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Robert Billingham
Department of Applied Health Science

Tracy James
IU Media Relations

Last modified: Thursday, June 29, 2006

Program inspired by Indiana University course helps families put children first

June 29, 2006

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Spurred on by the enthusiasm of a graduate student, an Indiana University course involving divorce is taking on a whole new dimension, moving beyond the ivory tower to help Bloomington families.

Robert Billingham, a family development expert in IU Bloomington's Department of Applied Health Science, teaches a course that discusses how the breakup of a marriage affects the children. Long-term consequences for the children can be serious, including increased risks for dropping out of school, substance abuse and underage sex, and for divorce later in life.

Researchers are finding that the parents' behavior toward each other after the divorce contributes more to these negative consequences than the actual divorce, Billingham said. For some families, exchanging children for visits can be exasperating, involving yelling, verbal abuse, potential violence and, in general, poor behavior. Last year, graduate student Karen Ellis, who had taken Billingham's course, took the issue to heart.

"Karen said, 'Why don't we do something about the problems with visitations?'" Billingham said. "Now, we are."

That "something" is the Children's Door, a free, monitored exchange program that helps parents arrange for their children's scheduled visits despite their animosity toward or fear of the other parent. The Children's Door is one of the few free exchange programs in the state. Some exchange programs charge fees that are too expensive for some parents.

"The working poor and others with low incomes can't afford to see their kids, and that really bothers me," Billingham said.

The Children's Door is a collaboration involving South Central Community Action Program Head Start, which provides the Bloomington location for the exchanges, and the national organization Children's Rights Council, which provided the initial training for people who staff the exchanges.

Billingham said several Monroe County judges and commissioners have been referring families to the service, which began in December. The exchanges can occur on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday evenings. The Head Start program recently received a grant from Bloomington's Jack Hopkins Social Services fund to enable the Children's Door to offer Saturday exchanges. The Saturday exchanges are important, Billingham said, because children under 3 years of age sometimes are not permitted visits longer than two days.

The exchange program is funded primarily with seed money provided by IU's Department of Applied Health Science, housed in the School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation. Billingham, Ellis, who coordinates the program, and others are looking for grants, donations and other funding sources to make the service self-sufficient.

Billingham said they have received positive feedback from the families involved, who express relief at the limited contact with the other parent and because the exchanges are documented, noting, for example, whether the other parent shows up. The paperwork involved in the exchanges includes a form by which parents can leave messages for each other concerning the children's needs. As the parents become more comfortable with this basic form of communication -- and they all say they do -- they are asked if they want to convey their messages verbally, which ultimately can lead to better communications.

Procedures also are in place to handle exchanges in which restraining orders or no-contact orders are in effect. While nearly all of the families who use the service have court orders for supervised exchanges, the program does not limit who can use it.

"This is for any parents who are going through a stressful time, where one or both or the courts say, 'We want to tone down the volume,'" Billingham said. "So instead of exchanging the kids in the driveway, with the parents screaming at each other in front of the children, they say, 'Let's use the Children's Door,' and there won't be any screaming and yelling."

To learn more about the Children's Door, visit

Billingham can be reached at 812-855-5208 and