June 2001
Susan Livingston, Esq                                               
Interviewed May 22, 2001 in Portland, Maine.

Kids First: Focusing on Children of Divorce
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Q:   Where did you go to law school?

A:   I went to the University of Maine Law School and graduated in 1988.

Q:   What did you do after law school?

A:   I was interested in doing some type of litigation. And I went to work for Preti, Flaherty, Beliveau, Pachios, & Haley, a large firm, and was immediately placed in a workers' compensation division of the company. I was traveling all over the state. I realized that was not how I wanted to practice law. So I was looking to make a change.

I had always been most interested in family law probably because prior to law school most of my work had been with families. I have my own family, I used to teach, and  I was running a nursery school when I was enrolled in law school. I always felt I had this natural connection with family law.

I had an offer from Van Meer and Belanger, a firm that did corporate work. I felt this would give me an opportunity to try corporate law. It was quite research-oriented rather than dealing with people. At Van Meer and Belanger I reunited with Diane Dusini, who had been a year ahead of me in law school. Some of what we did at the firm was property work for complex divorce cases. Practitioners in town would come to us and ask about tax ramifications or trust issues. And we would do the background work.

Diane and I then agreed that we would try to combine the property issues with what we both enjoyed, working with people, and put all that together and open up a family law and tax practice.

Q:   How long have you and Diane been together as a law firm?

A:   It will be ten years in February 2002.

Q:   I know you have been involved with the Kids First program. How did that come about?

A:   When Diane and I started our practice I was looking for ways to become involved in the community and in legal services related to my practice. Resources for Divorced Families was a group that interested me because the group seemed to have an approach to family law cases similar to mine. Although I am interested in litigation, for family law I really think that problem solving and a mediated approach is the best way to handle these cases. And I appreciated the fact that here was a group where I could meet some of the people who did a lot of family law work. As a beginner in this field, that was important to me. I could also learn about how to accomplish divorces in a way that did not negatively impact the children and to help parents through that process.

And so I became involved with Resources For Divorced Families, and I skyrocketed in the organization because I went in and volunteered to assist with the finance committee. At that time the group consisted of a group of lawyers and social workers, who had wonderful ideas about how to help parents through the process of divorce but terrible financial skills. The group was scraping by financially.

Go to Top                                   Divorce Impacts Children                                 End of Page

Q:   What did Resources For Divorced Families do?

A:   A board of directors would meet every month and plan programs for professionals and for the community that would help to educate people about how divorce impacts children. For professionals we had one and sometimes more professional programs. Each year we provided a daylong seminar with different speakers discussing children and divorce issues.

We provided a few evening educational sessions for the community. And also the Kids First program was in place. There was a lot of discussion about what the community needed, how to make our group known to the community, and how to educate people as to the resources available. We didn't have any planned fundraising. So, I became treasurer.

Q:   How could the group afford to provide services to the community?

A:   We were pretty much self-supporting. We did have a membership campaign to enroll members for $35.00 a year. We would receive a few gifts, maybe a couple thousand dollars a year.  And the programs were attempting to pay for themselves. The Kids First program and the professional seminars helped us get by.

We couldn't keep up the financial burden of running Resources For Divorced Families. Actually, we shifted Kids First over to the Muskie Institute (Edmund S. Muskie Institute of Public Affairs, now know as the Edmund S. Muskie School of Public Service) at the University of Southern Maine. We entered into a contract. We still had control over how the program was run and the Muskie Institute provided the funds to pay the administrative costs. That was really the expense for us, having someone answer the phones, take registrations, set up the classes.

Q:   Were you involved with this change?

A:   There was a committee, and I was not involved with this transition.

Q:   You had no physical facilities at that time either?

A:   No.  I do remember that the Kids First phone was in my office on an answering machine. We were pretty bare bones at the time.

Q:   What was the Kids First program like then? Was it different from what it is now?

A:   I think the basics were the same. It's probably evolved and improved over time. We have the same presenters, Cushman Anthony, an attorney, and Maureen Anthoine Orlandini, a social worker. I think they were the original presenters. Now we have trained more presenters, so they are not the only ones.

After a couple of years the Muskie Institute came back to us and said, "We can't do it anymore. We don't have enough funding. We can't keep it going."  So, we took back the Kids First program. And that was probably close to the time that we received some interest from a Junior League member, who said that the Junior League was looking for a new project and had some funds to invest. As soon as we were approached, we had a meeting, we talked, and we all were wildly enthusiastic. Then we started inviting the Junior League representatives to our meetings to let them know what we were doing.

Everybody in Resources For Divorced Families was concerned that we not lose control over the program. And that's really how it worked out. The Kids First program and the other educational programs have really been driven by the same group of professionals. The Junior League added a great deal of expertise as to how to run a nonprofit organization and they funded a start-up in our own space.

Q:   What is the Junior League?

A:   The Junior League is a volunteer service organization for young women who are interested in becoming involved with volunteer programs in their community. They have high standards. Everybody has a certain number of volunteer hours to fulfill. I think that it used to be a group of women who were home with children and wanted an opportunity to do volunteer work and learn about how businesses were run. But, in more recent years, it's amazing that many working mothers are in the Junior League and they still consider it a priority. They're a pretty amazing energy group.

Q:   From where do the members come?

A:   They're throughout the country. The chapter from Portland, Maine approached us.

We formed a group of three Junior League people and three Resources For Divorced Families people to form a committee to get this concept going of a center for the Kids First program. We came up with all sorts of different names for the center and finally, I think it was Shelly Cohen Konrad who said it was such a great name for a program that it would be a great name for the center. So, it became the Kids First Center.

Go to Top                               Establishing a Physical Place                             End of Page

The committee's goal was to establish a physical place where we could present the Kids First program each week and where we could expand and have different programs for the community, support groups for kids, and a resource library so that people could walk in  off the street and obtain information about the divorce process.

It meant hiring an executive director, Peg Libby, who is still there and has done a great job putting together a structured, functioning nonprofit organization. We had Junior League funds for the first three years; but, now, we are on our own.

Q:   How are you on your own?

A:   The Kids First Center is separate from the Junior League, although  the Junior League still participates by having  members on the Kids First Center board of directors.

Q:   Does Junior League still provide funding?

A:   No, and that is the difference.

Q:   I'm sure there must have been some fear in knowing that you had a time period with which to get the Kids First Center up and running and figure out a way to keep it going.

A:   Oh, yes. It was very scary. We had rent. We had an executive director, who had left her previous job to join us. But we are now completely independent and function well.

Q:   Do you remember when the Kids First Center opened?

A:   I think, in 1998.

Q:  The Kids First Center is located where?

A:   It's at 222 St. John Street in Portland, Maine. And we actually have contracted for some additional space because we're finding that we need to run more than two programs a night. And one room isn't enough. We started off with one large room, where we had the Kids First program on weekends and other programs during the week. There is also an office for the executive director. We have eliminated what used to be the little children's corner, which provided daycare services, and have rented a larger room for children, that can also be used for educational programs in the evenings.

Q:   How do you get word out to the community about the Kids First Center?

A:   It has been a long process. Our executive director is always looking for television and newspaper opportunities. She has gone out to businesses and organizations and has talked to them about the Kids First Center. We are affiliated with the United Way, so sometimes a board member will go with the executive director to the companies who give to the United Way to tell them who we are.

Q:   The court system is one of your biggest fans. How did that come about?

A:   That's been a long process, too. I think that at the beginning judges were a little hesitant about ordering parents to attend Kids First, although, they certainly supported it.  But since we have had the case management officers and the family law division, where we have people specifically dealing with family law cases, the case management officers have become very much involved and very supportive of Kids First. I'm sure you have seen cases where the parents have been ordered to attend.

Q:   Let's say a parent is ordered to attend Kids First. What does that parent experience?

A:   It's a wonderful four-hour program, from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Saturdays. The presenters are a lawyer and a social worker. They are a male and a female. And, basically, they go through some preliminary explanation of how divorce affects children. I believe that now they are using tapes that they have put together over the years. Clips from movies to show the turmoil of divorce.

In the program the two presenters will do some role-playing. "When you go visit your father, why don't you ask him for a little more money, so that we don't have to eat dog food all week." And they go back and forth about what the parents might say, in a humorous way, but also in a very poignant way.

Go to Top                      Understanding What Kids Go Through                         End of Page

Some of the program involves dos and don'ts. There is interaction with the attendees to some degree. The presenters are trying to get people to understand what kids go through and how parents affect the kids' experience when the family goes through the divorce process.

I've heard the presenters talk about some of the parents who have been ordered to attend. They walk in, and they've got their arms crossed. And, some people you can never get through to. But the presenters have said that it is really kind of amazing to see during the course of the morning how some of those people, who didn't want to be there, open up and ask a question or start participating. I think the program has been effective for people who have been ordered to attend.

Q:   The Kids First Center also offers support groups for the kids?

A:   They are different for different age groups. The little ones go in, draw and color, and tell stories, and that sort of thing. For older kids there are different activities that allow the kids to support each other and to talk out some of their issues.

Q:   Do the Kids First program and the support groups charge a fee to attend?

A:   There is a fee, but no one is turned away. If anyone can't afford to attend the programs, they just have to say that they can't afford the cost.  That was a high priority for the group from the very beginning. We did not want this to become a kind of elitist group. We wanted to serve the entire community; and we have been able to do that.

Q:   How do you get your funding?

A:   Now we have many more programs, so more income is generated from the programs. We have a major fundraiser each spring, which has been my baby for the past four years, a cocktail party and auction. This year and last year we made about $30,000 each year, and about $20,000 the year before that. So that's our big fundraiser. And we have more gifts from people and an association with the United Way. We have grants, now that we have an executive director who is able to get out in the community and apply for those grants.

Q:   You've established your reputation. I'm sure that helps.

A:   It does. We have a big opportunity this year. We are the charity selected by the Peoples Beach to Beacon 10K Road Race in Cape Elizabeth on August 4, 2001. We are going to receive about $30,000 from that event.  In addition to receiving the lump sum, we are encouraging people to run the race and to get sponsors. Prizes for signing up sponsors include a T-shirt, a hat, a pasta dinner the night before the race, and a pre-race clinic with Joan Benoit Samuelson. We anticipate the race to be a major event. It gives us not only the finances, but it gives us so much publicity, too.

Q:   You also have a resource library at the Kids First Center. Can anyone go in and use the library?

A:   Anyone can go in, read the literature, check out books, although we don't always get them back. We really urge people to get the books back to us.

Q:   Does the Kids First Center still have workshops for professionals?

A:   Yes, definitely. There is one coming up in June. And it's probably a good topic for guardians, social workers, and counselors called, "Listening to the Voices of Children." We always have an all day conference in the fall. This year's topic is really good, I think. It is handling the high conflict divorce. Also, we have just received a grant for professional education. This grant will enable us to go to the Boston area or the New York City area and bring in nationally recognized speakers.

Q:   Is there an opportunity for people to volunteer, to get involved?

A:   Always. We're going to need many volunteers for the Beach to Beacon race. We also could use volunteers at the center to set up and sign people in as they arrive for the programs.

Q:   I have a brochure from the Family Division of the District Court and the Maine Department of Human Services that lists the parent education workshops throughout the state. Several Kids First programs in other communities are listed. What is this all about?

A:   One of our goals is to spread the Kids First message throughout the state. Some communities have had a parenting education program in effect or wanted to have their own, in which case we offer to them whatever information we can give them to help get their program up and running. We don't want to be exclusive or compete with those groups. But we have also spread the Kids First program to many different communities throughout the state. If a community wants to have a Kids First program, there is training for facilitators and presenters, which we will help administer.

Q:   Have you actively approached different communities and asked them if they want to have a Kids First program?

A:   Yes. Attorney Cushman Anthony has been in charge of this.  And I think that he has done quite a bit of work reaching into different communities, contacting lawyers or family counselors, and talking about what it's like to start a program in a community?  I know he's looking for people to join his committee, the Kids First program committee. 

Q:   I'm assuming if a program in another community takes the Kids First name, that program is going to be connected with Portland's Kids First.

A:   Yes.  Cush Anthony and the Kids First program committee monitor the quality of the programs so that they maintain the same high quality.

The Kids First program has really grown and it's fairly new. When we were putting the Kids First Center together, we were looking around the country for a model. And there weren't very many. There were three or four states that seemed to have something that we could look to for some guidance. I think we're pretty much on the cutting edge.

Q:   If another jurisdiction is interested in doing something like this, would you be willing to talk with them?

A:   Yes, definitely. There is no use in reinventing the wheel. Right now we're looking to expand within the state; but, my guess is that in the future we might even reach beyond the state.

Q:   And you have a website at www.kidsfirstcenter.org. I found it helpful because it has plenty of information about the programs and their schedules.

A:   Yes.

Q:   You've gotten feedback regarding the Kids First program. Is it your belief it's helping kids?

A:   Oh, I really think it does. Parents don't really understand how it hurts a child if they say something bad about the other parent. Something as simple as that. I think it's one of the biggest lessons. Try to get along. Be civil. One of the things I have found most helpful from all of the conferences that I have attended is the kids talking to professionals about what it is like to go through a divorce. And one theme I have heard over and over is, "Don't say bad things about the other parent. Don't put the other parent down."


"We would meet every month and plan programs for professionals and for the community that would help to educate people about how divorce impacts children."

"The committee's goal was to establish a physical place where we could present the Kids First program each week and where we could expand and have different programs for the community, support groups for kids, and a resource library ..."

"The presenters are trying to get people to understand what kids go through and how parents affect the kids' experience when the family goes through the divorce process."

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