Enhancing Families Through Literature: An Innovative Way To Decrease Conflict

fosterby Hon. Richard A. Simons

Voice of the Judiciary

As trial court judges, we sit in a unique position to place the litigants who appear before us on a path toward changing behaviors that have previously led to poor decision making.  For example, in the context of the Probate and Family Court, judges routinely issue orders to (a) coerce a recalcitrant parent to honor his/her financial obligations toward his/her children; (b) create incentives for a parent suffering from substance abuse disorder to obtain treatment by predicating access to children upon engaging in treatment; and (c) address issues of violence in the home by ordering enrollment in intimate partner violence prevention programs.  At times, these interventions have been successful in changing the trajectory of an entire family’s life.

A unique feature in the Probate and Family Court is that many of our cases go on for years.  While we may be successful in resolving the issues in a divorce or unmarried custody case, we often times see the parties again and again on subsequent complaints for modification or complaints for civil contempt.  Not only do these frequent case filings crowd our busy dockets and drain valuable court resources, but they also foment inter-parental conflict which adversely impacts their children’s emotional adjustment and development.  In my time on the bench, I have even begun to hear the disputes of grown children born of parents over whose custody cases I have presided.  The cycle of poor decision-making and ineffective conflict resolution continues unabated.

In the fall of 2013, my Chief Probation Officer, Amy Koenig, and I attended a Judicial Institute training program for courts considering starting a Changing Lives Through Literature (“CLTL”) program in their court.  We arrived curious yet somewhat skeptical.  A few hours later however, we left the program energized and inspired.  We heard from Judges Robert Kane, Rosalind Miller and Kathe Tuttman, who passionately shared their observations of how the study of literature was used as a tool by probationers to change their behavior.  College professors and probation officers joined the chorus of describing the success of this alternate sentencing program.

On the car ride back to the Berkshires, Chief Koenig and I began to brainstorm how we could make this program work in the Probate and Family Court.  We faced unique challenges in our court that those in other trial court departments did not have to confront.  We do not have litigants “on probation” in the Probate and Family Court.  How would we mandate attendance?  Who should attend the program?  Mothers? Fathers?  Should the parties attend together?  If they were to attend the program together, what child care coverage should be made available for their children?  What time of day could we have such a program when time is at such a premium for young working families?

These challenges provided opportunities to explore and create a meaningful program for young families who find themselves in the midst of a child custody dispute in the Probate and Family Court.  Holding onto the essential ingredients of the successful program of CLTL, we developed a twelve week intervention program called, Enhancing Families Through Literature (“EFTL”). The court issues an Order requiring the parties to attend the program along with their children.  Monetary sanctions (or community service orders for indigent litigants) are imposed for any non-compliance with the court’s Order.  Chief Koenig and I participate with the families in each of the sessions.

The program takes place at our local library once per week for twelve weeks, from 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.  The evening begins with parents enjoying a catered meal together with their children.  At 5:30, the parents retire to one area of the library, and the children go to a separate area.  For the first eight weeks, the parents participate in a traditional “CLTL” formatted program.  Our facilitator, Professor Matthew Müller, from Berkshire Community College, leads a discussion on assigned readings, including works by Raymond Carver, William Faulkner and Franz Kafka.  While the parents are studying literature, the children are participating in a program led by four certified Head Start Teachers called “Every Child Ready To Read Program” developed by the Association for Library Service to Children and the Public Library Association.

The final four weeks of the program consist of an interactive program among parents and children led by the early childhood educators.  They teach about the importance of the word in parenting.  Reading to children is modeled for parents.  Parents and children work on projects together.  At the conclusion of each of the twelve sessions, each child is given a book, so that by the end of the program the child’s library has increased by 12 books.

The program culminates in a graduation ceremony at the courthouse.  In addition to gifts of books awarded to all participants and children, Berkshire Community College issues a transcript to each parent documenting an earned college credit.  Participants speak and share what the program meant to them and their family.  One of the speakers at last years’ graduation proudly shared the following:

My time in the literature segment with Professor Müller gave me a chance to experience literature that I’ve never read before.  His approach, great personality brought the words of those stories to life.  Admittedly I couldn’t understand why our selected readings were so dark and almost never had the traditional “happy ending” or resolution.  Then it dawned on me recently; Perspective.  Perspective is everything, not only in literature but it applies to real life in many ways by giving us a dose of allegorical reality.  Never judge a book by its cover, and never judge a person too quickly or you might miss out on someone that could change your life forever.          

The study of literature within this magic framework of classes with a judge, probation officer and college professor challenges participants to see the world through different eyes. During class, participants hear differing views and interpretations of the same stories from classmates.  Imagining how each character in a story feels often leads to eye-opening discussions.  The discussions lead to listening.  Listening leads to tolerance.  Tolerance leads to acceptance.  Acceptance leads to communication.  Communication leads to better conflict resolution.

People share their thoughts, without judgment, and in doing so provide themselves and their co-parent with important insights and understanding.  One year, we were a discussing the short story, “Bodies” by Phil Klay, an American writer and Iraq veteran.  One of the participants was a man who was deployed several times to the Middle East and rarely displayed any emotions other than anger.  He began to open up and shared how his feelings toward deployments changed after the birth of his son.   What I did not realize at the time was that this statement broke the ice between him and his child’s mother.  She confided in the instructor that she never knew he prioritized his son in that fashion.  From that point, on they began to talk and compare notes about their son.

The benefits of this program continue to unfold.  Parents begin to see themselves as a team raising their child rather than adversaries in a courtroom.  In addition, the wonder of reading to children is spread to families that might not have experienced this joy before.  Parents experience how snuggling and reading with a child opens up communication between parent and child as well.  Most important, the overwhelming majority of these families resolve their pending cases by agreement as they begin the journey of resolving future conflicts through communication and negotiation.

As with other worthwhile programs offered in the Trial Court, Enhancing Families Through Literature empowers litigants to make lasting changes in their behavior, leading to better decisions for them and for their children.

Judge Simons is the First Justice of the Berkshire Division of the Probate and Family Court. In 2016, he and Chief Koenig were recognized by AFCC for innovation in a court-connected program. 

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