Local kids get divorce workshop

BY SCOTT RAYNOR | JULY 20, 2009 7:15 AM

The word “sad” was drawn in blue marker and written with big bubble letters. It was shaped oblong, resembling the many falling teardrops on a white background.

The artist, a 12-year-old boy, was illustrating his parents’ divorce. He participated in the Kids First workshop, a mandatory 2.5-hour session for children of divorced couples in Linn County.

The program — run by the local United Action for Youth — was set to reach Johnson County July 11; it is mandated for children whose parents divorced after May 26.

The workshop was delayed due to low enrollment. Kate Moreland, United Action for Youth development director, said not enough time had passed since May 26 to fill the workshop with pupils.

Still, experts said, they adopted the project because of benefits for kids.

“It gives them a safe and confidential place to speak about the divorce,” Moreland said. “It lets them know they are not alone and it is not their fault.”

United Action for Youth modeled the program on the Linn County workshop.

“We have not received one negative call,” said Jenny Shulz, the founder and executive director of Kids First Law Center in Cedar Rapids. “I frankly think that is pretty amazing — not one piece of negative feedback from people after attending the class.”

The program uses one exercise called “play therapy,” which is effective when communicating complex situations to children, said Beth Ward, of Horizons in Cedar Rapids.

“It is a great starting-off point without having to use a large vocabulary,” she said.

Role-playing is a way to explain to the younger children their place in the divorce. In one age group, kids act out a scene depicting two siblings fighting over which sibling has to walk the dog.

“The dog is in the way between two arguing siblings, mirroring the idea that kids are in the middle of parents arguing,” Moreland said. “It wasn’t the dog’s fault.”

Christine Vincent, a child therapist with the Community Mental Health Center for Mid-Eastern Iowa, is optimistic about the idea of the program.

“I think that could be really positive to know that they aren’t the only child in the world dealing with divorce,” she said.

Ultimately, she said, the most influential educators are a child’s parents.

“It doesn’t matter what [workshop staff] tell them,” she said. “It’s is about how parents behave.”

To confirm the completion of the workshop, United Action for Youth will inform the divorce judge, and file a certificate of completion with the court.

The program does not use state funding because United Action for Youth is funded primarily through private, federal, and state grants — more than $1.2 million in 2008. Despite the first delay, Moreland said, she will anticipates a full class on Sept. 12.

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