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Making divorce less traumatic for children — Collaborative Conversations

July 22, 2021 Podcast

Family Dispute Resolution Practitioners, Gloria Hawke and Valerie Norton explain the benefits for couples, and their children in using the Interdisciplinary Collaborative Practice (ICP) process when separating.

Valerie and Gloria explain how children are managed throughout the ICP process, and share some of the outcomes they’ve been able to achieve that have addressed the specific needs of children and their families.


(HOST) I’m Wallace Long. Welcome to Collaborative Conversations, a podcast that looks into the Interdisciplinary Collaborative Practice approach for separating couples. In this episode, I speak with family dispute resolution practitioners VALERIE NORTON and GLORIA HAWK.

Valerie and Gloria both work within the framework and see the process as being ideal for separating couples, whose focus is on their children. They share their experiences on how kids are managed throughout the ICP process, and the outcomes they’ve been able to achieve that have addressed the specific needs of each family.

Interdisciplinary Collaborative Practice is a process we’re in conjunction with each party’s lawyer, couples work alongside professionals who bring the skills required to resolve each family’s unique situation in an efficient, respectful and dignified way.

The Collaborative Conversations Podcast is brought to you by the Australian Association of Collaborative Professionals.

Valerie and Gloria, welcome.

(VALERIE, GLORIA) Hi Wallace. Good morning, everybody.

(HOST) I’m looking forward to speaking with you both. Valerie may start with you? What are the needs of children during separation? And is it easy for them to get lost in the process?

(VALEREIE) Absolutely they can get lost in the process of separation, and that’s especially true in traditional adversarial approaches. And there actually is a right way to separate, and that is very simply to put your children before your own conflict and upset from the separation. And I know that’s a simple thing to do, but it’s an incredibly hard thing to do. But it’s actually essential for your kids to get through the process relatively unscathed. And the research is pretty unequivocal. It’s not separation that causes damage to kids at every level, its conflict. So you’re much better to separate well than to stay in an unhappy environment that’s full of conflict for kids, and that’s at every level.

The research shows a child’s emotional behavioural, social, educational and health outcomes are all compromised, and the greater the conflict and the longer the conflict, the worse that outcome is. Now the problem with that is that’s a big ask for some parents. When your own life is in complete turmoil and there’s so much uncertainty or fear about your own future, how can you actually think about your kids? You might have a parent who has left the relationship for various reasons, and they’ve got this new found sense of freedom. And it’s almost like a euphoria. And the kids just slip through the cracks. Or the other parent who has been blown out of the water and they never actually expected this to happen, despite all the warning signs. And they’re pretty absence as parents as well, because they just lost in their own grief or unhappiness or anger or whatever it is. And kids see a lot more than parents give them credit for. They really do. They overhear conversations when you think they’re asleep and they read your text messages, they get into your computer, and they are terrified that their secure base has disappeared.

It’s a bit like the earth has moved under their feet a bit like an emotional earthquake, and I often get parents in my room telling me how mature their children are and how they understand what’s going on. But they actually can’t. Young children can’t and they don’t, especially if they’re still in concrete development stage and around 7 to 12. And they see the world in a very black and white good or bad way. They can’t understand these shades of grey in an adult relationship, and it’s actually completely unfair to put that burden on them. And that’s what parents do. They mistake compliance with wisdom. So you’re asking them to choose between the two people they usually love most in the world, and that’s impossible for them. Which is why that damage happens.

And that is actually often played upon and encouraged in traditional litigation, which doesn’t consider the impact of the other person or their kids or family as a whole. So collaborative practice, it’s really powerful to explain that to parents, and we get the opportunity to do that in this process. And that’s one of the huge benefit of ICP as we all work together to customise exactly what each family needs at different stages of the separation, and that’s the big difference.

(HOST) Gloria, I’m sure all parents want to ensure their children are not negatively impacted through the divorce process. To achieve this, what should parents be doing and what should they not be doing?

(GLORIA) I think Valerie touched on a number of those really important principles that we would be talking to parents about? One of the key things that we talk to parents about is keeping conflict away from children, which, as Valerie has mentioned it is a very challenging time for parents and for them regulating the stress and emotion and grief that they are going through.

I think one of the basic pieces of advice around that is, if people are struggling to make sure that they are able to access a therapist or a psychologist or another family member that they can speak to, so that’s not spilling over to children. You know, one of the things is that in terms of conflict that can be really direct. It can be having an argument at a changeover and exchanging dirty looks and saying something nasty. But again, it can be something that is more indirect, like leaving legal letters lying around or an angry text exchange that exists on the cloud and children are using the phone and see exactly what’s going on. I think Valerie’s exactly right that children are always listening and are often privy to more than we know. So it’s actually thinking ahead and putting steps in place to protect children from that conflict. And again, I think the other thing is the realisation that while someone’s ex-partner might not be a good life partner for them, they may well be a very good parents. And so sometimes it’s about separating out the adult emotions from the children. And often we will hear parents say things like, he or she has abandoned us. And what, that’s the message that sends to a child that actually there other parent has left them when in fact that’s not what happened. The marriage has ended, but the parent hasn’t left the children and still want to be very much involved in the children’s lives.

And I think what can happen when people and parents are in distress like that, children can often become very protective of one parent. It creates a lot of emotional angst. There’s alliances that we see that are created, and there’s a sense of children having to feel protective and almost identifying the adults. And what I see with ICP, what that provides for families is that holistic way to manage a separation and divorce from the outset, and to get in early with that team of professionals to help guide people through. And it helps parents remain focused on their children with legal expertise to provide the clarity on the rights and responsibility and then the coach to provide the emotional support and guidance, and the financial neutrals to models and assist with the overall financial settlement.

And I guess it’s a flow on to that. One of the other, really important point is around respectful communication, and that’s part of, I guess, protecting them from conflict. And I think one of the hardest things to people is to move away from blame about issues in the marriage, their disappointments, the reason for the marriage breakdown and then moving forward to find a way to co-parent and leave the past in the past. I’m often speaking to parents about very basic principles around respect, about not shouting, not swearing, not name calling, faking it until you make it and politely greeting each other at changeovers or shared events and, as Valerie has said, some of these things are very simple, but that can actually be very hard to do in the moment. But these are small acts that can make a child’s life so much easier and more relaxed and simple through a time that’s already quite challenging and tumultuous for them.

And then probably last piece of advice around this is avoiding other large changes in a child’s life. So, obviously, through a separation, there’s already the change of parents breaking up, family unit changing, people potentially moving. And if at those times other things can be kept stable, such as children remaining in their school, not swiftly introducing a new partner or expecting children to become part of a blended family, while they’re still potentially grieving the end of their parents’ marriage, then those are also measures that can help protect the child during this process.

And these are all the types of things that were able to speak to parents about as we move through the ICP process.

(HOST) Valerie, do you have further thoughts on this?

(VALERIE) I think Gloria is spot on in everything she has said, and often in a traditional matter, or even in like a traditional mediation, and Gloria and I are both FDRPs (Family Dispute Resolution Practitioners) and work in that space as well. But you get the time versus financial argument. Pay me more, and I’ll let you the little Johnny more. And being able to separate completely out those two things is such a powerful thing for parents. To get them focused on their kids rather than pitting money against time. That’s a big difference with ICP, in that you can work with parents around that, and that’s not a characteristic of ICP, the time versus money. It’s more about what the family need. And Gloria’s exactly right, you get these parents using children as weapons against each other. You know that passing messages. Tell your father he has pay for soccer, otherwise you can’t go next Saturday. Or, tell your father or your mother you know we’re going away for the weekend, so I want you that time. And that puts the kids smack bang in the middle of the conflict.

That old phrase, don’t shoot the messenger. Well the poor kids, they’re actually the messenger, and they’re the ones seeing the upset when they have to say that to the other parent. And so really, choosing a lawyer that is collaborative is probably really key. Even in a non-collaborative matter I would say that rings true as well, because they understand the principles of keeping you out of court and protecting the family.

And ICP, it’s not like a walk in the park. It’s not like, oh, it’s going to be all roses and skipping. It’s actually a very rigorous process. And it’s like the difference between keeping a patient alive with two doctors working for the same goal of keeping a patient alive, as opposed to doctors, disagreeing over a diagnosis and giving contravening treatment and end up making the patient sicker. So I think that sort of encapsulates what ICP does that traditional matters don’t do.

(HOST) You’re both Family Dispute Resolution Practitioners and work in the Interdisciplinary Collaborative Practice framework. How does the ICP process work?

(GLORIA) In terms of the process sometimes Valerie and I will have a parent or parents come to us, and they are thinking about whether or not they might want to mediate. They might have heard about Collaborative Practice ICP, and they might not have. And so we will do an assessment and work out whether or not they might be a good candidate for the process and then refer them onto a Collaborative Lawyer. Other times it will come as a referral from the collaborative lawyer to us, and they want to engage us as a coach.

The way that we work, we will have five way meetings where both of the parents come together with each of their lawyers and we will attend as the coach. At that first meeting, what we’re able to do is run through the participation agreement, speak to people around and what they can expect from the process, what we will need from them, the commitment that we need from them. And I guess one of the reasons why ICP works is really that commitment that people are not going to go to court, that they’re not going to threaten court. So I think that’s one of the really key elements, and it’s not that we don’t discuss in the sessions a likely range, if people were to go to court. We will talk about that and share that information as part of a bigger picture, but it’s a very different process because we’re problem solving. We’re working as a team. And if you think about what happens when people are involved in the court process, they provide affidavit. Even in a traditional mediation, people provide a position paper, so they come into that setting with expectations and they argue for that.

But when we’re working in ICP, legal advice is shared and we talk about a range of outcomes and that’s provided as a check and balance. So the actual settlement or the parenting outcomes is built around looking at both parties, interests and needs and concerns as an anchor. And we’re taking a bigger picture approach so that we can try and meet both parties’ requirements wherever possible. And we’re looking at the whole family and trying to protect relationships. So it’s a very different approach.

(VALERIE) I’d agree with that completely Gloria and what I think the big difference between ICP and traditional approaches is that it focuses on the interests, needs and concerns of the entire family, and you don’t have lawyers communicating with each other through letters without any transparency. Everyone gets that advice in the real time sitting down together and the lawyers can have a very respectful but completely different point of view, and that’s fine. But both of the parents hear that, they’re sitting there hearing that advice, their hearing how their lawyer is handling it, because so often Gloria and I will be in mediations and they’ve had completely different legal advice, and it really blows up the mediation. And it’s just an opinion, and it’s just sitting there working through that opinion.

And so ICP is about interest based negotiation and looking at that entire family rather than the positional bargaining approach that lawyers use. And the one last thing that I think actually is really fantastic about ICP is that you’re in control of the process. The clients are in control of the process, it’s not decided for them, and I think that’s very powerful because you own the outcome, as a client.

(HOST) You’ve talked about other professionals getting involved in the ICP process. Apart from lawyers, yourselves, what other professionals may be involved?

(VALERIE) Financial Neutrals, and that’s someone who might need to come in and do an evaluation of a business. Or they might need some financial advice and some modelling about what does that offer actually mean? When you get to the offer stage, and often there is one person who is very much ahead of the financials in a family, and the other one is maybe not so up to speed. It’s really important for them to feel safe and secure, that they can’t put in context, what does that offer mean to my life? You know you can’t eat percentages. You can’t sort of sleep in a percentage. You actually need to be able to pay your mortgage or your rent and have enough food and get through sort of the school week, giving the kids the opportunities and your opportunities that you want.

So Collaborative Practice, it actually works at the pace of the slowest client, which is often when the professional, the financial neutral, comes into play. Counsellors as well, if the family needs some sort of therapeutic intervention. If Gloria and I can’t turn it around, it might mean that there does need to be family therapy involved. Or are there mental health issues that need consideration as well.

(GLORIA) Or whether or not a child consult might become involved and we’re able to bring the children’s voice into the process. So that might be one thing that we would do around the parenting side in an ICP matter.

(VALERIE) Yes, absolutely. I’m a child inclusive practitioner and I’ve had lots of kids say to me, Mum and Dad don’t know, but I can hear them at night. And it’s sitting there telling parents what their children are experiencing, just in that moment in time, can be incredibly powerful.

(HOST) Gloria, you mentioned yours and Valerie’s first step is to assess whether a couple is suited to the ICP process. In what situations wouldn’t you be recommending ICP to a family?

(GLORIA) There definitely are some people who, or some families who might not be a good fit for the ICP process. And some of the warning signs for Valerie and I when we are doing assessments, is there’s somebody who is, I guess looking to hide or dodge or looking at ICP an easy route out, where they’re not going to have to and actually provide full and frank disclosure or really put everything on the table so they wouldn’t be good candidate.

The other red flags for us would be around people who, trying to seek revenge, were are really so angry and upset and not going to have that ability to take a holistic approach. The things that I’m always looking forward, I’m accepting for suitability, I guess the people who actually have some regard for each other, they do care about their ex-partner. They care about that other parent. They actually want them to be able to do well and be able to be okay, so they’re going to be able to give a little rather than be focused all about what’s going to happen to them.

And I guess one thing I wanted to point out is that, well, a lot of the families we work with in ICP, people who have children. There’s also people who come to us who don’t have children. They might be older and it’s their second marriage, or it could be, I had a couple in their thirties without children and they still chose the ICP model, and that was because they’ve been together for a long time and they really they had regard for their in laws and they still also wanted to maintain a friendship. It’s not just for people with children.

(VALERIE) And I’d also add you have to look out for people who are trying to use collaborative practice to control the process. They think that by keeping it out of court that they can direct and manage the outcome. So that’s something in our assessments, we also look for people who have rigid ideas about what their version of fair looks like.

(HOST) Gloria, do you have an example of where, through the ICP process, a family has achieved a successful outcome, one that may not have been achieved through mediation or an adversarial approach?

(GLORIA) I can talk about a recent example, and I was reflecting the other day and thinking about why was it so successful? And I think there was a mix of things, and I think one of the things that ICP provides, is as well is time, it’s not rushed. Mediation is a very powerful way to work with families, but often it can be a one off event and people try it once and if it doesn’t work, they want their certificate, they go to court. Whereas with ICP we know there’s going to be a series of meetings. It might be two if it’s very, very quick. It might be five or six over a series of months. Sometimes they can need that time to actually process, to do the homework, to do the research, to meet with the financial neutral, and then we’re able to get to an outcome.

There’s a family I recently worked with which I thought were a good example to share. The parents have been together for about 15 years, and they had a four and 10 year old. They had mutually agreed to separate, but with great sadness that had one attempt at reconciling and it hadn’t worked. And after the separation, there was sort of a series of months where they’ve grown quite suspicious of each other. There was resentment coming up, and they started to become more and more positional about what was their inequitable in regards to their finances, and they tried to talk about it. They wanted to be amicable with each other, but it became very, very tense between them to the point that they just essentially stopped communicating with each other. They had a lot of decisions in front of them. So from whether they could keep their eldest in private school, whether either of them could afford to keep their two investment properties, how their child support was going to be assessed and paid, and how ultimately they were going to split their assets and whether the children were ready for and will thrive in a 50-50 arrangement.

I’ve seen a lot of cases like this end up in a series of lengthy and expensive back and forth legal letters where people are very positional and then often ending up in court. For me, it was really satisfying to be able to work as a coach with this family, with two experienced collaborative lawyers to help guide them through the ICP process. There were very robust discussions at times and moments where people were frustrated and emotional. But it was managed and I think it was managed well and it was always with that same goal of finding a settlement which was focused on the children that gave the parents some of what each of them needed and wanted and allowed for them to remain in control of the outcome, as Valerie has mentioned before. And the biggest thing is what I saw from the outside was that they were able to leave the process with respect for each other intact. But in fact, they actually had built a co-parenting alliance, and they were able to have discussions about their children, make decisions and interact with each other in a way where the fear had dissipated, the resentment had dissipated and they were able to move forward. It was a real privilege to work with that family in the ICP process.

(HOST) Valerie, do you have an example?

(VALERIE) A similar sort of example. It was a family I remember working with last year and got to such a wonderful point in the collaboration because before then it was getting more and more positional. There were four kids, the mum and dad had had quite a traditional relationship. A lot of the parenting had been left to Mum, and the Dad was being really positional about having X number of dollars then buying a house. And he had left, he had been the one to end the marriage. On face value he sounded unreasonable in the five way meetings and very positional, and so we broke and sort of try to into separate meetings and tried to work through what was it that he was really trying to say. And when it came down to it, it was his fear of losing his kids that drove that. It was not because he wanted a big house. He actually wanted a home that they would be happy to come to on a regular basis and working through sort of how that would be, regardless of the quality of his home. But it wasn’t about that. It was about him spending time with them. And I find that a lot when I’m a child inclusive practitioner. I’ve had so many kids say to me, the happiest memories of when they lived in that tiny little house with either Mum or Dad because they knew they were one room away from them and they spent lots of time with them and they really engaged with them. So it’s not about them being on a different floor to Mum or Dad, sort of gaming or being left to your own devices. It’s about being present.

When we got over that hurdle, he was so much more able to say, Yeah, actually, this is fine. They’ve got a bedroom each, fine suburb, let’s settle, let’s do this. And it was resolved in a traditional matter that may have gone the other way, depending on the lawyers involved. It can be really powerful in that way.

(HOST) Interdisciplinary Collaborative Practice is a relatively new option for separating couples in Australia. How long has it been available? And how popular is it?

(VALERIE) Think it started as quite a small movement from America, and it’s actually growing and growing in leaps and bounds because there’s still such a big need, particularly the state of the courts at the moment. When it started around 2000, it’s really in the last probably 5 to 10 years, really grown, to the point that we now have a national body, which is fantastic, the AACP, Collaborative Australia. That’s showing what traction it’s getting in Australia at the moment.

(GLORIA) In Sydney, I think it’s only it’s just starting to grow and grow. There are more lawyers who are training in this area. I have a family come to me and start the process a few months ago. They were saying to me, you know, we’re telling our friends and families about Collaborative Practice and people don’t know about it, and I think that is one of the challenges. But there are a lot of people who don’t actually know that this is an option. And so it is for us also to try and get the word out there so that more people know that they can access this and separate and divorce well.


(HOST) Where can people find further information on Interdisciplinary Collaborative Practice, and how can they contact both of you?

(GLORIA) People who want information about Collaborative Practice they can have a look at the AACP website, . And if they want to get in touch with Valerie and I, the best way to contact us to go to The Mediation Collective website, .

(VALERIE) And the other place you could look is Collaborative Professionals New South Wales, which is the state body, and every state has one of those.

(HOST) Valerie and Gloria, thank you for your time.

(VALERIE, GLORIA) Thanks very much, Wallace. Thanks Wallace, it was great speaking to you.

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