ST. LOUIS — TWENTY-FIVE years after ''no-fault'' divorce laws swept the country, Americans are starting to turn back the clock.
Next month, Michigan may become the first state in the nation to revert to a system that forces couples to go through a more rigorous legal process before receiving a divorce. Iowa is considering a similar move.
''We shifted from a fault to a no-fault system in a rush a generation ago, and we really haven't looked back,'' says William Galston, a professor of public affairs at the University of Maryland. ''The evidence is now beginning to accumulate that the changes have not been good for minor children. And people are beginning to pay attention.''
The attempt to return to tougher divorce laws reflects growing conservative attitudes about issues from welfare to education.
Some social scientists now say that no-fault laws, which removed the need for blame in a divorce, contributed to a more than 30 percent increase in the national divorce rate between 1970 and 1994. Recent research has also shown that children of divorced parents face greater difficulty than was previously thought. ''Even when you take into account the level of pre-divorce conflict in the family, research shows the negative effect of divorce on minor children in virtually every dimension - economic, educational, psychological,'' Mr. Galston says.
Effects of divorce on children
Statistics drawn from Census data portray the negative effects of divorce. For mothers, divorce can mean a significant drop in income. For children of divorced parents, it can mean a greater likelihood of dropping out of school, getting into trouble with the law, and having children out of wedlock.
Armed with new research and favorable political trends, Michigan State Rep. Jessie Dalman (R) crafted a bill to repeal the state's no-fault divorce law. She says the 1972 law ''has weakened the fabric of the family and devalued marriage.'' Her bill, to be introduced next month, already has won the support of Republican Gov. John Engler and the state's GOP House Speaker.
Gov. Terry Branstad (R) of Iowa agrees that no-fault laws hurt children. ''I think sometimes people just decide to get divorced and don't even think about the impact on children,'' he says.
With the governor's support, Iowa State Rep. Charles Hurley (R) is drafting a bill that would require grounds for a divorce - such as adultery, cruelty, or desertion - unless both spouses consent to end the marriage.
Under current no-fault law, such criteria are not necessary to secure a divorce. All 50 states now have no-fault laws or variations of them.
The latest reforms are being pursued in the interests of children. But critics of the rollback argue that children would be even worse off if parents revert to playing the blame-game in court. ''If you go back to having fault divorces, more conflict will be created in cases. And it's the conflict that harms the children,'' says Douglas McNish, a family court judge in Wailuku, Hawaii. ''In order to make a claim for divorce, people would have to say really awful things about the other party.''
Providing parent-education programs through the courts is a better way to prevent the negative impact of divorce on children, many argue. ''If you try to restrict the right to divorce, we will revert back to the fault-divorce era when people evaded the law and lied in court,'' says Andrew Schepard, a law professor at Hofstra University. ''I would rather have education programs to force people to slow down, think, and plan for future parenting.''
In the past decade, education seminars have spread across the country. The goal is to inform parents about the challenges divorce creates for children and make them aware of their children's needs during and after the split. Utah and Connecticut mandate that all divorcing parents of minor children take a parent-education course, and 41 states offer some kind of program.
Though the courses range in length and focus, the most-covered topics include the benefits of parental cooperation versus conflict, typical post-divorce reactions of children, and the responsibilities of custodial parents.
''We send some real basic messages like, don't fight in front of the children and don't use them as messengers,'' Mr. McNish says. In his court, McNish shows up at the beginning of each session to show parents the importance he places on the process. ''This is one of the only preventative things the courts do,'' he says.
A dissent on divorce education
Not all divorce lawyers favor the idea. In Cook County, Ill., last year, a Chicago law firm challenged the county's requirement that all divorcing parents attend an education session.
''Parents are not stupid,'' says Stuart Litwin of the Chicago firm, Kaufman, Litwin, Feinstein. ''They know to keep their kids out of their divorce.''
His firm argued that the legislature should pass a mandate for education of divorcing parents. It won and the mandate was thrown out. But judges may still order couples to attend classes.
Professor Galston agrees that parent education is a good idea when divorce cannot be avoided. But he doesn't think it is enough to eliminate the damage to children. Instead, he proposes banning no-fault divorces for couples with dependent children or imposing a five-year waiting period.