Melissa was filled with dread in early 2022 when ordered by a Massachusetts family court judge to take a parenting class with the estranged father of her child.

She had no desire to participate in sessions with the man she says abused her and her elementary school–aged child.

But fearing losing custody, Melissa — who asked us not to use her last name — agreed to pay $900 to take a remote course titled “High-conflict Parent Education” from William James College in Newton.

“I left my abuser, and I expected protection,’’ Melissa told GBH News recently. Instead, she said, “I have been court-ordered to be back in a relationship with him.”

What followed were nine weeks of 3-hour classes. The “high-conflict” parenting course involved homework assignments where parents were asked to find "positive traits" about each other, consider ways not to irritate one another, and phone calls to discuss common goals.

Supporters of the class — estimated to have been taken by some 600 parents over the last decade — say it is meant to protect children from the debilitating “toxic stress” caused by living between battling parents. But critics say the course is causing unneeded trauma, especially for victims of domestic violence.

The debate comes amid a broader discussion about how to improve court-order classes for separated parents — and, in some circles, whether there is any benefit at all. For years, divorcing parents in Massachusetts were required to take a shorter, less expensive parenting course — one of 17 states to do so. But the requirement has been suspended since 2021 over questions about the classes’ consistency and effectiveness.

Melissa is one of a handful of women who talked to GBH News about their concerns with the more intensive class for “high-conflict” parents. It's the only known such program in the state, distinctive because of its cost, length and requirement that "high-conflict" parents take the class together. All of the women say they were too frightened of repercussions to their fragile families to speak on the record. They describe the class as, “shaming,” “cult-like” and “creepy.”

Several women told GBH News they felt unsafe in the class, even when held remotely during the pandemic, sometimes forced to be in unmonitored breakout sessions with their estranged partners.

One woman from Middlesex County told GBH News said she was horrified her case’s judge ordered her to take the class. “I was very sickened that I would have to attend such an intimate class with my ex-husband, who is a very abusive man,’’ she said.

She took the class, but said it felt like a cult. “They would literally call you out, right in front of everybody and say, ‘You’re doing it wrong, you’re damaging your child. You do it our way,’” she said.

Another woman sent GBH News an essay she wrote about the experience — written to express her frustration. In it, she said, “I was instructed to write down the ways that I trigger my abuser's anger and what I can do different in the future, so my children would enjoy better academic and emotional outcomes. I was tempted to write down, ‘breathing.’”

Now a Boston College law lab is circulating a “white paper” that substantiates some of the women’s concerns. The authors say the “high-conflict” course is not regulated by the state, can take months to complete, and, “most worryingly,” forces some parents who’ve suffered domestic abuse to take classes at the same time.

“Parents ordered to take the class have legitimate worry,’’ the paper concludes. If the state suspended a parenting class out of concerns about “compliance with certification criteria,” the report questions, how can a class not regulated by the state be allowed to continue, and parents ordered by judges to participate?

Claire Donohue, an assistant clinical professor at Boston College Law School and lead author of the report, says she launched the inquiry at the behest of two former participants, one of whom was Melissa. Researchers asked for information from William James about the program, she said, but never received any documentation or response.

Donohue hopes that the report will fuel a conversation about the program and a wider debate about court-ordered parenting classes in Massachusetts.

“It feels a little weird. It’s like being sent to the school of good parenting,’’ Donohue said. “Who’s to say just because my marriage falls apart ... now all of sudden I have to open myself to the advice and the opinions of absolute strangers?”

Court officials declined to comment specifically about the Boston College report. In an email response to questions last year, court officials said the court does “not regulate or oversee” the William James course and directed a GBH News reporter to reach out to the college with further questions.

“The Probate and Family Court is aware of concerns from some [participants] and lawyers related to high conflict parenting courses,” the statement said. “The general focus of most parenting courses is to educate parents on the harm that can occur to children when exposed to parental conflict and how to co-parent.”

In July 2021, John Casey, chief justice of the Probate and Family Court, suspended the mandatory class for all divorcing parents after determining that the class could not prove its effectiveness and individual providers "failed to adhere" to reporting guidelines. The chief justice's decision followed an article published in Boston Magazine titled, “Is Massachusetts shaming divorced parents?” — a story Casey pointed to while explaining his decision.

Court officials told GBH News that they are working to re-launch the state-required program with an “updated, evidence-based” curriculum. State guidelines from 2010 mandate the program runs for at least two sessions totaling at least five hours at a cost of no more than $80 per parent, with the possibility of a fee waiver. Spouses were required to attend different sessions.

Court officials originally planned to start a new course in the fall, but delayed the launch after concerns from some legal service attorneys. The new course will apply to “married and unmarried parents where there are contested issues of custody and parenting time,” court officials told GBH News earlier in January.

Jamie Sabino, attorney with the Boston-based Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, told GBH News that a group of lawyers had raised issues with the new program, partly concerned that victims of domestic violence would feel they needed to attend courses, even separately. However, she said court officials are working to address those concerns, providing clearer notice to victims they can ask for a waiver.

Sabino says she's much more concerned about problems with the William James course.

“I’ve heard many reports of people, where there’s domestic violence, where there have been restraining orders — and they’re cooking dinner for the other side and being told they have to say nice things about their partner,” she said. “Our clients are trying to figure out how they can parent on their own after the trauma of the relationship and the divorce. And this is extremely traumatic.”

The William James program now costs $950 per parent for the in-person course that includes three-hour classes held over nine weeks, where both parents are required to attend, according to the college website. There is no fee waiver for lower-income parents.

A sign reading William James College in front of a large industrial size building.
William James College in Newton on Jan. 5, 2023.
Jenifer McKim GBH News

William James officials defended the program in several emails to GBH News over the last year.

Kelly Casey, managing director of the college's Department of Forensic & Clinical Services, wrote in an email earlier this month that the course is based on a “successful” Kids First Center in Maine and was designed by experienced behavioral health practitioners.

“Research finds that children in high conflict home environments show the significant effects of psychological stress,” she wrote. “Over many years, the Courts and participants have seen great value in the program and continue to recommend it to parents and their coordinators.”

In another email last year, Jessica Greenwald O'Brien, then-director of the school’s Center of Excellence for Children, Families and the Law, wrote that people who have active restraining orders can ask a judge to pull them out of the class — but the judge has final say. In general, college officials don’t accept parents who have experienced “violence within the six months prior to intake,” she wrote.

“We are attempting to move coparents to a point where they can have basic, civil, information-based communications on their own regarding their children,” said O’Brien, who has since left the college for another job.

Melissa says she was required to take the class amid continuing conflicts with the father of her child, someone she never married and had been with for less than two years before their separation.

She felt obligated to comply or risk losing custody of her child. “You don’t really have a choice, especially when [the judge] says you can’t come back to court until you’ve passed the class,” she said.

In late December 2022, Melissa completed the course. It wasn’t until the following November she received notice that she had passed. She said even receiving the certification brought back unwanted emotions of dread and shame. Over the last year, she joined a group of women who connect online to discuss the trauma they experienced while in the class and seek ways to shine light on the problem.

“Everyone is complaining about it. Everyone is experiencing trauma. Everyone thinks it’s inappropriate,’’ she said. “This will keep going until we call them out.”