RD27 - Parent Education Evaluation

Executive Summary:
The Office of the Executive Secretary of the Supreme Court of Virginia was requested by the 2000 General Assembly, pursuant to House Bill 1178, to develop and disseminate information to the 2003 General Assembly regarding: 1) the number and geographic availability of parent education seminars, 2) the actual cost of providing such seminars as reported by the participating programs, and 3) any feedback from judges regarding the effect of mandating seminar participation by court order. House Bill 1178 had a one-year delayed enactment period with the provisions of the bill taking effect July 1, 2001.

A. Background

Our society has experienced fundamental changes in the institution of marriage over the past half-century. Today, over half of all marriages and non-marital partnerships end in divorce or separation, approximately a quarter of all children are born outside of marriage, and the percentage of families headed by a single parent has more than tripled since 1960. The transformation of family structures and consequent social impacts have created a need for proactive strategies to assist divorcing and separating families. This reflects a growing awareness by academics, mental health professionals, community service providers and court personnel that divorce and separation can have devastating effects on children. The most rapidly developing intervention has been the institution of mandatory education programs for divorcing or separating parents. The goal of these programs is to help parents learn new skills in how to keep children out of the middle of conflicts between parents, how to improve communication with the co-parent, and how to collaborate with the co-parent to protect the emotional, legal and economic well-being of their children.

In Virginia, parent education programs have existed for over a decade, but referral to such programs has varied from court to court. House Bill 1178, passed by the 2000 General Assembly, requires that when parties are parents of a child whose custody or visitation is contested, the court shall order the parties to attend educational seminars on the effects of separation or divorce on children, parenting responsibilities, options for conflict resolution and financial responsibilities. Following the passage of HB 1178, the Office of the Executive Secretary (OES) developed a list of parent education programs with information provided from the courts and placed it on the Supreme Court of Virginia homepage. Several training sessions were held to inform judges about the new parent education mandate. Parent education programs were requested to give parents attending the seminar an exit survey developed by the Office of the Executive Secretary in order to capture information on parent satisfaction with the course. In the Fall of 2002, a survey was sent to the parent education providers to determine the cost of conducting such seminars. A separate survey was sent to all Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court Judges and Circuit Court Judges to determine their impressions of the effect of the parent education mandate.

B. Evaluations

1. Parent Feedback

From July 1, 2001 - October 31, 2002, approximately 5,000 survey responses were submitted by parents following the parent education seminar. Feedback from the parents regarding the seminar is very positive with over 93% of parents agreeing that the course taught them how to reduce parental conflict and 92% agreeing that the course taught them parenting skills and co-parenting techniques. For complete survey results, see Appendix E.

2. Number and Geographical Availability

There are 105 parent education programs around the Commonwealth. Each Circuit in Virginia has a number of parent education providers serving that area. Where programs have indicated that they serve only particular counties or cities within a Circuit, that information has been noted on the list of Parent Education Providers (See Appendix D). Anecdotally, there have been some concerns expressed that there is insufficient "coverage" in terms of the availability of parenting courses in the truest sense. This may be due to programs covering only specific cities or counties within a Circuit, requiring parents to travel some distance in certain situations. In addition, programs may offer seminars infrequently or at times that are inconvenient for parents, thereby limiting accessibility. A complete list of programs divided by judicial regions and identifying the number of participants served may be found in Appendix F.

3. Cost of Providing Parent Education Seminars

Out of a total of 105 parent education programs, 90 (86%) returned the OES survey requesting information on the cost of providing such seminars. The 90 programs together offered 1,362 courses statewide between July 1, 2001 and June 30, 2002. 13,309 parents attended the parent education course in this time frame. The average annual budget attributed to the parent education programs offered between July 1, 2001 and June 30, 2002 is $7,748. The average fee participants were charged is $35. The average cost per participant is $79. Sixty-five programs offered sliding scale fees and/or free classes in case of need. The fee was reduced or waived for 1,477 (11%) of participants. The parent education programs received $365,007 in fees from participants between July 1, 2001 and June 30, 2002. Sixty programs (67%) had more expenses than the fees received. Thus, the data received indicates that most programs lost money over the last year in offering the parent education program, unless the program was offered through a governmental entity, college, or other institution that could support the program as part of its other services. Only 8 programs have decided to discontinue the seminar in the future.

4. Feedback from Judges

A total of 138 (53%) judges responded to a survey provided by OBS regarding their impressions of the impact of the parent education mandate. Thirty-six percent of judges found that the seminar had no noticeable effects. Thirty-three percent of judges found that parents are more focused on child(ren)'s needs. Twenty-eight percent found that there is an increase in mediated agreements and there is less parental hostility in court. Sixty-nine percent of judges believe that the parent education mandate should continue as it currently exists. The most frequent comment by judges with regard to suggestions for revisions/modifications of the parent education mandate is that the Courts should retain discretion as to whether to refer parties to the parent education seminar. See Appendix I for a complete listing of the judges' survey responses and comments.