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Saving Children or Blaming Parents? Lessons from Mandated Parenting Classes

Schaefer, Tali

In this Article, Part I explores the characteristics of legally mandated parent education programs. The programs are generally short, educational interventions and their main goal is to improve children's well-being during and after a divorce by teaching parents how to better interact with children and with each other. This Part argues that the literature documents programs' scant success in achieving their stated goals. The Article then makes a brief interlude, in Part II, to contend that although mandatory parenting classes appeal to common sense, we ought to challenge such a reaction in order to allow for a critical analysis of the legislation. Drawing on previously unexplored legislative materials, Part III explores judges' and lawmakers' inflated estimation of the harm caused by divorce and analyzes its influence on the resulting legislation. This Part relies on substantial empirical work, gathering and analyzing detailed minutes and recordings of committee meetings, public hearings, and floor presentations and votes. The choice of states for this study was therefore influenced by the availability of these primary sources. Still, the information represents diverse states and the analysis shows patterns common to all of them. The primary source data is complemented by public reports, news reports and papers written by key players in the enactment process: judges, parent educators, and lawyers. Part IV.A shows that legislators perceive harm to children as arising from personal flaws or failures of divorcing parents, as evidenced by the parents' decision to divorce - specifically, parents' selfishness or self-involvement. This Part goes on to argue that legislators' interest in confronting divorcing parents with the results of their allegedly detrimental actions has severely undermined the potential of these mandates to achieve their declared goal of helping children. Part IV .B develops further the claim that parent education mandates downplay the extent to which social, economic and legal conditions shape parents' behavior after divorce, especially gender roles and gender inequality. To conclude, this Article argues that judges and lawmakers should see divorce as no different from other stressful life events. If we want interventions targeting individuals, we should focus them on helping parents make the transition from married to divorced, as rapidly and painlessly as possible by preparing them to the structural problems they are likely to face upon separation. More importantly, this Article suggests that lawmakers should focus on changing these structural conditions instead of denying them through parent-blaming.

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Columbia Journal of Gender and Law

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Law
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May 20, 2011