Julie Cronin was a teenager when she witnessed her parents’ anger and mistreatment of each other while divorcing.
The Maryland mother of two young girls feared a similar path would take place when her own marriage broke down — until she heard about collaborative divorce.
Instead of attorneys battling out the couple’s disputes in court, Cronin and her husband chose to work with a collaborative divorce team. The difference was night and day compared with her parent’s split-up, she said.
Couples not only use attorneys who work together on the solution but also trained mental health professionals, such as social workers, who aid their clients with the emotionally draining aspects of separation, divorce and child custody.
“The collaborative process is enormous for promoting the civility between the two people separating,” Cronin said. “It was much faster and less expensive. It allowed for more time to heal and less time wasted on fighting and court proceedings and a lot of back and forth.”
Collaborative divorce’s key selling points are promoting a nonadversarial, out-of-court process that — with the help of professionals — has the couple draft shared solutions to separate.
“Divorce is hard enough on parents and children without the added stress of having to defend oneself against attacks or tactics aimed to help one party ‘win,’” said Amy Mazer, who worked as Cronin’ divorce coach during her collaborative divorce.
Cronin noted that she and her estranged husband each had a different divorce coach to help them reach a resolution in their divorce and decide how they would raise their daughters.
“We had two small children at the time who were 3 and 1,” she said. “That was a major concern with us — how to help them cope with the separation and divorce.”
Mazer, an NASW member who provides therapy, collaborative divorce and mediation services at offices in Baltimore and Howard counties in Maryland, proved to be an invaluable asset for Cronin.
“She was extremely empathetic,” Cronin said. “She was supportive, warm and positive, not just about the process, but you could tell she had a lot of confidence in proceeding this way.”
The couple finalized their divorce agreement within 15 months and also incorporated a co-parenting agreement that focused on what was best for the children.
“It is immensely beneficial to have civility between the two of you so you can co-parent,” Cronin said.
Transparency and Respect
Helping clients learn to manage their emotions more constructively, communicate more effectively and work together more cooperatively can provide a foundation for them and their children to develop and maintain healthy relationships, Mazer explained.
After many years of working with divorcing families in her therapy practice, Mazer discovered collaborative divorce and was attracted to its healthy approach of transparency and respect that is intended to preserve family relationships.
She took an interdisciplinary training course in 2008 and has enjoyed being part of the collaborative-practice community ever since. She is an active member and past president of the Howard County Collaborative Professionals practice group and a co-founder and past president of the Collaborative Professionals Baltimore practice group.
Helping families improve their communication skills during the separation process is key, Mazer said. “I do think social work lends itself beautifully to collaborative training.”
Feelings of fear, hurt, anger and shame are common among family members when divorce takes place. Helping clients work through and process their feelings and develop a cooperative co-parenting plan is what Mazer enjoys about the work.
When she is in the role of a child specialist, Mazer said she can provide children a safe place to voice their concerns and fears. This helps develop a parenting plan that integrates the parents’ values and meets the needs and best interests of the children.
“As a social worker, my background and training in child development can help guide parents in such things as developing access schedules that consider each family’s unique needs, and my training in family systems theory and communication skills help to restructure a family with as little negative impact as possible,” she said.
“It’s gratifying to help families move from feeling fragile and vulnerable to feeling safe and respected — and in many instances, a healthier co-parent relationship develops,” Mazer explained. “Equally important is that parents are the ones making the decisions that affect the family, not a judge.”
Social workers need to know that if their clients are facing divorce, the collaborative process can be a healthy and less expensive option to litigation.
“We’re trying to educate people about collaborative practice and encourage them to consider approaches that have the potential to have a positive impact on a family,” Mazer said.
Social worker Danette Perry, of Illinois, recalls the helplessness she felt when a judge was tasked with finalizing the details of her own divorce.
“I remember sitting on a bench in the hallway outside a courtroom realizing that a person in a black robe, whom I had never met, was going to make an important decision about my family,” she notes on her website, danetteperry.com. “This moment changed me forever, convincing me the courtroom was no place to plan a family’s future.”
Helping families avoid a similar experience is what drives Perry’s passion to serve as a divorce coach.
“I have a natural mediator component in me — that’s something I loved to do,” said Perry, who previously worked as a project manager for a large bank before earning an MSW.
She founded Just Mediation to provide divorcing couples with a neutral mediator and a way to re-examine the relationship. Her practice includes counseling, mediation, parenting coordination, coaching, and a variety of educational programs that support families experiencing trauma and conflict.
Perry said the legal part is only a fraction of what takes place during a divorce.
“The emotional aspect is a larger portion,” she said. “When I coach my clients about divorce, I help them develop a transition plan of where they are now and where they want to be. … I help them think about their options.”
Helping children is something she takes to heart as well.
“A lot of research shows that people say their parents’ divorce ended their childhood — that’s not fair,” Perry said. “I try to train my clients to think it’s not mom’s or dad’s weekend — it’s the kids’ weekend with mom or dad. If they have activities or friends they plan to be with, they should get to the activity whether they are with mom or dad.”
Social workers are well-suited for the collaborative-practice field because they can show empathy for all sides. “We are not looking at each party like you’re my client, you’re not my client,” she said. “We know this is a devastating situation. Our goal is to help our clients through difficult situations.”
Perry said there is a part of her job that she loves to see.
“My office is on the eighth floor,” she explained. “When my clients sign their documents at the end and have completed their financial plan and parenting plan, and they get on the elevator and go down together, that’s when I know I have been really successful.”
Talia L. Katz is the CEO of the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals, based in Phoenix, Ariz.
IACP calls itself the largest concentration of collaborative professionals with 5,000 members in 23 countries. It prides itself on helping promote specially trained collaborative lawyers, mental health and financial professionals to educate, support and guide clients in reaching balanced, respectful and lasting agreements.
“Before I took this position, I practiced as a family law attorney,” Katz explained. “Using mental health coaches for my clients, I recognized it changes the landscape completely.”
She said her training as an attorney did not give her the skills to help clients process the many emotions that a divorce can cause.
“I think having mental health professionals on the team is hugely valuable and from my experience can make all the difference,” she said.
IACP has seen a steady increase in membership since it began with a handful of professionals just more than a decade ago.
“The demand for training is increasing and the public has an increasing awareness of the collaborative-practice alternative, and is more often asking for it when retaining professionals,” she said.
The best way for social workers to learn whether they would be a good fit for collaborative practice is to check with their local CP group. A listing is available on the IACP website.
Local groups conduct trainings that are consistent with how CP operates in the community, Katz explained.
Members of the behavioral-health community may work in different roles for CP teams, she said. Some focus on child welfare issues. Others, for example, may serve as a coach for one spouse during a divorce. Some spouses decide to share a neutral divorce coach.
“In some communities every possible configuration of the team may be used, based on what the family needs,” Katz said. “Connecting with the local community is really an important first step.”
Training is also vital.
“Collaborative practice is a highly choreographed process and (those involved) need to understand how the process works in order to serve clients optimally,” Katz said.
“IACP standards require that if you are going to do the work, you need at least the minimum introductory training — which is usually two or three days, depending on where you take it,” Katz said. “Some communities offer training once or twice a year.”