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Overcoming Barriers, Inc., High-Conflict Divorce Camp

Robin Deutsch, Ph.D. Peggie Ward, Ph.D., Donna Feinberg, LICSW

In it’s fifth year, Overcoming Barriers, Inc. offered an exciting and innovative program for High Conflict Divorcing Families. The program this year took place at Common Ground Center, a family camp in Vermont specializing in diverse programing for families. Five families, including both parents and all children met for the first time in an “out of court environment”. The camp focuses on the children’s experience of the parents’ conflict, the short and long-term effects of that conflict, and the shift to coparenting without conflict. In separate psychoeducation groups, the aligned parents (East Group), the less favored parents (West group), and the children’s group (Common Ground) meet to learn new skills including understanding multiple points of view, and their role in maintaining the conflict,. Throughout the day co-parents [who have long ago stopped seeing themselves in this way] were able to meet together with clinicians including Dr. Barbara Fidler (from Toronto), Dr. Abigail Judge (Cambridge), Dr. Matt Sullivan (Palo Alto, CA), and Dr. Peggie Ward (Natick, MA). Children were able to have a voice in their struggles with each parent and to develop resources that allowed each child to speak with his/her parent in an honest, problem-solving manner. Through meals, games, and activities in the camp environment, parents were able to see their co-parent being a fun parent to other children, generating some confusion for the children about their rigidly held perceptions. Each member of the five families was able to help create a sense of community with the help of the clinicians and a dynamic and enthusiastic camp staff.

This 2013 camp session broke new ground. Ten experienced mental health trainees from, Arizona, California, Canada, New Jersey, and our own Massachusetts (Donna Feinberg) were able to observe each segment of the camp (groups and interventions). They learned from each other and were educated and shepherded by one of the founders of the camp, Dr. Robin Deutsch. Their camp training experience was preceded by 8 online didactic presentations presented by Drs. Deutsch, Sullivan, and Ward and the two camp directors, Carole Blane and Tyler Sullivan.

Two other significant developments occurred in 2013. This year our research agenda expanded significantly. Dr. Michael Saini, a well-respected researcher from the University of Toronto, (with the help of Drs. Deutsch, Fidler, Sullivan, and Ward) developed process and outcome assessment tools to evaluate our program. Dr. Saini and six assistants came on the last day of camp to conduct the evaluation with the consent of the campers. Most gratifying in the 2013 camp was a successful fund raising effort with significant gifts that provided aid to families who could not afford to otherwise attend, increasing diversity of our camp.

The Overcoming Barriers Camp program began in 2008. After struggling for years with some of the most difficult and heartbreaking post-divorce family situations–where a child has rejected one of their parents–three AFCC members designed and conducted an innovative and intensive clinical approach to work with families called the Overcoming Barriers Family Camp program. The camp began with a brainstorming group in Massachusetts, and true to the tradition of AFCC innovation, included judges, a probation officer, and mental health professionals. Peggie Ward, PhD, (MA), Robin Deutsch, PhD, (MA), and Matthew Sullivan PhD, (CA), comprised the clinical team. Court personnel and attorneys rounded out this brainstorming group including our own Chief, the Honorable Paula Carey and a to be named judge, the Honorable Beth Crawford. The ideas for this first meeting led to a new model for helping families in conflict where a child has a problematic relationship with one or both parents.

The program is designed so that all members of the family system participate. The program includes psychoeducation group work for parents and children, intensive clinical interventions, a rich array of recreational opportunities for children and parents,, and a tremendous amount of support for every small step taken toward reunification between rejected parent and their children. Common Ground Center Family Camp provides the complement to the clinical aspects of the program with a breathtakingly beautiful site, rustic cabins that sleep up to six people for parents (divided by gender, mixed as to family “role”), cabins for children, and an incredibly skilled, dedicated and charismatic staff who engage in projects and activities during the day, and sleep in the cabins with each group at night.

Camp days begin at 6am with optional Yoga and continue until 9 pm with arts and crafts activities, games, hikes, and swimming, through campfires, songs, and a talent show. Parents each participate in groups designed for their needs. “In” parents [the parent the child or children are closer to] are in the East Group, and “out” parents [the parents who have a more distant or conflictual relationship with the children] are in the West Group (groups named for their clinician’s geographical location). The children ages 9 to 17 participated in their own group named, “Common Ground”. Groups run for three (3) hours each morning followed by afternoons with structured, strategically planned camp activities. The clinical team takes every opportunity available from noon to 9 pm to conduct intensive clinical interventions with different combinations of individual family members based on their needs. Communication and coordination is key and the camp directors, Carole Blane and Tyler Sullivan, are the communication links between camp staff and clinicians. Each family left the camp with a clear roadmap for follow-up work with professionals in their hometown. By the end of camp, staff and clinical team were both elated and exhausted as the families made their emotional departures.

Since that original pilot in 2008, Overcoming Barriers, Inc., a non-profit organization, has run a total of 5 family camps. In 2012 the first California camp took place in Sonoma, California in addition to the four at the Vermont site. In addition, OCB offers an intensive weekend intervention, called the Family Intensive, to individual families at a hotel site. The intensive weekend is modeled on the Overcoming Barriers Camp and includes two clinicians and an assistant.

Were it not for the receptiveness and dedication of members of the Massachusetts Probate and Family Court, attorneys who practice in the Massachusetts Probate and Family Courts, and mental health practitioners who serve the Massachusetts Probate and Family Court, this now internationally known model would not have had the support to evolve into the program it is today and be available to the families we work with, day in and day out, as an intensive clinical approach to help meet the needs of our most high conflict families.


© 2017 Levine Dispute Resolution Center LLC. Westwood and Northampton, MA
781.708.4445 | 413.341.1017 | Email: info@levinedisputeresolution.com

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