Helping Families Navigate Divorce

An interdisciplinary project creates vital co-parenting tool for Rhode Island Family Court.

By Melanie Thibeault
Michael Forte, chief judge of R.I. Family Court, stands at a podium to address a room full of people.
Michael Forte, chief judge of R.I. Family Court, celebrates the debut of a co-parenting video resource created by RWU students with members of the judiciary and university.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. –  Ruth Nwauche L’22 wishes that when her parents were divorcing, they had had access to more resources to support their family through the challenging process. 

“Parents should know that your children should be your priority, and you shouldn’t be arguing in front of them or saying bad things about the other parent to them because it’s not going to be good for them emotionally,” said Nwauche, who shared her personal experience in “Parenting Together: Do It for the Kids,” a video showcasing best parenting practices for families involved in Rhode Island Family Court.  

The 20-minute video, appearing on the R.I. judiciary website with versions in English and Spanish, is an interdisciplinary, community-engaged project between RWU’s Legal Studies and Psychology programs, along with added collaboration from a Journalism student. Funded by a generous grant from the Hassenfeld Family Initiatives, faculty and students worked over several years to research and create the video resource.  

Each year, between 3,500 and 3,800 new cases are filed in R.I. Family Court; the majority are divorces, while other cases involve parties who are unmarried but share children. In addition to new cases, the court sees many parties who routinely return for further court guidance, said Lori Giarrusso, director of mediation for R.I. Family Court and an adjunct professor at RWU Law. That means the video, which is available for anyone to view, will help many more families than just those going through new court divorce proceedings in any given year.  

In April 2022, RWU President Ioannis Miaoulis and Michael Forte, chief judge of R.I. Family Court, hosted a premiere of the video at the university’s Providence campus. Featuring interviews with Family Court staff, mental health professionals, and testimonials from children affected by divorce, the video highlighting effective tools for coparenting through divorce will be shown to parents during the court process.  

People watching the "Parenting Together" video

“The video is trying to educate parents on how they can protect their children. It’s something that we know will make a huge difference,” said Tricia Martland L’00, professor of Legal Studies at RWU and a juvenile law expert. “We’re so glad students can be a part of that.”    

After Giarrusso expressed a need for this video, Martland, Lisa Newcity, professor of Legal Studies, and Bonita Cade, associate professor of Psychology, enlisted students from across their programs, who spent hours researching how divorce can negatively affect children, how parents can minimize those effects, as well as how judges make custody decisions.  

To ensure they developed a teaching tool that “would speak to a wide variety of parents from different cultures and experiences,” Cade said she and Kirstin Barber ’20, a Legal Studies and Psychology double major, researched the effectiveness of other types of parental trainings to make theirs effective and inclusive. 

Morgan Clark ’20, who double majored in Legal Studies and Psychology and is now a second-year law student at UMass Dartmouth, said taking a child psychology course aided in her research for the video. “That was a big help to know different things that children can go through,” she said. “Psychology really meshes well with Legal Studies.”  

The project also solidified her career path. “I had an interest in it but wasn’t sure if I really wanted to do it,” said Clark, who now aspires to practice family law.   

Undergraduates had a unique learning experience and opportunities to network with judges, child advocates, and others, said Martland. “Most students at the courts are law students, so this was awesome for undergrads.”