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New Beginnings Program

July 16, 2006

They come from different worlds: one, a department in a research university; the other, a branch of one of the largest trial courts in the country. But for the last fifteen years, Arizona State University’s Prevention Research Center and the Superior Court of Arizona’s Family Court and Conciliation Services have sustained a mutually beneficial relationship that has aided hundreds of families undergoing divorce.

“Over a million children experience the divorce of their parents in the United States each year,” says Dr. Sharlene Wolchik, co-director of the Prevention Research Center. She states that 25-30% of these children will develop mental health problems, with symptoms ranging from low academic achievement to teen pregnancy to substance abuse.

To combat this issue, ASU researchers launched their New Beginnings Program (NBP) in 1992. Based on years of university research, this parent education program teaches positive parenting skills to help sustain healthy family relationships.

Using records of divorce cases provided by the Superior Court, ASU invited hundreds of families to participate in their program and found that children with parents in the NBP developed fewer psychological problems compared to their control group. However, several obstacles still remained for the program.

“There is a big problem in the mental health field where many programs developed in the university do not translate well in the real world,” notes Dr. Irwin Sandler, director of the Arizona Prevention Research Center and an ASU Regents’ Professor of Psychology.

Wolchik and Sandler recall their initial study only used volunteers and did not consider cultural differences in parenting, preventing the program from educating many divorcing families in the community.

To increase the program’s effectiveness, ASU and the Superior Court strengthened their relationship by applying for a $7.1 million dollar grant from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) which they received in 2005. This funding allows the program to be used within the court system, creating an effective service as well as an example for how future ASU programs can be developed with real-world applications.

“For the court to partner with the university is difficult since we’re different institutions with our own agendas,” says Dr. Sanford Braver, an ASU Professor of Psychology who regularly meets with court members to help modify the program for the court’s needs.

Nevertheless, Braver finds the partnership can draw strength from these differences, particularly when the court requires divorcing families to participate in the program. This helps families reach amicable child custody agreements and gives ASU the chance to learn how to shape the program for families who need help but do not volunteer.

The increase in available families also allows the NBP to conduct programs exclusively for African American and Mexican American families, enabling ASU researchers to learn how to adjust their program for specific cultural needs.

“We look at this as a research issue,” states Sandler. “It’s about translating from the laboratory to the real world.” Braver agrees, noting the court is often unused to the careful and meticulous way ASU researchers must document their findings on the NBP and other divorce-related programs developed by ASU and the court.

Even so, the court benefits greatly from ASU research. “We don’t have the capacity to conduct an in-depth empirical analysis of our programs,” explains Phil Knox, General Jurisdiction Court Administrator for Family Court and Conciliation Services. “So this collaboration benefits the court by getting ASU professors to analyze the effects of our programs on divorcing families.”

Knox finds this research helps communicate the effectiveness of court programs not only to the general public and but also to funding agencies that are more willing to support programs backed by detailed evidence.

Increased attention to divorcing families is another important benefit. “Families who come in and don’t make the outward appearance of having problems don’t get any additional services,” states Knox. “So there may be underlying issues that cause problems later that we don’t normally have time in court to deal with.” Thanks to ASU, however, many of these families can get the help they need through the NBP.

In the coming months, ASU and the court will take what they have learned from the NBP and develop Parents and Children Together (PACT), a mandatory program for parents who cannot come to an agreeable post-divorce arrangement. Braver hopes creating this program will address issues raised by the ASU/court collaboration on the nature of university research.

“A lesson I’ve personally learned [from the ASU/court collaboration] is the first research trial should be done in the real world,” he states. “You should take note of real world concerns that you don’t think you’ll be able to change and make them your baseline concerns for the program.”

Based on the positive results of the collaboration so far, however, Braver feels this continuing partnership will benefit not only ASU but the general community as well.