BRADENTON -- A Bradenton psychologist who specializes in getting parents going through a relationship split to shield their children from conflict has taken her expertise to a European nation experiencing a spike of divorces.
Last week, Debra Carter was in Rome, teaching 100 court-appointed family advocates and members of the highest court in the Province of Rome how to get battling parents to prevent their breakups from hurting their kids through instability, fear and even domestic violence. Her work may get a new system of working with families of divorce written into Italian law.
Carter is one of the architects of the parenting coordination method Florida courts have used since 2008 to assist split parents. She has been working with the Italians for the past two years to help courts in the overwhelmingly Catholic country deal with a divorce crisis.
As the European economic crisis persists in Italy and other nations, the rate of divorce in the province of Rome has spiked to 50 percent, roughly equal to that in the United States. The strife caused by these divorces is exacerbated by an Italian law that requires married couples to wait three years between filing for divorce and having their case heard in court.
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On top of that, Carter said, the Italian economy is so bad that many couples can't afford separate residences, forcing them to live unhappily in the same household.
The effects of this can be devastating on children.
"They want to separate, they're
in high conflict and the children are exposed to this conflict and sometimes violence," Carter told the Bradenton Herald in an interview from Rome last week.
A highlight of her trip came when Carter spoke to assembled members of the Roman judiciary. At day's end, Judge Silvia Albano, who had questioned the value of parenting coordination, and Judge Stefania Ciaini announced they are convinced that method must be integrated into the Italian family law.
Carter, 57, owns and operates Carter Psychology Center out of three locations in Manatee and Sarasota counties. She wound up teaching parenting coordination in Rome after an Italian psychologist, Silvia Mazzoni, attended a talk she gave on the subject in France in 2010.
Mazzoni later purchased a book Carter wrote on the subject, learned enough English to read it, then invited Carter to train a group of Roman psychologists, social workers and family mediators to work with families in need of parenting help while going through breakups.
Parenting coordination is based in assisting parents to write a detailed parenting plan. Some states, including Florida, require such a plan to be part of a divorce proceeding when children are involved under certain circumstances. The plans can also be put in place in cases in which parents have never been a couple or have not been married to each other.
The plans lay out details about when and with which parent children will spend their days and nights, how their medical care will be provided, where they will go to school and all other details of a child's life.
The method also takes some of the stigma out of a co-parenting relationship. In the old "child custody" model, the parent who children lived with most of the time was referred to as the "primary parent," while the other was considered the "visiting parent." The terminology was damaging to the family relationship.
"The nomenclature alone was polarizing," Carter said. "One parent should not get arbitrary treatment over the other. It's about the kids' needs."
Is the program effective?
Parenting coordinators help parents write the plans. Those coordinators are also required to inform the court if the plans are violated in any way that will endanger the health or welfare of a child.
Carter said she knows that parenting coordination works. She's completed two phases of a study evaluating the effectiveness of the process.
On a personal level, she worked through her own divorce using principals of the practice to normalize the lives of her three children as much as possible. She and her ex-husband drew up an agreement under which the children lived with Carter in the couple's marital home and stayed in the schools they had previously attended. The agreement assured their father of adequate contact with the children.
By the time Florida law made parental coordination a tool in family court, Carter had been using it with couples and teaching it to mental health and legal professionals for about a decade. Michelle Artman-Smith, who was the family court manager for the 12th District Circuit Court in Manatee County in 2008, said Carter not only helped develop the training program for the court, but supplied much of the documentation the court uses to this day. She still trains court professionals and also often provides her services pro bono to work with volunteer mediators.
"She's always done everything she could possibly do to make sure the quality of the professionals in our circuit was top notch," said Artman-Smith, who has since become the alternative dispute resolution program director for the court. "I joke with her about her being the busiest woman I've ever known."
Sharing with Italians
Carter's trip to Italy is her second for the purpose of teaching parenting coordination. This time, she's teaching an advanced course to professionals who work directly with families in crisis. She is also meeting with justices sitting on Rome's family court.
Carter speaks some Italian, and understands enough to get by. But her mission is to impart enough knowledge to Roman family law professionals to allow them to teach their own courses.
"It's better if people in that culture do the training," she said. "I can't know all the nuances, I'm an American."
While in Europe, Carter is also making a stop in Barcelona, Spain to do another parenting coordination training.
Carter earned her doctorate in psychology from the University of Michigan. She moved to Bradenton in 1984 and started Carter Psychology Center in 1987. She has taught the parenting coordination process throughout the United States and in Canada. She and her colleague, Michael Spellman, operate the National Cooperative Parenting Center in Bradenton.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.