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Communication gap creates barrier between research, lawyers

Gregg Herman

Most Wisconsin counties require parents to attend a parenting class as a condition of getting a divorce.

On the one hand, these classes are the legal equivalent of chicken soup — it may not make the patient better, but will certainly do no harm. On the other hand, these classes cost parties money through attendance, time to discuss the requirement with their attorney and having to provide verification to the court.

Other than providing a source of clients for course providers, do these classes do any good? On a broader basis, is there any empirical evidence of the effect of the legal system on the participants?

The answer is that there is a substantial body of research on these effects in psychological literature. Unfortunately, there seems to be a disconnect between this research and the family law attorneys and judges who practice in this field.

This article is the second in a series examining the relationship between family law and mental health professionals.

At the outset, it needs to be acknowledged that not all programs designed to affect behavior are successful, no matter how well-intended or seeming intuitive.

For example, for many years, parents enthusiastically enrolled their school-aged children in an anti-drug program called "D.A.R.E." While teaching children about the evils of drug usage would seem to be beyond reproach, research studies eventually proved their ineffectiveness. One study conducted by the U.S. Govern-ment Accountability Office found that D.A.R.E. and other similar anti-drug programs do not prevent children from becoming drug users in high school. In fact, the GAO study found that D.A.R.E. is actually associated with increased levels of drug use among suburban youth. (See Resistance_Education.)

In another example, closer to family law, perpetrators of domestic violence are frequently ordered to attend anger management classes. As an article in The Los Angeles Times found, "[T]here is scant research on anger management to suggest whether these programs work. A few small studies, mostly involving prison inmates and juvenile offenders, have suggested the classes are helpful in discouraging aggressive behavior, but there is no conclusive evidence that they do any good within the general population." (See news/la he anger19jan19,0,4425631.story?coll=la class employ jobnews.)

So, have there been any studies on parenting classes — or for that matter, on other aspects of family court practice?

The answer is yes. For example, as long ago as 1998, the Family Conciliation Courts Review reported a study on the effect of two divorce education programs on domestic violence and parental communication. 36 Fam. Con. Ct. Rev. 1 (Jan., 1998). The study, which included a control group, found that neither program affected rates of domestic violence or actual parental conflict, although one of the programs improved communication between the parents.

Dr. Robert Emery, Director of the Center for Children, Families, and the Law at the University of Virginia, has conducted important research proving that mandatory mediation for parents in a custody dispute substantially reduces the likelihood of post-judgment litigation. This type of research, which includes a control group for comparison, is invaluable in understanding which programs have merit and those that do not.

Occasionally, this research does find its way into journals read by family law professionals. For example, the Journal of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers recently published an analysis of a study on the effect on children of custodial parents moving substantial distances from objecting noncustodial parents. (See Robert Pashow, A Critical Analysis of the First Empirical Research Study on Child Relocation,” 19 J. Am. Acad. Matrim. Law. 321 (2005)). The study concluded that relocation is generally more harmful to children than good for them.

Yet the question remains: How many lawyers who serve as guardians ad litem for children in removal actions or judges who rule on them are aware of this research? Unfortunately, the answer is not many.

If this research exists and is of critical importance, why does it not reach those who are in the trenches where the information could be put to use in the real world?

The answer can be found in the previously-mentioned disconnect between the professions of family law and mental health. Except in collaborative divorce cases (which still represent only a small minority of cases) and forensic psychologists, the two sets of professionals rarely talk or interact. The result is much valuable research has all the effect in the real world of the tree that falls on a deserted island.

Later in this series, we will examine how to bridge this gap and share these research results among all in this field of practice.

Gregg Herman is a shareholder with Loeb & Herman S.C. in Milwaukee, which practices exclusively family law. FamLawUpdate, a free e-mail service of Loeb & Herman, is available by going to or sending an e-mail to

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