By: Hon. Richard Simons, First Justice of the Berkshire Probate & Family Court

I was simultaneously intrigued and skeptical when I first heard about the program, Changing Lives Through Literature. Would participants actually prepare for class by doing outside reading? Is it possible that discussions of literature could actually lead to behavioral changes? Could such a program be adapted to fit the needs of the litigants who appear in the Probate and Family Court?

Thankfully, my intrigue outweighed my skepticism. After a brainstorming session with Chief Probation Officer Amy Koenig, we began to formulate the underpinnings of what we would later call Enhancing Families Through Literature (EFTL). 

EFTL has developed into a twelve week intervention program for young parents who have appeared before the Probate and Family Court on a disputed issue involving their children. Both parents attend the program along with their children. The program takes place at our local library once per week from 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. The evening begins with a catered meal where parents enjoy a meal together with their children. At 5:30, the parents retire to one area of the library and the children go to a separate area. For the first eight weeks, the parents participate in a traditional “Changing Lives” format. Our facilitator, Professor Matthew Müller leads discussion on assigned readings, including works by Raymond Carver, William Faulkner and Franz Kafka. While the parents are studying literature, the children participate in a program led by four certified Head Start Teachers called “Every Child Ready To Read Program” developed by the Association for Library Service to Children and the Public Library Association. 

The final four weeks of the program consist of an interactive program between parents and children led by the early childhood educators. They teach about the importance of the word in parenting. Reading to children is modeled for parents. Parents and children work on projects together.  Our final class takes place at the Berkshire Museum where we read stories about turtles, visit the aquarium and work on projects in the museum’s new innovation center.

We just concluded our second semester of EFTL and I continue to be amazed by the magic of this program. Our second cohort of participants was a challenging group. From the point in time they were “selected” to participate, they sought ways to be excused from it. In addition, the dynamics between many of the parents were quite tense and uncomfortable. We had parents who barely acknowledged the presence of the other; or when they did the acknowledgment was not particularly pleasant.              

What we saw was growth. Parents who required a third party to supervise child exchanges began to communicate with each other. Interactions between parents that were often volatile began to soften and become more constructive. Parents began to see their co-parent not as the enemy, but as a necessary partner who is as loved by their child as they are. Parents also saw the Court in a much different light. At graduation, a father commented about how gratified he felt that the Court valued and honored his role in his daughter’s life. Parents also gained the satisfaction of completing a college level literature course. At graduation we were able to announce that they each earned a credit at Berkshire Community College for their successful participation in the program!

Of course, there were the children, who loved being with both parents in a positive setting. One class taught by the childhood educators was dedicated to expressing feelings.  A five year old girl who was seated between her parents, raised her hand and said with a huge smile, “I’m feeling loved.”     

While there were times during the semester that I questioned the efficacy of the program, it all came together at the graduation ceremony. One parent left an anonymous note thanking us for investing in her family. “Continue to this good work,” she implored us. 

Improving communication between estranged parents and introducing the gift of reading into parenting time combined to truly “enhance the families” who participated.