Reforming divorce: Changing laws to preserve families

States consider divorce reform in attempt to preserve families

Published: Saturday, July 14 2012 7:00 p.m. MDT

Along with waiting, these proposals also would require divorce education, most often provided through courts — what to expect, the effects on children, the value of mediation and the reconciliation potential.

Reconciliation is a crucial yet underdiscussed topic, says Doherty, whose research shows 30 percent of divorcing individuals still express interest in patching things up. "There is this myth that anyone who files for divorce has had two decades of misery and that divorce is a necessary amputation … in order to save the patient," he said. "The research (shows) that's not the majority of cases."

Dealing with concerns

Colorado Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Larimer County, never finished drafting his bill last winter to increase the waiting period for divorcing parents because both sides responded with a "firestorm."

"There's no question that minimizing damage to children is a good idea," said the Republican lawmaker. "But the means to get there … presented a great deal of difficulty. When I can't even get a consensus among those that I most closely work with, I can see some red flags."

The concerns about Lundberg's almost-bill — modeled after the Coalition for Divorce Reform's Parental Divorce Reduction Act — were that it would mean too much government involvement (he insisted it would be minimal) and that it would keep couples embroiled in the court system longer (he would keep them out of court while they waited, he says).

"It brought up a lot of deep, fundamental questions," Lundberg said. "What sort of requirements do we, the state, impose upon you, the individual, when you and your family are going through a divorce? Those are tough questions that we don't have answers to."

Utah Rep. Jim Nielson (R-Bountiful) proposed a multi-faceted divorce-reform bill in Utah's most recent session to extend the waiting period to 90 days for everyone (a previous error exempted parents who took a divorce education class) and require that a divorce education class be taken within 30 days of filing "when there's some potential it could impact people's choices," he said.

Nielson's bill died in committee, but a colleague's bill passed and cemented the waiting period at 90 days.

Indiana legislators proposed a version of the PDRA, hoping to boost their wait from 60 days to 10 months, with exceptions for domestic violence, addiction and sex offenses.

The bill stalled in committee yet its advocates are hopeful for next year. "We want to, through policy, encourage people to stay together and do the hard thing, do the work," said Sue Swayze, program coordinator with the Indiana Family Institute.

But what if that work puts women and children in danger? asks Rita Smith, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. "Is (this exemption) going to require a police report, eye witnesses?" she said. "The more obstacles you put in place for women who are seeking safety ... the more likely that they're not going to be successful. Right now, it feels to me like divorce laws are working fairly well."

This sentiment makes divorce legislation a tough sell at the moment, advocates say. "The problem is, the natural allies of this legislation are social conservatives and they're not focused on divorce reform, in part because they don't think the climate is right for passing this legislation," said the CDR's Gersten. "They know divorce is a disaster, Hollywood's impact on the culture is terrible and there's no question where they stand on family formation. But they have other priorities that keep them from putting energy into divorce reform."

Focus on the Family is concerned about divorce, yet leaves legislative efforts up to states. They are "very open to what can be done," says Carrie Gordon Earll, senior director of Issue Analysis for CitizenLink, the group's policy arm, but this election year may not be the time to do it. "(In our) political climate ... heat generally goes to unresolved issues. Divorce is seen as a resolved issue in public policy. (Advocates) have got to be able to make the case why it's not."

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