On July 8, 2021 Chief Justice John Casey of the MA Probate and Family Courts announced a suspension to the requirement for divorcing parents to complete the mandatory parent education program specified in the court’s Standing Order 2-16, Parent Education Program Attendance, issued in 2016.
The announcement surprised many MA divorce lawyers and mediators. Besides our weekly reminders to some clients to finish the program prior to their case concluding, feedback about the program from our clients – which went remote like most everything else during the coronavirus pandemic – was mostly positive.
When I first heard this news, I expected some form of replacement program would also be announced. The news was an abrupt and significant change to a relatively long-standing requirement intended to help divorcing parents communicate better with each other, keep kids away from conflict, and help educate about other parenting-related topics. It was clear from Judge Casey’s announcement that the program and the providers had some shortcomings, and the court provided details supporting their decision.
Why was the current parenting education program terminated?
Below is a summary of the reasons included in the court’s announcement for suspending the parenting education program in Massachusetts:
- The Probate & Family Court began researching the parenting education program in 2018. Judge Casey notes that the pandemic understandably required many changes in court operations (and likely delayed additional findings about the parenting program). Their internal assessment revealed several concerns. This review led to the suspension of the program and will be followed by further reevaluation about the program’s future.
- The court’s announcement references an interesting Boston Magazine article from November 2020 by Catherine Elton, titled Is Massachusetts Shaming Divorced Parents? The article may be found online here: Is Massachusetts Shaming Divorced Parents? (bostonmagazine.com). While Ms. Elton describes her personal reaction to the course and makes several interesting observations, it is not to say that her personal reaction to the course is the same for everyone.
- Massachusetts in one of only 17 states that required all divorcing parents to complete an approved parenting education class. In some states, it is up to the Judge’s discretion, or required for contested divorces only.
- The court’s standing orders treat married and never-married parents differently. While divorcing parents were required to complete the program, never-married parents involved with the Probate and Family Court were not mandated to complete the parenting class, although a judge could order attendance.
- No data exists to confirm the parenting education program produced the desired goals. Since the program began in 1994, the program was never evaluated by anyone – inside the court system or externally. Research was never conducted to determine if the expected benefits of the parenting education program were being met.
- There is no requirement that the program must be evidenced-based. Evidence-based programs have a high likelihood of producing positive results on the targeted issues, have been carefully evaluated, and generate evidence that the program would improve child, parent, and/or family functioning.
- Course providers have broad latitude to develop their own program content – and perhaps took too much latitude is some ways as you will see below.
Shenanigans By Most Program Providers
Twenty-two in-state organizations were approved program providers. The court’s announcement discloses several problems with the operations of parent education providers. I applaud the court’s transparency with sharing this information.
- Every provider failed to request re-approval by the court every two years as required by the court’s guidelines.
- Some “appear to have” (the court’s language) repeatedly failed to request re-approval on more than one due date.
- Of the 22 program providers, less than half of them regularly submitted attendance, insurance, and fee-waiver data as required by the guidelines.
Managing the Parent Education Program is Burdensome for the Probate & Family Court
Managing the program providers created administrative burdens for the court’s administrative office, as noted in the court’s decision to suspend the program. While only 22 authorized providers exist, 12 of them had multiple sites, resulting in 60 separate court-approved provider sites throughout the Commonwealth. It is likely that fewer court resources would have been necessary if the program providers followed the guidelines.
The court includes five recommendations in their announcement:
- Survey judges and other key stakeholders to determine whether the MA parenting education classes should be mandatory in all cases, only for some cases, or if it should be left to the discretion of the judge.
- The court will consider designing a follow-up study of parents who participated thein the program to measure outcomes such as re-litigation rates and sustained child adjustment. Establish an annual evaluation of any parent education program offered with a report to the Chief Justice of the Probate and Family Court.
- Review the need for multiple providers to administer the parenting program and consider offering one evidence-based parent education program that includes “proven strategies that track participant outcomes” in an online, self-paced and/or remote format.
- Ensure that all parents are treated equally and receive the same benefits and quality when required by the court to participate in a parent education course.
- Consider establishing a steering committee of judges, parenting professionals, attorneys, and Administrative Office of the Probate and Family Court to make additional recommendations.
There does not appear to be a simple fix to re-establishing a parenting education program. Parents and families have varying challenges ranging from virtually none to significant. It is worth considering a change to the approach that all parents must take such a program. As noted in the Boston Magazine article, there are plenty of married parents who might benefit from better parenting skills, while there are plenty of divorcing parents that are excellent parents that continue to parent effectively during and after divorce.
Do I need to take the class or not?
NO – If your divorce case is filed after July 12, 2021, a parent education certificate is not required.
Yes – If your case was filed on or before July 11, 2021, you must submit your parent education certificate.
All court-approved providers must cease their classes by August 31, 2021.
Stephen F. McDonough is the owner of Next Phase Legal & Dispute Resolution LLC, a divorce and family law firm located in Norfolk, MA. Stephen is also an experienced mediator and a parenting coordinator. For more information, please visit NextPhaseLegal.com.