Ally Kuriloff ’12 and Jordan Payne ’12 spent much of their senior year poring over more than 100 case files of couples whose divorces were so contentious that a judge, concerned with the welfare of their children, ordered them to take a co-parenting course. The students’ task was to determine if the course was working. Their conclusion: That is easier than it sounds.
“They clearly learned that it’s challenging to do research in the field,” said Craig McEwen, Daniel B. Fayerweather Professor of Political Economy and Sociology, their advisor on the project. This is particularly true with research subjects who are not eager to talk about the difficult subject of their divorce and how it affected their children.
Kids First, the Portland non-profit that offers the parenting course amid a range of resources for children and families, collects self-assessments completed by the participants but does not have the resources to analyze the data.
McEwen was contacted by a Kids First teacher who was familiar with his extensive work in mediation. Kuriloff and Payne were students in McEwen’s Sociology of Law course last year when he asked them to think about conducting the research as an independent study project. They began meeting last spring and embarked on the research this fall.
“We acted as consultants,” McEwen said. “We met with the staff and board of Kids First, drafted a proposal, and reached a mutual agreement about how to proceed. It was a collaborative process.”
Their fact-finding took many forms. They went through case files from the past two years and coded the data that Kids First had collected. They observed two “graduations” from the parenting course, which took place in a courtroom, and they sat in on some early class sessions after gaining permission from the participating couples.
Kuriloff and Payne sent letters to participants who had indicated in their file that they would be willing to be contacted for a follow-up interview, and met with 10 of them for face-to-face interviews. They had hoped to meet with sets of parents and compare their impressions of the course, but they were able to interview only one former couple. They also interviewed six judges and magistrates who hear many divorce and custody cases.
“Not surprisingly, (participants) were deeply appreciative of the skills they learned in the course,” McEwen said. “But it’s variable whether they could carry it forward over time.”
“The interviews with parents were powerful personally,” McEwen said. “The students also learned a great deal talking with the judicial personnel. Courts clearly have a dual purpose: One is the welfare of the children, and the other is not having their docket filled with cases that may not lead to productive outcomes. The judges could keep referring high-conflict cases (to Kids First) because they keep reappearing in court, but Kids First isn’t about solving judicial problems. It’s about co-parenting.”
McEwen said the students struggled with the limitations of being researchers who were asked to help Kids First reflect on the success of its program, rather than professionals in the field who were expected to offer recommendations for improvement.
“They must recognize the limits of expertise and knowledge, and how to be modest in one’s goals,” McEwen said.