An Argument for Mediating Divorce

Author Stephen Perrine writes in Sunday's New York Times that resolving differences through divorce court often exacerbates an already tense situation. He argues that mediation may help keep the acrimony down and the family members talking.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. And here are the headlines from some of the other stories we're following today here at NPR News. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that regulators may have misinterpreted the Federal Clean Water Act when they refused to allow to two Michigan property owners to build on wetlands they owned. However, in a separate ruling, the justices refused to block the government from restricting access to distant wetlands. And the Bush administration says North Korea has apparently finished loading fuel into a ballistic missile, the latest sign that the communist state will soon test a weapon that could reach as far as Alaska.

You can hear details on those stories, and of course, much more later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION, the second in our two programs on Israel and the Palestinian territories. Last month, we heard from Palestinians. Tomorrow, we'll talk with Israelis about their lives, their politics, what they see as the way forward. That's tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION.

Now it's time for the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page. Yesterday was Father's Day, a day to appreciate one's dad or appreciate what it means to be one. Stephen Perrine is a divorced dad and the author of the forthcoming book, Desperate Husbands. In an op ed in Sunday's New York Times, he wrote that the customary way that we Americans resolve our differences in court often exacerbates an already difficult situation. He argues there ought to be a better way - mediation maybe - to help keep the acrimony down and family members talking.

If you're divorced, how do you resolve disputes over custody, visitation, and child support? Do you want the courts involved, or are you willing to negotiate? Our number is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address is talk@npr.org. Stephen Perrine is also editor in chief of Best Life Magazine. He joins us now from the studios of member station of WDIY in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Good to have you today on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. STEPHEN PERRINE (Author): It's terrific to be here, thank you.

CONAN: And first of all, a happy belated Father's Day. I know you have two girls. How did the day work out for you and your family?

Mr. PERRINE: Oh, we had a terrific time, and my father-in-law was out, and later we wound up coming into New York. We had to do a TV show, so they get to sit in the control room and watch me on TV and we had a lot of fun.

CONAN: Good. I wonder, obviously your op ed is really post-divorce. And you're beginning with divorce, which is already acrimonious to start.

Mr. PERRINE: Yeah, absolutely. Well, it often is. Sometimes, people get lucky and it isn't necessarily acrimonious. But, you know, people have egos and people have feelings and people have resentments. And both sides tend to make mistakes in the process of divorce.

CONAN: And the mistakes, you suggest, get exacerbated by the adversarial process.

Mr. PERRINE: Well, you know, mediation is available to people who know enough about the system to seek it out, and who are in communication enough to be able to agree to do it. But generally, when people get divorced, the first thing they do is call an attorney. And then the attorneys kind of hash it out and things kind of string along and acrimony increases. And what happens is we wind up with agreements that don't necessarily serve either party, and most importantly enough, they don't serve the interests of the children.

CONAN: Now, you say that in most cases, the way the situation works in most courts today - fathers like yourself, you describe yourself as being in a situation of enormous responsibilities but very little power.

Mr. PERRINE: Well, remember that we have an unusual system of child support that - during the Clinton administration's part of welfare reform, we passed something that was ingenuously titled the Parental Punishment Act. And the Parental Punishment Act of 1998 essentially gives states the ability to imprison men, to suspend their driver's licenses, to suspend their business licenses, if they fall behind in child support. And child support is generally mandated by a state following a complex series of federal guidelines. The idea was that the child support that was collected would then make up for the welfare that was being spent. So, part of welfare reform was to get these quote/unquote "dead-beat dads" to pay up so that we weren't spending our welfare dollars. But what happens is, we create a law, a parental punishment law, to kind of go after the margins of society, and mainstream society got caught in the midst of it.

And so, you know, man, there's some estimates, it's hard to tell because its only kept on a county-by-county basis…

CONAN: …but there're some estimates that between 100,000 and 140,000 men this year will see jail time because they were unable to keep up with their child support payments. We looked at one county alone, Franklin County, Ohio, and in 2005, 471 men in that county alone went to jail in 2005 because they couldn't keep up with child support payments.

CONAN: For how long?

Mr. PERRINE: Generally 30 days. But what happens is, when you go into jail, your payments continue to rack up and accrue interest. And if you've ever seen your savings grow through the magic of compound interest, you can imagine what that's like when it's turned against you. You're prevented from working, but your debts are growing and being compounded.

And by the way, that extra money?

CONAN: Um-hmm?

Mr. PERRINE: Your children never see it. That money goes to the state.

CONAN: There is, on the other end of the scale, something that you describe, or you cite, which has been described as parental alienation syndrome. And this has been cited by some fathers in terms of their visitation rights.

Mr. PERRINE: Yeah, there are a couple of high-profile cases right now, and the Alec Baldwin/Kim Basinger case is the most notable. And basically the idea of parental alienation is when a custodial parent turns the child against the non-custodial parent. And it could be very overt things, such as, you know, barring, or telling the child that the parent is dangerous or will harm them, or is irresponsible, preventing one parent's gifts or letters or cards or phone calls from getting to the child. Or it can be very subtle, you know, simple things like, well, when you go to dad's house, you be careful, because you know your dad isn't much for safety. And things like that.

Since we ran in Best Life an article on parental alienation, we've got, been getting, you know, hundreds of letters from men who have experienced this and never really were able to put a name to it. They didn't really know, why did their once close relationships with their children were suddenly not so close anymore, were suddenly being pulled apart? And you know, sometimes it's intentional, sometimes it's unintentional, but alienation does happen.

And I think anybody who's ever seen a picture of Patty Hearst holding a machine gun…

CONAN: Um-hmm.

Mr. PERRINE: …knows that children can be turned against their parents.

CONAN: Usually cited as an example of Stockholm syndrome, of course, rather than parental alienation syndrome, but I think the techniques…

Mr. PERRINE: That's true, but neither one, neither Stockholm syndrome nor parental alienation syndrome is recognized technically by the psychological community. So we have a big debate going, whether is parental alienation syndrome real or not? The same argument for that can be used for Stockholm syndrome. They have the same level of legitimacy, really.

CONAN: All right. Let's get some listeners involved in this conversation. 800-989-8255; 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org. Blair is with us, Blair calling from Greensboro, North Carolina.

BLAIR (Caller): Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

BLAIR: I'm a recently divorced dad fighting for custody for my four and a half year old son. And we currently have 50-50 custody. But I travel with him, or travel to get him, 1,200 miles every other month, and then with him for two months, without him for two months. And I live in absolute terror of what you're guest has described. It can happen to distant fathers. And that's what makes it worth fighting for.

If mediation doesn't work, I'm shooting for domiciliary custody, simply because I'm afraid of those things and I think my son is better off with me. So mediation is a grand idea, but the courts are a method of dispute resolution when mediation fails. You have to go to the courts and those have to be made more equitable than they have been over the last 30 years. My father fought for me and lost 30 years ago.

CONAN: Um-hmm.

BLAIR: And it's getting easier, but it hasn't gotten to the point of equity. And until it does, all the problems that your guests describes will never be resolved.

CONAN: Are you trying mediation?

BLAIR: We tried for a while, and we came to a baseline where each wanted my son, Lucas, for the school year.

CONAN: Um-hmm.

BLAIR: And we couldn't get past that. So now we're going to continue with litigation.

CONAN: And I guess, Steve Perrine, that's where a lot of people find themselves.

Mr. PERRINE: Apparently. I mean mediation always - I mean, when it was suggested to us, it was limited to - almost exclusively to certain states, that there's some sort of formal mediation, most notably California and Victoria.

CONAN: Right.

BLAIR: And in other states, those options aren't nearly as available.

Mr. PERRINE: Yeah. I mean, it definitely varies state to state. And so, you know, it's very - it's interesting, the experience of one man in one state is going to be wildly different than the experience of another man in another state.

But, you know, the good news is that you've had some mediation, and at least there is a dialogue going on. You know, like I said at the beginning of this, most parents never get to that stage. Most parents just huddle down behind their attorneys and expect their attorneys to duke it out.

CONAN: Um-hmm. Blair, would you say that the process of mediation helped to at least define the issues?

BLAIR: No, we had already defined them before going into mediation.

CONAN: All right.

BLAIR: Just between ourselves, in conversations over the phone, and in that I consider ourselves fortunate in that we're doing, perhaps, I don't want to say better than most because that sounds arrogant, but we are communicating and trying to resolve it. But it's going to come down to the courts. Someone else has to make the decision, because both of us - myself and my ex-wife - feel that what we want is best for our son. And we both have reasons for that, and whether or not I think hers or valid and whether or not she thinks mine are valid are really not for me to say. We just got to the point where we can't go any farther.

And also, it seemed interesting that the organized mediation that was available on the West Coast was also sponsored through attorneys, so it seemed really to me another way, under the guise of a good divorce, or a good custody settlement, to once again send off huge amounts of money to attorneys. I spent almost a third of my yearly income on this, and I'm not even a third of the way through it. It makes it harder for me to provide for my son. It makes it harder for me to start a new life. And it's made it harder for her to start a new life.

CONAN: Stephen Perrine, an undercurrent of your piece is - and the enormous amounts going to the lawyers.

Mr. PERRINE: Yeah. I would say that it's definitely an issue. You know, lawyers are not incentivized to push people toward mediation. They're incentivized to lead the charge. And so there needs to be some sort of, whether it is a mandatory mediation process, or something of that nature to kind of force parents to come together in the process of the divorce. The fact is, you can't ever really get divorced if you have children.

CONAN: Blair, thanks very much for the call. Good luck to you.

BLAIR: Thank you very much.

CONAN: All right. We're talking today about fathers and family courts, divorces, separations, and visitation rights, custody issues. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get another caller on the line. This is Dylan, Dylan calling us from Hillsboro, in Oregon.

DYLAN (Caller): Hi, Neal.

CONAN: Hi.

DYLAN: Great conversation. Yeah, I'm a divorced dad myself, and, you know, you touched on a lot of great points. Like, it is a partnership even after you get divorced. And that's why I don't like to use the phrase single dad, because I'm not. Because, you know, I still have a great partnership with my ex-wife, and, you know, we went to the lawyers right off the bat and they just pitted us against each other. And I called her and said, you know, this isn't going to work. Let's try mediation.

CONAN: Um-hmm.

DYLAN: She agreed, and, you know, it's not a magic bullet, but it took a lot of the sting out and kind of freed up some energy to focus on the important things, you know, raising the child, and rebuilding your own life, you know.

CONAN: And was this in Oregon?

DYLAN: Yes.

CONAN: Yeah, okay. Steve Perrine, it sounds like in this case, as Dylan is saying, nothing's perfect, but at least in this case mediation seemed to help.

Mr. PERRINE: Yeah, and in this case, the two adults were able to kind of step outside of the lawyers and the conflict and say, hey, let's solve this on our own. And that's a terrific thing.

But you know, I think that we need a system that encourages parents to be able to do that, and make them aware that mediation is available and urges them to follow through.

CONAN: Hmm. Interesting, you cited a study done by child psychologist Robert Emory, in which divorcing parents were assigned by a flip of a coin to either mediate or litigate their custody disputes. Twelve years later, he found that in families that went through mediation, the non-custodial parent was five times more likely to have weekly phone contact with his or her children. But the system our government has set up essentially forces divorced parents into litigation. So…

Mr. PERRINE: Right. It's exactly - our system is exactly what you should not do if you want to keep both parents intimately involved in the child's life. And that's why recent studies have shown that one in five children of divorce has not seen their father in the last 12 months.

CONAN: Dylan, when is the last time you saw your kids?

DYLAN: I have joint custody, so I have them Sunday to Sunday every week. And I actually had them, you know, I actually took a few days off and spent the last five days with them, hanging out. We went to the beach. And we have a great time.

CONAN: It sounds like it was a pretty great Father's Day.

DYLAN: Yeah. You know, in fact, my ex-wife brought me a peach pie that she made you know? So I think, if we had stuck with the lawyers they would have driven a huge wedge between us. And not only us, but also the extended family, you know? He has - him and I both have contact with her parents, you know. We have a great relationship. And that, it just adds to the, you know, another level of richness to his life that I think would have been missed had we gone through the courts and been, you know, pitted against each other for custody and money and this and that, you know. So it was a great experience. I would recommend it to anybody, to at least try, you know?

CONAN: Yep.

DYLAN: If it doesn't work, move on, like the last caller. But, and we also were fortunate to live in the same town, you know. That guy lives…

CONAN: Not the 1,200 mile issue that he has.

DYLAN: Yeah, that's a huge variance, you know?

CONAN: Yep.

DYLAN: I think anybody would have a hard time with that.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Dylan. We appreciate it.

DYLAN: Thank you.

CONAN: That factor of distance that one of our previous callers cited, Steve Perrine, that seems to weigh heavily in a lot of cases, especially for divorced men.

Mr. PERRINE: Well, certainly. I mean, my full-time residence is about 100 miles from where my children live, so I also bought a home nearby them so that we could spend our weekends together. But there is that stress of commute, and what happens is parents have to make a decision as to, you know, what they're going to do and how much they're willing to sacrifice to stay close to their children.

What we sort of forget is that at the moment of divorce there's a snapshot of what mom looks like and what dad looks like. And three years or five years or eight years down the road, those snapshots change. And maybe mom or dad gets remarried, and maybe they become responsible for other people, other spouses, other children, perhaps stepchildren. And so it's not as simple as, okay, we'll just, you know, stay there, you know, right near your kids so you can see them, because you have other responsibilities to other people.

CONAN: Stephen Perrine, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. PERRINE: I appreciate it. Thank you.

CONAN: Stephen Perrine is editor-in-chief of Best Life Magazine joined us today from the studios of member station WDIY in Lehigh, Pennsylvania. Stephen Perrine is the author of the forthcoming book, Desperate Husbands.

And if you'd like to take a look at his op-ed that was in yesterday's New York Times, you can see a link to it on our Web page, that's npr.org. And there's a link to all of our previous opinion pages that you've heard on this broadcast ever Monday.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

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