of parenting class providers sprang up, and Circuit Four was besieged with potential providers eager to make money from the situation of divorcing parents.
My experience in developing this court's own classes made it clear to me that not just anyone should be trying to meet the legislature's mandate; parenting classes are hard to do well. It also taught me that four hours would not cover the subject matter. Because the legislature added a new subject--common perpetrator attitudes and conduct involving domestic violence--I turned immediately to a committee which had been certifying (and still does certify) providers of domestic violence intervention classes. I asked that committee to expand its charge to include providers of parent education seminars, and to set the guidelines for the providers.
The new committee, chaired by Thomas P. Barr of the Knoxville Police Department, is composed of Annette Beebe, paralegal, Legal Aid of East Tennessee; Cheryl Buehler, professor, UT Dept. of Child and Family Studies; Janice Cook, consultant, Knox County Schools; Evelyn Jesse, victim advocate, YWCA; Ted Kern, attorney in private practice; Elaine Kite, victim advocate, Knox County Sheriff's Office; Karen Loy, principal, Knox Co. Schools; Michael Maurer, LCSW, M.Div., DCSW, private practice; Gail Mosby, assistant professor, UT Dept. of Child and Family Studies; Dawn Riddle, domestic violence consultant in private practice; and George Waters, public defender, 5 th Judicial District.
It is the strong sense of the committee, with which I agree, that the statutorily required content areas of Tennessee's new courses can only be digested in a process of education spread over multiple sessions. People going through divorce do not retain information well. They need time to process what they hear.
The committee established certain criteria for the parenting education seminars following the legislative mandate, and requested potential providers to apply for certification.
I assumed the Knox County Chancery Court would want to share the vetting and oversight services of the certification committee, and invited the chancellors to do so. Instead, the chancellors suggested they would opt for the statutory minimum in classes. I was unsuccessful in seeking to persuade the chancellors of the merits of Circuit Four's approach, and the demerits (inter alia, for their docket load) of minimum classes in Chancery. I told them I feared a lot of water would flow to their end of the bathtub if divorce became easier in Chancery than in Circuit Four.
I believe in forum shopping. It is one of the most important choices for advocacy a lawyer can make. Selecting the court and the judge with the most favorable policies for one's client is not only a time-honored tradition, it is the duty of a lawyer.
But it is not “forum shopping” to opt for the minimum in parenting education classes. The quantity and quality of parenting classes has nothing to do with the forum, or with the judge. Choosing a minimum in parenting classes is a choice by counsel for the short-term convenience of the adult client.
Adult education is not mysterious. It is governed by simple precepts: (1) The only retained learning is self-motivated learning. Self-motivation comes when students want the content, not when an authority figure requires it. (2) Adults need to process information over a period of time in order to digest it, making it their own.
It is a simple fact that one four-hour class (or two two-hour classes)—as are now offered by some providers—does not allow enough time for adults to become invested in the content. Most adults are not attending the class willingly; there is a lot of stress in their lives, during divorce particularly. There is no desire to retain the content. No self-motivation has taken root. The only desire is to get the class done, the ticket punched. Consequently, little if anything is retained. Little if any benefit flows to the children.
But that insouciant attitude cannot be maintained over six class sessions. This court's experience of eighteen years of classes has shown that parents become interested, involved, and motivated in the Circuit Four parenting classes. The learning becomes self-motivated. Parents realize that there are skills they can learn, that there is information they need for the post-divorce world. Adult learning takes place.
Under The Radar
Let us be candid about ninety-day (or the even faster §36-4-129) divorces: Parents are frequently driven by immediacy. The children are not the main issue. Such parents won't admit problems in parenting to themselves, or to their attorneys. “I just need to get divorced.” Problems with the children are to be dealt with later. These cases come into the attorney's office with the parenting problems under the radar.
Some of those cases will litigate later, some will not. But all of them will have poorer parenting as a result of poorer education classes.
Let us be candid about a second thing: There are divorces with two good parents—cases we could in good conscience bless with a four-hour regimen of classes. But how much better would these two good parents be after serious education? Would these parents move from the 85 th percentile of competence to the 95 th percentile?
Later Is As Good As Sooner
It is erroneous to suggest—as seems inherent in the Family Law Section's proposed Rule 30—that it is just as good to take a twelve-hour parenting class when and if the parents have post-divorce custody problems. (The Section wishes the twelve-hour classes to be postponed initially, but taken later as a prerequisite to post-divorce custody litigation.) The Section's proposal ignores the legislative purpose of classes: prevention of harm to children.
To be simplistic: the Section would argue that the right time to call Orkin is when you find termites in the house. Do not treat the foundation of the house before you buy it.
Under the Section's proposal, some two to six years, or more, will have passed post-divorce before litigating parents are required to take a meaningful, adult-learning-appropriate regimen of parenting classes. Two to six years of parenting poorer than otherwise would have prevailed; two to six years of bad habits becoming rigid; two to six years of life poorer for the children than otherwise would have happened; two to six years of unnecessary damage to the children.
All this for the “convenience” of the divorce plaintiff? Shouldn't we make a better choice for our clients? Shouldn't we tell our clients that we expect them to make this up-front investment in their children? Or perhaps even tell them that if they do not want to make that investment, we do not choose to represent them?
Longitudinal Studies Proposed
Two studies are proposed by doctoral students in the UT Department of Clinical Psychology on the differential outcomes of four-hour versus twelve-hour parenting classes. I am eager to be bound by the results.
Until we have contrary data, this court will continue to assume true what appears to be self-evident: that the education of parents is vital to the post-divorce health of their children; that twelve hours of instruction produces better parents than four; that education spread over six weeks is retained education; and that this court's work of eighteen years should not now be reversed for the short-term convenience of adult plaintiffs.
In government, in private practice, there are times to do the right thing, even when we are criticized. Perhaps especially when we are criticized. There are relatively few such opportunities in life. This is, I think, a clear instance of such an opportunity. The short-term convenience of adults is less important than the long-term interests of children.
My mother used to tell me that buying cheap shoes was false economy. They would ruin your feet. That's exactly what minimum parenting classes are—cheap shoes. Your clients deserve better from you; your clients' children deserve better.
So as you do your forum shopping, do it for good reasons. Don't do it for cheap shoes.
Judge Bill Swann
M-44 City County Building
Knoxville, Tennessee 37902
(An article by Judge Swann published in the Knoxville Bar Association
, September 2002.)