When two victims of domestic violence told Claire Donohue they had been court-mandated to participate in a parenting program with their abusers, she took it upon herself to look into high-conflict parenting classes and compile research to raise awareness.
“I hoped—and I think it’s proving to be true—that it would be an invitation for people to look at the program and ask some of the questions that we had,” Donohue said.
Donohue, an assistant clinical professor at Boston College Law School as well as SSW and BC Law ’05, and a team of law students published a research report on the history and implications of court-ordered programs.
According to Donohue, the lack of understanding about what qualifies a couple as a high-conflict case can lead judges to make false assumptions about family dynamics.
“[The parents] are presenting themselves as a party who is disagreeing, and yet that disagreement is weaponized against them,” Donohue said. “They are assuming that the disagreement that is playing out in front of them is also playing out in front of the child. And I think that’s a big assumption because sometimes families do keep it together at home in a way that they don’t in court.”
One of these high-conflict parenting programs, run through William James College, is nine weeks, costs $900, and is a mix of therapeutic and educational experiences that focus on group discussions to target parental dynamics, according to Donohue.
“What I don’t think was there was any baseline education about childhood development, about childhood psychology, about children in conflict generally,” Donohue said. “Instead, there was this sort of discussion group, almost like a group therapy modality, talking about how damaging conflict is for children, asking people to really own the fact that they were these terrible parents who were fighting with one another.”
Donohue said the program created a rigid definition of what it means to be a good parent, and its assignments created an unsafe environment for anyone escaping an abusive relationship.
“It just seemed rather authoritarian to be like, ‘This is what good parenting looks like, and this is what is definitely good for kids, so you just have to do it’,” Donohue said. “And it becomes really problematic when you layer on that you might actually be asking this level of interpersonal intimacy … from people who are actually in a regime of abuse.”
Margie Palladino, BC Law ’85 and co-founder of the Mass Family Advocate Coalition (MFAC), said her biggest concern about the program was how it affects domestic abuse survivors.
“The most alarming concern is that in high-conflict cases, they require both parents to attend the classes,” Palladino said. “In cases where one parent is alleged to be abusive, the victim, or the other parent, is required to be in the class with their alleged abuser.”
Meeting with survivors who had been forced into these programs with their abusers prompted Donohue to examine the program and its relationship with the Massachusetts family court system, she said.
“So, at first, we were quite interested to know what is this program about?” Donohue said. “Why is it that courts have now developed—some courts—a real habit of ordering people to this program,” Donohue said.
After suffering setbacks in their original research plan, including stonewalling by William James College, Donohue and her team began to focus on comparing the various therapeutic and educational programs that already existed in the Massachusetts Probate and Family Court.
“I thought, okay, changing gears—let’s just take a look at how this program is situated within this larger movement of this ‘therapeutic movement’ that I see happening in courts,” Donohue said.
According to Donohue, the research findings made way for three recommendations to the Massachusetts family court system: increased transparency, evaluation of the programming and the court’s relationship with the programming, and better protocols to handle domestic violence cases.
“We had a case where one of the women who had contacted us, she had an active restraining order and an open investigation by the Department of Children and Families against her ex and was nonetheless ordered into the program,” Donohue said. “So that, to me, was shocking.”
Both Palladino and Donohue raised concerns over the efficacy of court-mandated programs.
“Usually anything that is forced does not result in a great outcome,” Palladino said. “People have to want to change. People have to want to do something that’s in the best interest of their children.”
According to Donohue, the court currently exerts itself too much in families’ lives. She plans to examine further its relationship and what role it needs to play, she said.
“It’s one thing to acknowledge that families are more nuanced … and messy, so we need to not try to go in with this really adversarial civil litigation model, it’s another to think it’s our job to recalibrate and really enter the lives of families,” Donohue said. “I don’t think anyone really wants the court in their life for a long time.”
Palladino praised the work of Donohue and her team for the legitimacy it gave to the problems the MFAC deals with.
“I look at BC Law and academia as disruptors to the system because they’re outsiders that are looking at the system, seeing what’s wrong with it and finding ways to create discussion about the problems and to effect change in the system,” Palladino said.