Tens of thousands of parents in Massachusetts will once again be required to take a co-parenting course when they’re negotiating a parenting plan in the family courts.
Massachusetts started requiring these courses for divorcing parents 30 years ago, but Chief Justice John D. Casey, who leads the commonwealth’s Probate and Family Court, suspended the practice two and a half years ago. He cited, among other things, a Boston Magazine piece that described how parents felt “shamed” by the state-provided educational course. He also shared worries about quality control, since the classes were independently run by several providers and not regulated by the courts.
Starting Monday, instead of a patchwork of nearly two dozen providers, every parent will now take the same four-hour, online-only course on their own time: “Two Families Now.” And instead of being required for all divorcing parents, it will required be for any parents — whether they’re divorcing or were never married at all — if they don’t agree on a parenting plan. Couples pursuing an uncontested divorce will no longer need to take it.
“The Probate and Family Court believes this course will help parents better navigate the challenges that arise in cases with contested issues of custody and parenting time,” a representative for the court told GBH News in an email. “The course aims to educate parents about the harms parental conflict has on children and tools they can implement to reduce conflict.”
The “Two Families Now” course was created several years ago and has been updated to represent different ways that families are formed, like LGBTQ+ families, according to Adam Wendt, the CEO of the Oregon-based educational technology company Trifoia, which created the course. Wendt says he’s impressed with the Massachusetts court for being forward-thinking and standardizing the course so that parents receive the same instruction on handling stressors and communicating.
“Go online and just type, ‘Florida divorce course,’ OK? There are thousands of them, and they are horrible. Many of them are absolute, just horrible,” Wendt said, though he stressed that every state has its own approach. “It’s just a bunch of reading, it’s not instructionally designed well to meet people's needs. It’s just a course that they pay 20 bucks, 30 bucks for that checks a box.”
Many family law attorneys celebrated the course’s return, while others stressed the need for exceptions.
“Listen, it’s common sense, but it isn’t for a lot of people, especially when they are going through a difficult separation, or are angry,” said Hannah Krispin, a Massachusetts attorney who specializes in immigration and domestic relations. “So it’s important to remember that the child has nothing to do with it and should be treated with love, with affection, attention — everything that you expect from two parents.”
Georgiana LaFortune used the same phrase: common sense. There are many parents who don’t get much out of the course because they already communicate, she said, forwarding emails about school sports and parent-teacher conferences.
“[‘Two Families Now’] is a good starting point for folks, but it is not there to be the end-all-be-all for every family.”Adam Wendt, CEO of “Two Families Now” creator Trifoia
She also said the price point and time commitment aren’t prohibitive, and points out that fee waivers are available to parents who can’t afford the $49 cost.
“Some people have found it not helpful, but those are the people who really, despite getting a divorce, they get along well enough so that they can communicate in the best interest of the children,” said LaFortune, a Massachusetts family law attorney who handles cases like divorces, custody and alimony. “When the court makes these rules, they have to make it one-size-fits-all, even though one size doesn’t fit all.”
Kate Barry, a senior attorney in Greater Boston Legal Services’ family law unit, worries about the one-size-fits-all approach. She often represents survivors of domestic violence and says that the course’s material doesn’t apply for such relationships.
“In the course, right up front, they say this may not be appropriate for you if you’ve experienced domestic violence,” she said. “I definitely agree with that assessment.”
In the new order for the requirement, Casey spells out exemptions that judges can grant, for instance: for people with a language barrier; if a parent can’t access the remote course for reasons like being in prison; and “action or patterns of behaviors which makes parental communication unsafe,” which attorneys interpret as a history of domestic violence. Judges can also choose to waive the course for any reason at their own discretion.
It’s a change from the fall, when the family court first sought to bring back the required course but attorneys raised concerns that those specific exemptions weren’t laid out.
Wendt stressed the course isn’t aimed at high-conflict parents, or situations where there’s abuse or neglect. One high-conflict parenting course has received criticismin Massachusetts for its $900 offering that puts parents, some of whom have restraining orders against each other, in the same room for a total 27 hours.
“[‘Two Families Now’] is a good starting point for folks, but it is not there to be the end-all-be-all for every family,” said Wendt. “The kids should be the most important piece of it — not how they feel about the kids, or what they want their kids to feel — but that what their kids need should be the most important part.”
It’s a goal that Barry doesn’t think is appropriate for survivors of domestic violence. Since judges have so much discretion and perceive conflict in different ways, she worries many parents will still be required to take it.
“It’s very much got a viewpoint, which is that the parents should work together, the parents should communicate with each other, they should co-parent, they should try to improve their relationship with each other — for the sake of the children,” Barry said. “And that really isn’t the messaging we want sent to domestic violence survivors.”
Some attorneys hope the course will also be expanded to other languages so their clients who don’t speak English or Spanish can take it. Attorneys told GBH News they hope courses will start being offered in languages that are popular in Greater Boston like Portuguese, French Creole and Vietnamese.
More translations aren’t currently in the works, according to Wendt. He says it’s been discussed, but it’s not clear where the money for the additional language offerings would come from.
Attorneys agree that the course will add a delay to court proceedings. Parents have 60 days to register for and then complete the course, which could add another two to three months to already slow-moving family court cases.
The requirement goes into place starting Monday after Casey issued the standing order on Jan. 22.