CEDAR RAPIDS — When Jenny Schulz started the Kids First Law Center in 2005, she represented about 50 clients by herself from a cramped, one-room office. After Laura Ebinger joined her in 2007, the two shared a desk.
But 10 years after Schulz founded the non-profit center that represents children whose parents are either divorced or getting divorced, Kids First has grown substantially by broadening its offerings even as the state and national divorce rates have been declining.
Schulz, the executive director, and her six employees will serve more than 800 children this year, including about 200 in Johnson County, where they started operations Jan. 1.
WORKSHOP ROLE GROWS
The center, based in Cedar Rapids, has expanded beyond legal representation in the traditional sense. It still handles about 130 court cases at a time, Schulz said, representing children in divorce and custody battles.
But most of the center’s clients now come through one-time educational workshops on divorce — often court-mandated — where kids read books about divorce, draw pictures to represent feelings and learn that their parents’ fights aren’t their fault.
Older children can have more mature discussions about divorce with staff lawyers and volunteers.
The center will serve about 400 children this way in Linn County this year, Schulz said, plus the 200 in Johnson County. No similar service exists in Iowa’s other 97 counties, she said.
“A lot of kids who are going through divorce are going through it in a black hole,” Schulz said. “The workshops help normalize the process for them.”
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Ian Thornhill, a district judge in Iowa’s 6th judicial district, has known Schulz since the two were law school classmates at the University of Iowa in the late 1990s and has overseen cases in which Kids First was involved. He said the workshops can make children more comfortable with the divorce process in court.
“When you’re dealing with something as traumatic and stressful as these custody divorce situations, the child being able to trust their attorney is a major benefit,” Thornhill said.
Two other programs, funded by a state grant and started last August, provide mediation for separated parents in disagreements over their children, and a neutral meeting point for parents to exchange children for visits.
So far, Kids First has helped 66 families, including 117 children, through the mediation program, Schulz said.
It has had trouble attracting parents for neutral exchanges, she said,
But the mediation and exchange services allow the center to broaden its range of possible clients to include any children of separated parents, rather than only those with an active, high-conflict divorce case.
Former clients who went through mediation at Kids First said the talks helped them resolve previously hopeless disputes.
Larry Winter, a Benton County parent, said the center helped him retain visitation rights with his daughters.
“I really felt like without Jenny there,” Winter said, “we probably wouldn’t have come to an agreement.”
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Cheryl Janss, a Cedar Rapids grandparent who also went through mediation, said Kids First helped her and her husband resolve a conflict with their grandchildren’s mother, allowing the kids to speak to their mother again.
“They were a lifesaver,” Janss said. “We were at our wits’ ends, and we just thought that nothing could be worked out.”
Schulz said the mediation and neutral exchange programs help parents focus on their children in conflicts, including by teaching them when it is and isn’t appropriate to bring up topics like child-support payments.
“There’s not like an easy recipe to follow,” Schulz said. “When people get divorced, those are new skills that you have to learn.”
AN EYE ON THE FUTURE
The center this year has a budget of about $385,000, Schulz said. Most of its funding, she said, comes from donations. The center uses a sliding scale for legal fees based on parents’ income, and only about 8 percent of its funding last year came from client fees.
Some of the center’s funding also comes through an endowment, for which Schulz hopes to raise $100,000 this year in honor of Kids First turning 10. That would roughly double the size of the endowment, Schulz said, but she isn’t stopping there. She hopes to raise $1 million for the endowment in the next five years, she said, and eventually expand to every county in Iowa.
Schulz said she also has made it a goal to offer regular support groups for children of divorced parents, not only one-time workshops.
Thornhill said he wishes Kids First served children in every county in his district.
“It really gives kids a voice that is not tainted by the parents,” he said. “It’s an invaluable service that they provide.”