Local program helps kids cope with parents' divorce


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A picture drawn by a little girl shows her crying while two stick-figure parents argue above her pigtailed head. Another drawing lies next to it, displaying a father telling his wife he loves her and she responds, "I don't love you."

Children drew these images at a free Saturday class offered by Kids First Workshop, a Linn County-based nonprofit organization. Johnson County parents applying for divorce are required to send their 6- to 16-year-old children to the workshop.

The program was supposed to open in Johnson County in July 2009, but it delayed two months because of low enrollment. The program launched in September 2009 at United Action for Youth, a local non-profit organization, 410 Iowa Ave.

It now serves around 40 children every other month and 240 a year, said Kate Moreland, the development director at United Action for Youth. The next workshop is planned for Jan. 15.
"For a kid, it's a pretty big loss, and when they don't talk about it, it can manifest itself in ways that aren't healthy," Moreland said.

The class teaches children about the divorce process, conveying the message that their parents' divorce is not their fault. After the parents show proof their child has completed the course, the judge is then able to grant the divorce.

Each small group, separated by age, has a different curriculum, which varies with activities, videos, and visual aids. Organizers even use the explosion from mixing Diet Coke and Mentos to demonstrate what happens if they try to keep everything "bottled up," Moreland said.

"The message is the same, it's just tailored to different age groups," she said.

In the high-school groups, there is more of an emphasis on talking, while in the younger age groups, they are asked to put their feelings and thoughts on paper.

"[For the younger kids], all we do is give them a white piece of paper and ask them to draw a divorce," Moreland said. "It's pretty powerful when you look at how they view it." .

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 7,298 divorces in Iowa in 2009, a slight increase from the 7,269 in 2008.

Tom Maxwell, an attorney for Leff Law Firm, said parents must also attend a similar class to help prevent them from putting their children in the middle of the divorce.

"It seems like a nice option to have in our district," he said. "But the skeptical side of me says it's hard to measure success."

UI freshman Patrick O'Neil, whose parents were divorced when he was 12, said the workshop sounds like a good idea, but he is also unsure about its long-term effects.

"You have two ideas clashing," he said. "The idea that kids are brought up with — that you're supposed to get married out of college and raise a family — and the reality they're having to deal with right now."

O'Neil said his parents met at a party in college and married soon afterwards, only to find out they weren't in love — a common problem, he thinks, with couples who meet and marry quickly.

"Nowadays, a lot of marriages end in divorce, and a lot of kids are confused and think it's them and take some blame on themselves," he said.

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