background and history of the center for out of court divorce

IAALSThe Center for Out-Of-Court Divorce (COCD) grew out of the pioneering work of the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS), an independent research center located at the University of Denver and dedicated to facilitating continuous improvement and advancing excellence in the American legal system. IAALS is active in a number of high-impact areas and through its Honoring Families Initiative (HFI) seeks to advance empirically informed models to ensure greater accessibility, efficiency and fairness in divorce and separation and parental responsibility matters.

Responding to the observed need and inspired by Australia’s Family Relationship Centres, the Honoring Families Initiative of IAALS developed an out of court model to better serve families in transition. The model uses a multidisciplinary approach working in partnership with the legal system to address the comprehensive needs of separating and divorcing families, and specifically the children of those families, in a one-stop, all –inclusive process.

The University of Denver supported implementation of the out of court model on campus as a demonstration project. The first center of its kind in the United States to provide multi-disciplinary legal dispute resolution, therapeutic and educational services to separating and divorcing families, the Resource Center for Separating and Divorcing Families (RCSDF) officially opened its doors in the fall of 2013. The Center also served as a teaching site, providing graduate in social work and psychology and law students at the University of Denver an opportunity to learn through a real-life, multi-disciplinary approach which mirrored their future work in practice.


IAALS undertook an evaluation of the RCSDF program to assess the application of it’s out of court model in a university setting. In the summer of 2016, two-year data from IAALS demonstrated that the model of service delivery was working for the families it was serving. More than four out of five parents reported that RCSDF had a positive impact on themselves, their children, and their family as a whole.

Parents who completed the program and submitted evaluation questionnaires showed a statistically significant positive change in the following areas:

  • Lower levels of stress, anxiety, and depression
  • Decreased acrimony
  • Increased shared decision making skills
  • Better communication skills, especially with respect to less violent and more collaborative styles of communication
  • Increased confidence in the ability to co-parent

In terms of child well-being, the participants reported statistically significant positive changes in the following areas:

  • Decreased levels of parenting stress in terms of parental distress, dysfunction between parents and children, and difficulties with children
  • More appropriate emotional expectations for their children
  • Significant increase in adaptive behaviors with respect to internalizing anxiety and depression

Based on these positive outcomes for families and children the decision was made to launch the RCSDF into the community and to establish it as a free-standing, not-for-profit entity that would over time become self-sustaining. With that decision the Center for Out-of-Court Divorce Denver was established and opened its doors in September 2015. The multi-disciplinary alternative dispute model providing services to separating and divorcing families with children used at RCSDF was replicated utilizing a staff of licensed, expert mental health professionals and lawyers. COCD continues to support professional learning but at a reduced scale as compared to the university model of RCSDF. IAALS will continue to lead an ongoing formal research process to evaluate the process and outcomes for families served at COCD.

The success of the model also spawned the creation of the National Center for Out-Of-Court Divorce to work with communities throughout the United States to create and implement COCD centers offering this proven family-centered approach for couples with children who want to end their partnership or marriage through compassionate, holistic divorce resolution. The out of court process will work differently in the various jurisdictions given the specific needs of each community but all centers will share best practices and the proven key foundational components of the IAALS/HFI model.