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The kids' schedule? See the website.

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 2, 2003

Paul Volker, an airline mechanic in Minneapolis, considers himself well organized. But he will never forget the holiday season three years ago when a scheduling mix-up with his former wife threw their extended family's plans into disarray. His three children arrived four days early for Christmas.

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"Nobody was where they were supposed to be," he says, his voice on the phone still reflecting the magnitude of the snafu.

His cousin Kathleen Kissoon, a family law attorney in Minneapolis, adds, "The kids will never forget that Christmas because it was so terrible. It wasn't that anyone was vicious. It was just a misunderstanding."

Vowing to find a better way to help all divorced families keep track of visitation - "If it's Tuesday, this must be Mom's house" - Mr. Volker turned to the Internet. Slowly, he developed a website for families living in separate households.

Called, the venture - two years in the making - enables parents to coordinate schedules through color-coded calendars, replacing random datebooks and scribbled pieces of paper. It is catching the attention of judges, lawyers, and family mediators, who hope it will help to harmonize family relationships and keep parents out of court.

"Very often in the early stages of divorce, a couple's ability to communicate is very poor," explains Nancy Zalusky Berg, a matrimonial lawyer in Minneapolis. "The face-to-face communication becomes very volatile and emotional. People don't hear very well when they're emotional."

But with the calendar and e-mail, she says, parents can document scheduled karate lessons, for example, "as opposed to arguing about whether somebody told [somebody else]."

Days that children spend with fathers are shaded in one color, while time with mothers is shaded in another. Each child's activities appear in a different color. Color bars on each activity indicate which parent will drop off or pick up the children. Parents can print out the monthly calendar and post it on the refrigerator.

Other features include an expense log and a family message board for short communications from one person to another. An information bank includes a record of vital statistics, school schedules, contact information for teachers and child-care providers - even clothing sizes, useful for a parent who does not usually shop for the children.

After a divorce, the decree and terms of the agreement are posted in each couple's program, accessible only by a password. If questions arise about visitation, child support, or other issues, the parties involved can go online. That clarification - faceless, voiceless, emotionless - prevents disputes, saving time and legal expenses.

"Fees in divorce cases are just going out of sight," Ms. Kissoon says. "The court system is looking for ways to resolve conflict, so parents can solve things themselves."

To that end, James Swenson, a family court district judge in Hennepin County, Minn., even orders some couples to use the program as a way of reducing hostility.

He measures its success in part by its ability to keep divorced parents from returning to court again and again, thus reducing the need for judicial involvement.

Beyond that practical advantage for the court, Judge Swenson is intrigued by what Our Family Wizard does for children.

"Children suffer when they watch their parents fight," he says. "If I can help the parents find a way to communicate that doesn't mean the child is in the room when a parent is on the phone screaming at the other, kids are going to be less scarred by the whole process."