Christina Harms is the Director of the Child and Family Psychological Service (CAFES) at the Center of Excellence for Children, Families and the Law at William James College. There she oversees the delivery of scientifically sound custody evaluations.
For 23 years, Christy served as a Family Court judge in Massachusetts, presiding over cases concerning: divorce, guardianship, sexual abuse, date rape, drug abuse, alcohol abuse, TPR, domestic violence, mental illness, child abuse, and gay/lesbian/transgender issues. Prior to her appointment as a judge, Christy served as General Counsel for the Massachusetts Department of Social Services (DSS), now the Department of Children and Families (DCF). She is a current member of the American Psychological Association Ethics Committee. Christy received her undergraduate degree from Wellesley College, and her law degree from Harvard Law School.
Christy, tell me about your path to family law. Did you always know you wanted to work in family law?
I got to family law on a very curvy, bumpy road. I started out in law school. Along came Alan Dershowitz. And he is many things, but he is a gifted professor. I was enraptured. He was riveting and the subject was interesting – the constitutional rights of the citizen versus the state. He was always involved in a high-profile case that he would use in his classes. So, at the end of that course, I said I’m going to be a criminal attorney, just like Alan Dershowitz.
I got a job with a criminal firm. But, I hated it. I found out I really don’t like defending people who are clearly guilty. I don’t like people who pay you with paper bags of crumpled up, unmarked bills. I don’t like some of the arguments that get made, which are clever, technical arguments. It didn’t seem to me like the noble, constitutional principles that Dershowitz taught us so well.
So, I bounced out of criminal law pretty quickly. And the bounce from there turned into family law only because I was then in a law firm that needed a younger associate to help out some of the older partners who were slowing down and had been doing family law. And it just was a great fit. So, I started to do more and more of it at the big firm.
Most big firms don’t do family law and so I left and my family law background allowed me to get a great job as the General Counsel for Massachusetts Department of Social Services, which was all about children and families. That was a wonderful job. I loved every minute of it and the only job I wanted even more was to be a family court judge, which is ultimately what I was lucky enough to be able to do.
At CAFES at William James College you developed a class for high-conflict parents. How did you come up with the idea?
Well to be honest and modest it wasn’t my idea but it did tempt me to come over to William James College. The idea originated from Dr. Robin Deutsch who was familiar with these kinds of programs across the country and thought it was a shame that Massachusetts didn’t have one. When I joined William James College we then had the woman power and organizational startup time to actually start a program here. We modeled it on a program from the state of Maine and I actually went up to Maine several times and soaked up all the information I could. We then adopted a “train the trainers” model and brought two of the best trainers in Maine to teach us.
So, it was really Dr. Deutsch’s idea but it needed a team to bring it to reality. It needed some scouting from Maine and it needed a little entrepreneurial energy to get it off the ground. In Massachusetts both attorneys and judges had never heard of this sort of program, a program for high conflict parents. It just wasn’t talked about. It didn’t exist. It took a while for the word to get out.
It sounds like it was helpful to have the Maine model to work off of. What is the format and structure of the class?
The class does follow the Maine model. We’ve also made some enhancements. The key ingredients of the class are nine 3-hour sessions that run for nine consecutive weeks. We do run it in the evening, from 6–9 p.m. because most people have jobs. Attendance at all nine sessions is mandatory. The parents attend together, that is both mom and dad are in the class together. The classes are intentionally small, 12 people, which is six parenting pairs. The teachers are always gender mixed and skill mixed. The teachers are always a man and a woman and one mental health professional, usually a psychologist, and one legal professional, often a retired judge or an experienced family law attorney.
What do the instructors do during the class? Is it interactive?
I want some degree of surprise for future class members, but let me give you a sneak peek. The first thing we do is establish some terminology. We ask everyone to call their other parent their “CPP,” Co-Parenting Partner. We don’t like all the other possible choices, “my ex,” “my estranged husband or wife,” so CPP works well for us. It’s amazing how quickly the whole class gets comfortable calling their significant other their CPP. We have homework for every class. And the homework is sometimes written, but more often an exercise – something to do, such as to say something positive about the other parent in front of the child and then to come back to class and talk about what you said and how it went. Or to have a friendly phone call with each other while you know the child is within in earshot.
One of the key educational components is teaching parents about the multiple negative effects of toxic stress. Kids who watch their parents fight are subject to toxic stress. Most parents don’t get it, that they’re damaging their child in significant ways and even in physical ways regarding brain development in those under age 18. We try very hard to forcefully convey that message and motivate parents to prevent that toxicity.
That must be interesting having a psychologist and an attorney lead the class. I would imagine attorneys and psychologists might approach the class differently. Are there ever disagreements between the psychologist and the attorney instructors?
One of the nice things about the teaching pairs is that they settle in. They teach more than just once. So, there is a fair amount of, what I call, banter between the professionals. I think the class likes it. I know the teachers like it. It promotes some good discussions about seeing things in different ways. There are absolutely times in the class, where the professionals – the psychologist and the attorney – see things differently. We work it out. We model the behavior that we are asking parents to portray, which means discussing it and being respectful of each other’s point of view and sometimes we say, gosh, there is more than one right answer.
It sounds like there aren’t many dull moments in the class. What has surprised you about the class?
The class has had so many surprises! One surprise is that you cannot tell when they walk in the door and get to know them over the course of an hour or two, you absolutely cannot tell who is going to do well in the class and who is not going to do well. It takes a while to get to understand their dynamic before you can say, “Wow, they’re a problem” or “Wow, look at the growth that they’ve demonstrated.” So, one is, you can’t tell a book by its cover. Two is – on both extremes – I’m surprised by progress. That is, I’m amazed because I think the class lessons and teaching are powerful, how some people can go through nine weeks of class and not get it. And then on the opposite end of the spectrum, I’m amazed at people who want to change, what people can do in nine weeks. We’ve had some pretty miraculous success stories and some complete failures. Lastly, I guess I’m amazed at the amount of personality disorders in the room. In every class, there are just some people who really are coping with life very marginally, never mind anger, disappointment. They are demanding. They can be rude. They can be rigid. That can make co-parenting very difficult.
So, is it correct to say that sometimes the class is very successful and other times it is less successful? Do you have a sense of the overall success rate of the class?
We’ve been gathering data over the 22 classes we’ve conducted. At the moment, what I have is impressions, somewhat anecdotal, but I’ve been with the program since the start. And the teachers and I talk about this regularly and we agree. So, for what it’s worth, we think our success rate is about a third, a third, a third. That is, about a third of the people who take the class show significant improvement. About a third of the class show some improvement. And about a third of the people who take the class show no improvement. In my opinion, when you’re working with a population who sometimes are actively hurting their children and a third of them can get significantly better, then that’s a pretty good result. We’re looking at what percentage of course completers return to court as one outcome measure. It will be a part of future research our students are conducting.
Any new projects in the works?
Yes! I’m excited about developing two courses, one for parents who experiencing visitation resistance/refusal and another for children of divorced parents. The first course is important because visitation resistance or refusal is a unique challenge and not a great fit for our traditional parenting course. It’s a whole different kettle of fish psychologically speaking. It’s one of the most painful things that judges deal with. Because we all think, there for the grace of God, go I. How terrible would it be for your child or your children to say, ‘I hate you. I don’t want to see you. I’m not going to see you.’ So, it’s a problem that I think has so much merit in being addressed. I also recognize that that kind of therapy has one of the lowest success rates. So, we’re going to have to recognize that we will not always succeed and it’s hard to ask parents to pay for a class that does not always succeed but I think it’s worthwhile. So, that’s my first idea.
My second idea is a Kids of Divorce class. They do this in Maine. Once again Maine leads the way. They have classes on weekends for kids of divorce. This used to take place in the public schools 20 or 30 years ago. There used to be lunch groups with the guidance counselor. And if your parents were getting divorced you could get together with other kids in the same boat. And, by all accounts those were tremendously successful. But they have disappeared. Kids have short lunch breaks. They have other things to do on their lunch breaks. The guidance counselors have other things they’re supposed to do. So, I think that resource is just about gone and I think it’s very powerful for kids to be in a group with other kids who are going through their parents’ divorce. So, we would like to start a group. I have a much less firm idea for how we would run that. There are a lot of scheduling challenges involving our busy children these days with sports and parties. I still think it would be a tremendously useful resource in Massachusetts and it doesn’t exist now. I would like to see that. Those are my future plans.