SOUTH OGDEN — As they separated and prepared to divorce, the parents of 10-year-old Scott Hawkins quickly noticed a change in their son.
The cheerful and talkative boy seemed confused, angry and perpetually anxious.
"I didn't know how to help him," Michelle Hawkins said.
Hawkins had heard of programs designed for children whose parents were divorcing, but she didn't know about the free Divorce Education for Children class offered by the Utah State Courts until a judge overseeing her case recommended it. Of her four children, only Scott was old enough for the two-hour program designed for children ages 9 to 12, and she signed him up for a class in June.
It ended up being a turning point for Scott.
"After the class, he just seemed more like himself, more than he had in weeks," Hawkins said. "Even just coming out of the class, he was calmer. He seemed to understand more and just be ready — ready for the day even — and that was such a difference."
Now, about two months after the class, Scott seems at ease playing with his brother and sisters during a picnic with friends, wandering over partway through the meal to give his mom a hug. He has spent the summer splitting time between his father's house and his mom's new home in South Ogden, and says that while he's nervous about changing schools, he is excited for fifth grade.
Scott says the class helped him "understand a bunch of stuff," like how to talk about his feelings and what to do when friends ask him about his parents.
"All my friends were asking me questions and questions about it, and I was trying to hold it in," Scott explained. "And then I realized I could just tell people, 'My mom and dad are getting divorced,' like that. I understood I could tell them about it, and then tell them I didn't want to talk about it."
The purpose of the class is two-fold, meant to both demystify the legal side of the divorce and to help children know how to talk about their feelings.
As she has volunteered with classes in the Matheson Courthouse in Salt Lake City, 3rd District Court Commissioner Joana Sagers said she tries to ease children's worries by bring them into her courtroom to sit in her chair, play with the microphones and tour her chambers.
Most children facing divorce have only seen a courtroom on television, said Sagers, noting she has met children who imagine their parents in a confrontational court-TV scenario and who fear things like being brought before a judge to choose between their parents.
"I try to emphasize that these are adult decisions that need to be made and we don't want children to be involved, we want them to love both parents equally, have good relationships with them, and that the court is in no way trying to have children choose," Sagers said. "They actually get to see where things are taking place and really see that it's not that scary."
Third District Judge Laura Scott notes that most of the children's questions during a tour have nothing to do with divorce. Instead, as their fears fall away, they want to know things like where everyone sits and what judges wear under their robes.
Scott believes the class can benefit all families faced with divorce, even if the split is not contentious. Scott divorced when her now adult son was 5 years old, and while the decision was amicable on both sides, since beginning to volunteer with the class she has come to believe a similar program would have helped her family.
"There are still issues children struggle with under the best of circumstances when their parents get divorced, let alone when it's not an amicable divorce and parents are struggling to get along and to have joint decision making," Scott said.
The second half of the class is taught by an instructor with mental health training, who helps the children understand how to talk about their thoughts and feelings surrounding the divorce, including how to explain to others that they don't want to talk about something.
The final step in the class is writing a private letter as if they were talking to one or both of their parents, which they are told won't be delivered, as a way to express anything they want about the divorce.
While divorce is a constant reality in Utah, Sagers and Scott have seen a month or two at a time pass with no children enrolled in the class. Both hope that more parents will take advantage of the program.
As a judge, Scott says volunteering with the class has helped her as she makes decisions in individual cases.
"Overall the most important thing is to be reminded that as I'm making a custody decision in a courtroom filled with lawyers and parents, that at the end of the day my job is to try to determine what the best interest of the child is," Scott said. "And when I do this class and I see the children and I'm interacting with them, it's for me a very powerful reminder that they are the ones who are the most important people in this whole process."
The Hawkins family has continued to support Scott's progress through counseling, and now, Hawkins hopes other families dealing with divorce will consider using the free program that has made such a difference for her son.
"I can imagine there are millions of kids out there who are scared and confused, who just need someone to talk to them on their age level about, this is what's going on and it's not your fault," Hawkins said.
If any of his friends tell him their parents are divorcing, Scott says he will tell them about the class.
"It helps them a lot because they get to explain what they feel," Scott said. "They might really really like this class."
The Divorce Education for Children class is offered in Salt Lake City, Provo, Ogden and Logan. Parents can get more information or enroll their children at utcourts.gov/specproj/dived/children.html.