Divorce education building bridges of friendship


Belinda Hartranft, a shopaholic and soccer mom, divorced her husband after 10 years of marriage. The decision to divorce came quickly after Hartranft discovered her husband had been cheating on her.

Alma Perez, their paralegal through Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake, admitted that although Hartranft’s case was alarming, it was the most speedy and successful divorce she ever processed.

Generally, divorce is not a pleasant experience. It can include separation, conflict and bitterness. Hartranft used her divorce to build a stronger bridge between her ex-husband and children.

Fifty percent of the nation’s marriages result in divorce, according to Jim Stringham, a therapist of 15 years.

According to “Common Ground,” Utah’s official newsletter for divorcing couples, the parties involved make separation more difficult than it needs to be. “[They] feel like they have to compete with each other… like there is a battle to be won,” the newsletter notes.

How then, can two people avoid a battle and instead benefit from a divorce?

LAS offers clients a divorce education course before they separate. Through the course, clients can learn how separation can strengthen relationships, rather than taint them.

“Divorce education courses discuss how [the divorce] will affect the children … as well as the steps taken during their divorce so that they know what is actually going to happen,” Perez said.

Divorce education courses and mediation are required by law. David Musselman, a mediator from the Divorce Mediation Institute of Utah, said mediation is a way that people can resolve their disputes without going to court. It helps the couples negotiate better and learn how to modify their behaviors. “It costs less, it saves a lot of time and it helps the couple to reach a conclusion without a judge,” Musselman said.

After the course, Perez said Hartranft’s divorce took just three months to complete, giving their relationship a firmer foundation for friendship.

“It made me see things differently,” Hartranft said. “I realized how important it was to let things go instead of continuously fighting. Divorce was just the better thing to do, and now we can have a good friendship.”

Musselman mentioned that mediation has a 90 percent rate of effective cases. That may be an outstanding result, but what about the other 10 percent? Is divorce the only solution a couple can come up with?

Like Belinda Hartranft, Edye Wagstaff felt her only solution was divorce. After five years of counseling, Wagstaff and her husband decided to divorce. “From the very beginning we were in therapy through religious leaders and psychologists … it never helped,” Wagstaff said.

She and her husband were both stubborn. If they hadn’t separated, they never would have considered their big issue to be a small and simple one. “It gave us an opportunity to step outside and look at our relationship with a different perspective,” Wagstaff said.

Wagstaff said she feels therapy works only if both people are going to be honest with themselves. “They need to be willing to respect the responsibilities of their own weaknesses,” she said.

Wagstaff and her husband happily remarried after two years of separation.

Therapist Jim Stringham handles about 45 sessions a week, a third being couples. He knows from experience that therapy, mediation, or divorce education courses can never promote happiness unless both parties are willing to change.

If the couple cannot sort things out, Stringham often splits them up to do individual sessions. He has learned that it is important for a person to work on their problems separately before trying to work them out as a couple. “If there is not enough commitment … it doesn’t work,” he said.

Wagstaff and Hartranft consider themselves lucky. Their divorces were definitely painful at first, but in the long run it was for the best.

“It was probably the weirdest divorce,” Wagstaff said. “But it saved our marriage…. Everything became so healthy. We learned that we could trust each other in every aspect of our lives.”

Hartranft said not only do her children spend time with their father regularly, but she also speaks with her ex-husband on the phone almost every night. This journey of separation strengthened their friendship by encouraging them to see what they value most in life.

“I totally recommend those classes to anybody,” Hartranft said. ”It teaches you how to deal with your kids and it gives you options and suggestions. I had to realize he was ready to move on — and I needed to get there too. I am a much better person now than I was, and I have grown to appreciate myself better…. Thank you Alma and all of Legal Aid.”

One-stop shop for domestic violence victims


Traumatic experiences, such as domestic violence, can leave people feeling alone, lost and confused. Victims live in fear while grasping for a lifeline. When they figure out where to turn, they are forced to recount the horrors of their situation over and over again.

Utah’s first, and only, Family Justice Center provides a haven for victims of domestic violence to gain shelter while meeting with representatives of various organizations that can help their plight. This minimizes time, travel and emotional heartache for the victim as he or she relays his or her story to the organizations that can provide an escape from the fears confronted on a daily basis.

Stewart Ralphs is the executive director of the Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake, one of the organizations represented at the FJC. “It is important to provide services so victims of domestic violence have someone who knows the processes, so they get the protection that the law affords them,” Ralphs said.

Ralphs describes most victims as coming in as “basket cases” because of the combination of harrowing abuse situations and unfamiliarity with what to do next. Most victims are referred to the FJC by other organizations, so victims arrive without much expectation. The average victim is a 23-year-old female with several children, Ralphs said.

The staff at the FJC is trained to be empathetic and culturally sensitive. When victims arrive, they are assisted with obtaining a protective order, filing for criminal charges, obtaining proper protection for children, getting shelter and finding a job. Initial services at the FJC take between four and five hours to complete.

One of the first actions a victim goes through upon arriving at the FJC is meeting with the Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake. A Legal Aid Society paralegal checks for conflicts of interest before the victim summarizes his or her situation. This allows the LAS to provide the client with specific help that best serves his or her individual needs.

Once that process is complete, the victim will meet with an LAS paralegal to prepare the protective order. When the protective order is ready, it will be filed with the sheriff and subsequently served to the individual the complaint was filed against.

The protective order is effective from the time it is served through the court hearing, which is typically two weeks later. The order stays in place for the rest of the involved parties’ lives, unless the petitioner withdraws the order.

Aside from preparing protective orders, the Legal Aid Society helps the victim devise a plan to keep him or her safe. These plans typically include notifying neighbors of the situation, keeping weapons out of the house, maintaining a packed suitcase and getting locks for all doors and windows.

“We want to make people think of steps to take to protect themselves … what is the worst case scenario and how would you respond to it?” Ralphs said.

He said the Legal Aid Society’s Domestic Violence Victim Assistance Program helps almost 3,000 people in the Salt Lake valley per year. “Domestic violence never decreases. Either society addresses the problem professionally and corrects it or the problem escalates and becomes more and more serious over time,” he said.

The Legal Aid Society has been instrumental in addressing the problem of domestic violence. It is the oldest legal aid nonprofit organization in Utah. The more recent addition of the Family Justice Center in 2007 signaled another dimension to helping victims of these horrific experiences.

Marlene Gonzalez, the executive director of the Multi-Cultural Legal Center, another organization represented at the FJC, said the Family Justice Center allows for good collaboration and it is a great tool for serving the needs of the victim.

The Family Justice Center provides representatives from the Department of Workforce Services, Division of Child & Family Services, Salt Lake Police Department, YWCA, Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake, Salt Lake City Prosecutors Office and Multi-Cultural Legal Center.

If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic violence or abuse, you can call the YWCA at (801) 537-8600 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at (800) 799-SAFE (7233).

Mediation: Making the best out of a bad situation


Attorney Stewart Ralphs doesn’t always want to win his cases.

Instead, he wants the best possible outcome for all people involved in the desperately bad situation of divorce.

Ralphs, executive director of the Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake (LAS), said many divorce cases his agency deals with are handled outside of the courtroom. LAS also assists people in the middle of domestic violence cases.

“We rely on mediation,” he said, explaining that mediation involves a neutral third party to give suggestions and help the discussion proceed.

“Mediation is trying to come up with a resolution where everyone is a winner,” he said.

LAS uses mediation for many reasons, Ralphs said. First, it is cheaper. LAS helps clients with limited or no income. The nonprofit organization receives money through donations, small amounts of government funding and minimal client fees. But the agency often has to turn people away because of a tight budget.

Using mediation allows LAS to help more people than it would by going to court, which is often a long and expensive process.

David Mussleman, owner and founder of Common Ground Divorce Mediation, said mediators typically charge more per hour than attorneys do. But because the process is expedited clients spend 10 percent of what they would have with an attorney.

“Actually the number is 20 times less the expense because it includes both sides,” Mussleman said.

Ralphs said mediation is also used by LAS because the process allows its clients to actively participate in the decision making process.

Ralphs said this is a unique experience for many people, especially for women. He said mediation is sometimes the first time a person has had the opportunity to have his or her opinion heard or decisions implemented.

Mediation allows the clients to suggest solutions, while getting advice and legal council from an attorney at the same time.

“It works best for us if you have both parties represented by attorneys at mediation because the client isn’t trying to make decisions without the benefit of advice and legal council,” Ralphs said.

This format helps create a positive environment between the opposing parties, whereas a court battle can leave the two parties angry, frustrated and non-cooperative.

Mussleman said the biggest benefit mediation provides is the ability it has to salvage what is left of a broken relationship.

“This is especially important if the two have children,” Mussleman said. “Divorced parents need to understand they will have to continue to interact with each other if they want to be involved with their kids. They might as well make it as friendly as possible.”

Mediation success in both the public and private sector has risen in the last decade. Nearly five years ago the Utah State Legislature enacted a law requiring all family law cases to attempt mediation.

Ralphs said most cases are settled in mediation, lawyer-to-lawyer negotiation or pre-trial agreements. He estimated only 1 percent to 2 percent of cases actually go to court.

Both Ralphs and Mussleman said the introduction of mediation has changed the way family law is now practiced.

Ralphs said lawyers trained before the idea of mediation, including himself, were taught to be very aggressive and to always take cases to court.

“Mediation is just the opposite,” Ralphs said. “It is trying to come up with a resolution where everyone is a winner.”

James Holbrook, a professor at the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law, teaches mediation courses and has seen the changes in how family law is taught.

He said 30 years ago mediation philosophy was basically unheard of, but was slowly introduced in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

In time the program developed into classes that teach mediation theory and encourage law students to practice and develop skills in working with mediators and coming up with mediation solutions themselves.

Mussleman, who is not a lawyer, said more people are using mediation without lawyers because of the expense and better-trained mediators. Most mediators, while not attorneys, are trained in law and negotiation.

“There is definitely a sway in the mindset of how people are approaching conflict, especially in family law,” he said. “I foresee five years from now, 95 percent of all divorce cases not involving attorneys at all.”

Organization tackles legal issues for underprivileged


More than 92,000 low-income households in Utah are affected by civil legal problems each year, including University of Utah students. One particular organization is working to help get voices heard.

“…And Justice For All” is an organization encompassing three groups of civil legal services: Disability Law Center, Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake, and Utah Legal Services.

Together, these organizations assist low-income and disabled individuals who often have nowhere else to turn.

One University of Utah student who uses a wheelchair ran into a dilemma last year when road construction on campus blocked the entry at his regular bus stop. This oversight forced the student to find a new route that took an additional 30 to 45 minuets every day. It also prohibited him from ever making it to class on time.

After calling the Disability Law Center, the problem was solved within a week and the student was able to return to his regular route.

“What may seem like a minor inconvenience to some became a major obstacle to my education,” said the student in an interview with “…And Justice For All.” “I am so glad there was someone at the DLC who could help me and that the University was eager to find a realistic, workable solution,” he said.

Most of the problems brought to the organization are very basic legal issues that impact everyday life. Certain individuals facing these problems are invited to utilize the organization’s services free of charge. The eligible individuals include those in poverty conditions, those with physical or mental disabilities, as well as those who are victims of domestic violence.

Kai Wilson, executive director of “…And Justice For All,” describes their typical caseload as issues “that impact what we all do every day, from the relationships we have … to how our houses are built and what landlords have to do to make sure we are in safe and stable housing.”

Since 1998, “…And Justice For All” has been striving to equalize the playing field for those in need. The services offered at “…And Justice For All” provide aid that Wilson estimates can improve the quality of nearly 20 percent of low-income households in Utah.

The United States legal system can seem complex and confusing. Wilson said only 13 percent of the households that are considered very poor are receiving help with their civil legal problems.

Wilson describes one of the goals of the program as self-advocacy. “…And Justice For All” emphasizes teaching people to fight for their own rights and showing them the necessary steps to take.

Often “…And Justice For All” partners serve by giving simple legal advice to those who need it. If necessary, however, the organization also has the capacity to represent clients in trials.

Of the individuals who contacted ULS last year, Wilson said only about 8,000 were represented at trial. In taking cases, needs are prioritized and those with the most pressing issues are assisted first. Domestic violence is one example of a pressing issue that is prioritized.

“…And Justice For All” acts as an umbrella organization to its affiliates. The combination of three of Utah’s existing legal aid services allowed all of the organizations to save money through shared logistics and staff support. This situation also benefits individual clients who need to utilize more than one of the three affiliate organization’s services.

“…And Justice For All” has an official mission to create and sustain resources to provide effective civil legal services while strengthening individual agencies in its distinct roles. Wilson estimates that together these organizations assisted around 36,000 people in 2008.

The government subsidizes 80 percent of funding for Utah Legal Services and Disability Law Center. Other sources of income include donations from members of the Utah State Bar in the form of monetary gifts and pro bono work. Fundraisers are held throughout the year to raise money for the program.

Assistance is also available to immigrants, refugees and American Indians in Utah through further affiliated organizations, such as Navajo Nation Legal Services (DNA), Catholic Community Services and the Multi-Cultural Legal Center.

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