HD26 - Model Parent Education Curriculum and a Study of Related Custody and Visitation Issues

Executive Summary:
The Office of the Executive Secretary (OES) of the Supreme Court of Virginia was requested by the 1999 General Assembly, pursuant to House Joint Resolution 591, to develop and disseminate information regarding (1) the goals and availability of parent education material; (2) the role of mediation in custody and visitation cases; and (3) the impact of denied visitation on children to Virginia's circuit and district courts and commissioners in chancery. The General Assembly further requested OES in the same legislation to convene an advisory committee to develop model curricula for parent education seminars. A committee comprised of a diverse representation of individuals involved in custody and visitation proceedings, as well as providers of parent education seminars and experts on child development was created. In addition, a literature review was conducted to develop information related to the aforementioned custody and visitation issues.

Goals and Availability of Parent Education Material

Our society has experienced fundamental changes in the institution of marriage over the past half-century, with over half of all marriages and nonmarital relationships ending in divorce or separation. A child's adjustment to the divorce or separation depends largely upon the parents' general parenting skills and ability to reduce conflicts. Parent education programs are organized, educational sessions that strive to assist families with the divorce, separation, and co-parenting transition. A national survey in 1998 found that about 48% of all U.S. counties offer parent education courses. Almost half of the parent education providers around the country make use of several proprietary programs that provide curricula, videos, and teachers' guides. A 1999 report of the Virginia Commission on Youth found at least twelve programs in Virginia that offer parent education courses. A list of these programs may be found in Appendix B, and an extensive list of resources for parent education programs is provided in Appendix C.

Role of Mediation in Custody and Visitation Cases

With the rise in the divorce rate in recent years, the traditional adversarial approach to handling marital dissolution has become increasingly cumbersome and unsatisfactory. Mediation is a dispute resolution process in which a neutral facilitates communication between parties and assists them in reaching a mutually acceptable resolution to their dispute. This more collaborative process is more appropriate for custody and visitation matters for a number of reasons. First, in a divorce or separation involving children, the disputants' relationship does not end once a settlement is reached. As long as a child is a minor, some ongoing interactions between the parents is necessary. Mediation improves parents' communication, negotiation and problem solving skills. Regardless of their differences, both parents share a very important interest, their children. Mediation is often a more appropriate process for parents, as opposed to the public, often unpredictable, adversarial system, because it empowers parents to be the private decision-makers about what is best for the children and to tailor a parenting plan that meets the needs of their children. In addition, there are many issues that need to be settled that go beyond questions that can be resolved by reference to legal standards, such as how to arrange for car-pooling or how to communicate regarding an unexpected change in the visitation schedule. These issues are best resolved through discussions between the parents themselves, with the assistance of the mediator, as opposed to traditional legal procedures.

Impact of Denied Visitation on Children

Existing research on denied visitation and its impact on child adjustment and development is scant and wrought with methodological problems. Denied visitation is more accurately divided into two categories: appropriate denial of visitation due to safety, parents' mental health, and children's developmental concerns; and inappropriate denial of visitation due to inter-parent hostility and unsubstantiated allegations of safety concerns. Inappropriate denial of visitation is often an expression of inter-parent conflict, is usually a process engaged in by both parents, and is better considered a joint expression of hostility. Children, in general, have a better adjustment to their parents' divorce when contact with the nonresidential parent is continued on a regular and frequent basis. There is evidence, however, that frequent contact with the non-custodial parent is beneficial only when inter-parent conflict is low and when the non-custodial parent engages in appropriate and constructive parent-child activities.

Model Parent Education Curriculum

In an effort to develop a model parent education curriculum, the specific issues the Parent Education Curriculum Advisory Committee took under consideration included: the purpose, goals, and objectives of parent education courses; the content of parent education programs; the level of detail of the model curriculum; the appropriate length of parent education programs; methods of presentation of parent education programs; parent education trainer qualifications; and various other logistics related to presenting parent education programs. A complete list of parent education course goals, objectives and content areas can be found in chapter four.

The primary purpose of parent education programs is to assist families with the divorce or separation transition as it affects the children. This is accomplished by educating parents on the importance of keeping children out of the middle of parental conflict and fostering a positive, nurturing relationship between both parents and children. Course content areas are generally parent-focused, child-focused, or court-focused. The Committee agreed that the primary approach of a model curriculum ought to be child-focused and include topics such as children's reactions to divorce/separation, responding to children's reactions, essentials of co-parenting, and keeping children out of the middle of conflict. This information should be interwoven with parent and court-related issues. The ultimate positive effects of this information is to reduce parental conflict and children's resulting emotional distress; reduce relitigation of custody and visitation issues; and reduce costs to the legal system.


1. The model curriculum should apply to all parent education courses that are presented to parents who are divorcing or separating and those who were never married and never lived together: It also applies to those who are now in the role of parents.

2. The model curriculum is an outline for parent education providers to use as a point of reference in designing parent education courses. The various sections of the outline are interrelated and should not be treated as separate and distinct subjects. The emphasis of the course should be on the effects of divorce, separation, and co-parenting of children.

3. A pre-class intake process should be conducted to determine the background and needs of the participants. This is helpful in making group assignments, in identifying participants who may pose a security risk, recognizing those who need child care, and in determining if there should be any special adaptations for language, cultural or disability needs.

4. As adults have various learning styles, literacy levels, languages, and cultures, teaching techniques should include a combination of lecture, discussion, videos, role-play, and visual and auditory teaching tools. Programs should consider a male-female co-trainer model and should provide participants with a comprehensive manual, which covers the information presented in the course.

5. Trainers should be able to demonstrate the following: knowledge of child development, background in divorce/separation issues, knowledge of family abuse issues and appropriate resources, experience in teaching adult audiences, and group facilitation skills. An undergraduate degree is preferable, but can be waived for equivalent life experience.

6. Courts should refer to parent education programs that are offered under the auspices of a community services board, accredited family-service agency, educational institution, or by a psychologist, certified mediators, licensed clinical social worker, or licensed professional counselor.

7. Programs should be a minimum of four hours and offered in one or two session formats. Two session formats of two hours each may pose more logistical and scheduling problems than one session of four hours.

8. Consideration should be given to the childcare needs of the participants, particularly if a court mandates the course.

9. Limiting the class size to 20 allows for a better learning experience. Use of a conference table or circle of chairs encourages group interaction.

10. The program location should be easily accessible through public transportation.

11. Programs should provide participants with an evaluation form at the conclusion of the course.


1. Childcare issues may pose problems for some parents. If programs choose to provide on-site childcare, they need to consider issues related to space, insurance, and licensure. The number of parents requiring childcare may affect the size of the class.

2. Transportation to the parent education program may be an issue for some parents, particularly if the course is more than one session or if the location is not accessible through public transportation.

3. The ability of parent education providers to meet the special needs of participants requiring a foreign language interpreter, sign language interpreter, or wheelchair accessibility must be considered when attendance at the course is court-ordered. In addition, the issue of who will pay for these services needs to be resolved.