Written By: Randy Heller, Ph.D.

In 2006, I began a journey that I had previously only dreamed about. I returned to pursue my doctoral degree after 15 years in private practice as a psychotherapist, working primarily in the field of divorce. While on this path, I had to determine how I could utilize my program of study to not only enhance my career but make a significant difference in the field of Family Therapy, as well as the diverse populations who I served.

In preparation for my dissertation work, I was enrolled in a research class. It was my professor who said something that resonated within me and continues to this day. He said, “Research and study something you are passionate about…something that will make an impact.” From that day forward, I began my mission and trajectory to explore and understand the interdisciplinary team approach of Collaborative Family Law, and most specifically, the evolving role of the Mental Health Professional working in the process.

Approximately 13 years later, this has been quite an expedition that continues to evolve and develop to this day. I first became interested in this movement in approximately 2004. I was in “recovery” from an incredibly angry and litigious divorce. I was working as a Marriage and Family Therapist and trying to do everything that I knew how to do to assist my clients who were not going to make it as a couple come to amicable terms. At that time, I knew nothing about Collaborative Divorce.

I began to study everything that I could about Collaborative Practice. I decided to research and write my dissertation entitled, “The Role of the Mental Health Professional in Collaborative Family Law: What do they do?” t became more and more apparent to me that very few professionals in the mental health field, and especially, Marriage and Family Therapists who are on the front lines working with couples who through marriage counseling may decide to divorce, knew anything about Collaborative Practice. This presented me with a sense of urgency to educate, inform, and teach emerging therapists about a process that could help to restructure families and guide them to a better place.

After completing my dissertation research, I thought, “I must spread awareness about Collaborative Practice throughout the mental health communities.” I wrote a graduate course for emerging Marriage and Family Therapists called “Collaborative Divorce.” I am now beginning my sixth year teaching this course at Nova Southeastern University’s Department of Marriage and Family Therapy, in Davie, Florida. Over a hundred students have been trained to date. This is a full semester, 3-hour weekly course.

I am fortunate to have guest speakers from all professions in our Collaborative community lecture about their area of expertise in the process. Each week the students are required to research and write about different aspects of this method. The students final project involves working with a mock client family from their initial intake through the Collaborative Divorce process, engaging in pre and de-briefs, developing agendas, drafting parenting plans, taking minutes, identifying needs, interests, and potential roadblocks, and brainstorming options. The students videotape their meetings and then watch the videos as a class and critique each other, demonstrating the ability to give and receive feedback. 

The end of the semester is followed by a formal Three Day Beginning and Advanced training that the students participate in by volunteering, engaging in role-plays with the trainers, as well as networking with and learning from community leaders and professionals.

This project is a win-win for all involved, and out of that emerged other opportunities. At one of our local practice group meetings, we had a guest speaker attend from Legal Aid. At that meeting, the speaker stressed that unlike traditional litigation, Collaborative Family Law can uniquely address military-specific issues in a more efficient and effective manner. At that moment of synergy, our Pro Bono Collaborative Family Law Clinic was conceived. Each year the students work in conjunction with a Veteran family, referred by Mission United, along with volunteer Collaborative Professionals from the Collaborative Family Law Professionals of South Florida, and myself to facilitate Pro Bono Collaborative cases.

Here are some comments from the experiences of students:

“It truly amazes me to see how students like myself, future leaders in the field of Family Therapy, come into your class knowing little to nothing about Collaborative Divorce and yet leave after one short semester possessing a comprehensive grasp of the process.” – Fonda Mosel, Doctoral Candidate, Nova Southeastern University, Department of Family Therapy.

“I love this process of Collaborative Divorce and recognize the potential to help people and make a living doing something so meaningful.” –  Yoel Caroline, Ordained Rabbi, Certified Life Coach.

“Collaborative Divorce drew me immediately by name. Two words I could rarely imagine together. All I knew about is how painful, exhausting, and traumatic divorce is. Valuable and practical knowledge as a future family therapist.” – Shir Bensusan, Masters Student, Marriage and Family Therapy, Nova Southeastern University.

“I was about half-way through my doctoral program in Marriage and Family Therapy when I found a course called Collaborative Divorce. I had never heard of Collaborative Divorce, but I had gone through my own divorce and learned first-hand the impact it can have on families. By the end of my first day in class, I learned, to my surprise, that there was a mechanism in place designed to be an alternative to traditional divorce. The Collaborative Divorce course also influenced much of my subsequent academic work. I credit the Collaborative Divorce course for opening my eyes to possibilities I had not previously considered.” – Paul Healey, MSW, CAP, Doctoral Candidate.

In addition to benefiting the students, participating in these pro-bono matters also contributes greatly to the mentorship of newly trained Collaborative professionals. Jeffrey Wasserman, Esq., a reformed well-known South Florida litigator writes:

“I had the distinct pleasure of representing a Veteran in a Collaborative Divorce referred to me by Dr. Heller and her team of graduate students through the Mission United Program. The students and Dr. Heller conducted the initial intake, identified the issues to be resolved, and referred the clients. The case was conducted remotely with the wife, while the team worked with the husband in person. At the final hearing, my client informed me and Dr. Heller he “knew that he could now move forward in his life.”

Having served during Vietnam, I feel an obligation to assist fellow Veterans in need of legal representation with their divorce. The overwhelming appreciation shown by my client at the conclusion of his final hearing made it more than worthwhile.”

This course and project is only the beginning for these students, and I know they will continue to go on to do great things! Whether disseminating information about the Collaborative Divorce Process through direct contact with couples, as a referral source for other clinicians who specialize in working with divorcing families, or providing it to their local clergy, community, and professional organizations, these students are now informed about a process, equipped with skills, knowledge, and an area of expertise they can provide to people who otherwise may not know where to turn. As I said, a “win/win” opportunity that I hope other university graduate programs will take hold of.