Breaking Barriers: An Exciting and Innovative Program for Alienated and Estranged Children
*Breaking Barriers is now known as Overcoming Barriers
After struggling for years with some of the most difficult and heartbreaking post-divorce family situations – where a child has rejected one of their parents – three AFCC members designed, funded and conducted an innovative and intensive clinical approach to work with families called “Breaking Barriers Camp”. Five families participated in three and a half days of psycho-educational groups, strategic interventions, and enjoyable family camp activities this summer at Common Ground Center in Starksboro, Vermont. Families (including both the parent(s) the children live with, the “rejected parent and all children) came from Arizona, Florida, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Toronto, Canada. In four of the five families, one parent (either mother or father) had had no contact with a child for at least 6 months and some up to two years. Most parents had been involved in litigation for years and only spoken with each other in the Courthouse. After this intensive program these initial results were noted:
- Every child had multiple connections, including direct interactions with the estranged parent
- The majority of participants rated their experience a 5 on a 5-point scale, with the rest rating it a 4
- Both parents in each family, many of whom had not spoken outside of the courtroom, met together successfully at least once
- Four of the five families left with a mutually agreed upon after care plan to build on the parent-child connections and co-parenting progress that had been made
Breaking Barrier’s camp began with a brainstorming group in MA, and, true to the tradition of AFCC innovation, included judges, attorneys and mental health professionals. Peggie Ward (MA) and Robin Deutsch (MA and AFCC current President) quickly recruited Matt Sullivan (CA) to join the clinical team. We knew that we would only have a successful program if: all members of a family system participated in the program, the program was “off-site” with over night accommodations for each “group”, included intensive group work for parents and children, offered many recreational opportunities for children and parents to participate, and offered a tremendous amount of support for every small step taken toward reunification between rejected parent and children. Common Ground Center Family Camp provided the complement to the clinical aspects of the program with a breathtakingly beautiful site, rustic cabins that slept up to six people for parents (divided by gender, mixed as to family “role”), cabins for children and an incredibly skilled, dedicated and charismatic staff who did projects and activities during the day, and slept in the cabins with each group at night.
Camp days began at 6 AM with Yoga and continued through campfires and song until 9 PM. Groups were assigned: Matt led the West Group (parents who had little to no relationship with their children); Peggie led the East Group (parents who played various roles in keeping the children aligned to them and away from the other parent) and Robin ran the “Common Ground” group (for all the children and adolescents). Groups ran for 3 hours in the morning followed by afternoons with structured, strategically planned camp activities. Peggie, Robin and Matt took every opportunity available from noon until 9 PM to intervene with constellations of family members to create bridges for children and parents or parents and parents to connect with one another. The families, after their work in the morning groups, were remarkably open to all interventions and actively engaged with staff to support the goals of the camp. Communication and coordination was key and the camp director (Carole Blane) was the communication link between camp staff and clinicians. Peggie, Robin and Matt met each morning before group to incorporate any needed changes to the group program and at lunch to plan the afternoon “interventions”. Dinner provided yet another opportunity for clinicians to regroup and plan evening interventions. The camp in July ran from Wednesday evening until Saturday at 1 PM, followed by exit interviews for all. No one left without a clear roadmap for follow-up work with professionals in their home towns. By Saturday afternoon Peggie, Robin and Matt as well as the entire camp staff were both elated and exhausted as the families made their emotional departures. Staff debriefing was essential and planning for next year ended mid-day Sunday.
We were encouraged by the positive impact that many of the conceptual innovations of the camp program provided to these extremely difficult family relationship issues. The program brought highly conflicted co-parents and their children together to work on identified issues in working groups run by skilled leaders. The camp provided a rich array of activities and opportunities for connection and communication between family members, and clinical interventions were delivered wherever and whenever opportunity presented. We helped build bridges to more positive relationships where only alienation and estrangement had existed. The aligned parents learned the importance of the other parent in their children’s lives and their interactions with all of the parents helped them understand other points of view. The rejected parents were grateful to be able to see their children, interact in more constructive ways with each other and learn other parent’s experiences. The children not only felt heard, but found a group of peers with similar experiences where none had existed in their lives before. They all left reporting that they felt more “normal” and more hopeful. By the end of the camp many of the children thought that future programs should focus on helping the parents communicate and co-parent more effectively.
It wasn’t easy – but initial feedback suggests it was successful. We plan to do follow-up with the families at the 6-month point and to build on this pilot program next year (July 20 – 25) for five ½ days (every family wanted it to be longer). Robin, Matt and Peggie, as well as the Common Ground Staff will all return. We have areas where we need improvement – but we have the successful scaffolding on which to build. One challenge that emerged was the difficulty in obtaining commitments from those families who did not have a court order to attend. After, interviewing 25 families, four of the five families who attended did so with a court order. While not all family members referred were accepted, conversations with the AFCC custody evaluators and Parenting Coordinators helped our decision making process.
Many of these families would not have had the opportunity to attend had it not been for the terrific support of AFCC members who not only provided informed and thoughtful referrals, but also provided individually donated initial funding that allowed this program to proceed. This was very much an AFCC supported project.