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What We Can Learn From This Revolutionary Divorce Court

How a new program solves intractable disputes by listening to children.

Key points

  • A family court in Maryland has found a way to quickly resolve the toughest divorce cases by empowering both children and parents.
  • Listening to their children’s court interviews transforms parents’ perspectives and cuts through conflicts.
  • All parents can improve family outcomes by resolving to follow the wisdom of this innovative program.

Divorce can seem like a bottomless sinkhole of misery and legal bills. Yet in Cecil County, Maryland, a revolutionary approach is now resolving the most antagonistic of decouplings. The 20 percent of divorcing parents who end up in court, whose cases have typically dragged on for months or years, often walk away with a mutually satisfactory, lasting settlement in just a few hours. This averts potentially devastating emotional consequences, as parental conflict is the aspect of divorce most damaging to children. The secret to this program’s success is one that all parents—no matter their marital status—can use to better solve family conflicts.

A Revolutionary Method for Resolving Intractable Conflicts

We often see the children of divorce as pawns, powerless rag dolls caught in a tug-of-war. But in Cecil County, they are the heroes whose voices cut through the fog of acrimony. There, Judge Jane Cairns Murray (who has since retired) and Family Support Services Coordinator Nolanda Robert created a safe place for children to speak their minds, while parents listen with the support of attorneys and mediators.

It works like this: Children are brought to a private room at the courthouse to meet individually with Robert or the judge. Each has a half-hour interview with an important person who is eager to hear their opinions. They’re told the conversation is being recorded and their parents are listening, but if they choose (or if the child shows signs of distress), the recording will be stopped and the conversation will be summarized to their parents instead. If a child doesn’t want their parents to hear something, that is at the discretion of Robert and the judge. The children are in control. They are also cautioned that, while they should express their desires as they would for a birthday or Christmas list, some but not all of their wishes will likely come true. If the children are afraid, they may be given a coloring book to relax, or the judge may don a crown and magic wand to play the fairy godmother.

The interviewer builds rapport, asking a structured set of specific questions (adapted for age) about life at home, the separation, and what custody schedule the child would like. Concrete scenarios are discussed, and the child is asked whether there are reasonable wishes they’d like the judge to grant.

The children typically enjoy this. They have opinions and concerns about the changes in their lives, and, finally, someone will not only listen without taking anyone’s side, but will also help them get what they want. Even better, their beloved parents are not present and indicating—with an indrawn breath, a visible wince, or just a look in their eye—when the child says something perceived as hurtful or disloyal.

Why This Approach Works So Well

Parents sometimes worry that children will be coached or manipulated by their ex-partner, but Ret. Judge Murray and Robert have found it easy to tell the child's own thoughts from what the parents instructed them to say. Children also easily distinguish between the two.

Surprisingly, younger children, ages 4 years through 9, tend to be more accurate and less biased or easily manipulated by adults than older children. They are the best witnesses of their own lives and experiences.

For children, being listened to is fun and empowering. For parents, hearing their children’s interview, surrounded by officers of the court and their own attorneys, is nothing short of transformative. They often weep, laugh, and are shocked by their own anger. They hear, often for the first time, their children’s unvarnished experiences.

Since separating, many parents have been trapped by their own pain and feelings of betrayal, abandonment, and injustice. They believe that only they understand what their children want and need, seeing the other partner as the obstacle. But now they plainly hear that their children are in distress, the nature of the distress, and usually the remedy. Ret. Judge Murray says the experience “is a game-changer” for parents.

Finally, the children's true needs become paramount, and parents are able to agree on a settlement based on the children’s best interests, instead of their own anxieties and animosities. Once the custody issues are resolved, finances and everything else fall into place quickly. Research found that 81 percent of cases enrolled in this innovative program between 2017 and 2019 were wrapped up in three hours. Couples leave the court building with a signed and sealed settlement. And they walk out smiling, effusively praised by the judge, mediators, and magistrates for having made such remarkable progress, confident they have been good parents for putting their children’s needs first.

Even better, these settlements last. The family isn’t back at court next month or year.

Wisdom for All Parents—Divorcing or Not

This program improves outcomes of apparently intractable divorce cases, while drastically reducing the time and expense involved. It should be replicated across the country to reduce the strain on family courts and increase the well-being of children and parents.

While this is most urgently needed for the 20 percent of divorcing parents who can’t come to an agreement without litigation, the more amicable 80 percent would also benefit from a chance to participate in this program, as it facilitates rapid, conflict-free settlements.

The remarkable success of this program reminds us of the power of truly listening to the people we love, especially our children. Too often, overthinking and anxiety, along with the belief that only we really understand what’s best, deafen us to the voices that best describe children’s needs: their own.

Whether parents are separating or not, developing the ability to listen to children without imposing their own opinions and feelings is the key to figuring out the toughest parenting dilemmas. This New Year, and every year, whenever family conflict rears its head, parents should resolve to follow in Ret. Judge Murray’s pioneering footsteps and remember that when children’s voices are heard loud and clear, everyone wins.


“Can You Hear Me?”: Using the child's voice to settle custody disputes

Gina Santoro PhD, NCSP, Maryland Licensed Psychologist; Noland Robert, MS, CCFC; and The Honorable Jane Cairns Murray

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