October 2000 // Volume 38 // Number 5 // Ideas at Work // 5IAW1

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Helping Children Succeed After Divorce: Building a Community-Based Program in a Rural County

The devastating effect of divorce on children has led to the development of parenting programs across the country. Extension in rural Darke County, Ohio, played a key role initiating and conducting such a program by working in collaboration with the courts and mental health agencies. Through exit evaluations, more than 1,400 participants in 5 1/2 years indicated that they learned how to focus on their children through the grieving process and learned the importance of a low-conflict relationship with their child's other parent.

Diane E. Johnson
Extension Agent, Family and Consumer Sciences
Ohio State University Extension
Greenville, Ohio
Internet address: johnson.8@osu.edu


Divorce is a major life transition for a family. Changes include separation of family members, change in residence, lower income, and lower living standards. Well-documented studies show that children of divorce are referred to mental health agencies more than children of "intact" families, and parents report higher incidence of behavioral and emotional problems after divorce.

These adverse responses to divorce have led to the development of parent education aimed at reducing the traumatic effects of divorce and parental conflict on children. Programs are designed to provide information on children's response to divorce and to help improve parental cooperation after divorce.

Programs vary in design. Some offer one session lasting 2 to 3 hours. Others require that parents participate in six sessions of 2 hours each. Organizations that offer these programs include Extension, mental health, family counseling, social service agencies, and the courts.

In rural communities, the number of agencies prepared to provide these educational efforts is limited. This gives Extension a unique opportunity for leadership in divorce education.


Darke County is an agricultural county located in western Ohio with a population of 53,664. A survey of divorces, annulments, and dissolutions with rates per 1,000 population indicated that Ohio's divorce rate in 1993 was 4.7. The rate for Darke County was 5.1, with 272 divorce decrees issued during the year. Examination of court records in late 1993 revealed there were 175 divorces involving parents of children under 18 during a 6-month sample.

Discussions conducted by Extension with the existing county early childhood committee, teachers, and mental health and social service professionals further revealed a need for education for divorcing parents in Darke County. Discussion with the County Court of Common Pleas Judge revealed he was also considering the feasibility of such a program.

The Extension Agent recruited an implementation team that included the director of the mental health agency, the County Common Pleas Judge, the Court Magistrate, and a licensed social worker. The group reviewed Extension's program proposal and decided that a 2 1/2-hour program, mandated by the court, for all divorcing parents of children under age 18, including those obtaining a dissolution or legal separation, would meet county needs.

Ohio State University Extension obtained a $1,500 start-up grant from United Way in 1993 and provided leadership for establishing the program in 1994. Grant funds were used to purchase curriculum materials, videos, and booklets to be distributed in the first few months of the program.

Class participants pay a registration fee to fund the program. This fee was set at $20.00 per person and covered:

  • Time billed by mental health for the services of a licensed social worker as co-presenter;
  • Program development and teaching time of the Extension agent;
  • Administrative costs;
  • Participant materials, printing, and display materials;
  • Lending library; and
  • Security.

One month prior to the first program session, Extension staff and the judge met with the Darke County Bar Association. The objectives, goals, and details of how the program would operate were presented to county attorneys. They were encouraged to offer suggestions and input. Brochures explaining the program and a schedule of classes for the first 6 months were distributed.

This was the first court-mandated educational program in Darke County and served as a model for other educational efforts. In the years since the program was implemented, three other counties have adopted the program, using Darke County as a model. Reciprocal agreements allow individuals to attend classes in these counties.


  • What do divorcing parents need to know to help their children throughout the divorce crisis?
  • How can parents help their children grow up without long-term emotional problems?
  • How can parents help their children adjust to new circumstances?
  • What problems can parents expect with children of different ages and stages of development?
  • What divorce specific tasks do children need to accomplish successfully to adjust well and how can parents assist them?
  • How can parents recognize when their child is at risk for developing long-term emotional problems?
  • When and where do parents go for help?

These questions were the basis for the content of the Darke County program. A review of literature on children and divorce, parenting after divorce, and the impact of programs similar to the one we proposed was completed. The agent contacted colleagues, Extension professionals, and university family relations and human development faculty to pinpoint curricula that could be used or adapted. The primary resource selected was "Helping Children Succeed After Divorce," from Children's Hospital Behavioral Health, Columbus, Ohio.


The program was evaluated using a written exit survey of all participants. The evaluation instrument included 42 open- and closed-end questions. The items were categorized as follows:

  • Demographics,
  • Marital status and description of marital conflict,
  • Quality of the presentation,
  • Effectiveness of presentation, and
  • Perceptions about future actions.

The analysis was primarily descriptive. using the Statistical Package for Social Sciences (SPSS).

After 5 1/2 years, the "Helping Children Succeed After Divorce" exit evaluations from 1,400 participants point toward a successful program. When discussing the quality and effectiveness of the class:

  • 89% of the participants would recommend the class to others in the same situation;
  • 87% agreed that the class helped them understand their feelings about divorce; and
  • 85% felt that the program helped them become more aware of their children's point of view.

When asked if the seminar would make a difference in how they interact with their children on divorce issues:

  • 83% agreed that it would. In judging the quality of the presentation;
  • 96% of participants felt that the presenters were well prepared; and
  • 97% thought that the speakers knew their subject matter.


Evaluations of this program indicated that participants gained knowledge about their children's perspective on divorce, learned how to help their children through the grieving process, and understood the importance of establishing a positive co-parenting relationship with their child's other parent.


Steinman, S., & Petersen, V. (1991). Helping Children succeed after divorce - A handbook for Parents. Columbus, Ohio: Children's Hospital Behavioral Health.