Andover, Minn. — About three years ago, Paul and Dara Volker were expecting his children to visit for Christmas. They did. They just showed up three days early. And when Paul called his ex-wife to find out why, the conversation escalated into a shouting match in front of the kids. The couple thought there had to be a better way to communicate outside earshot of the children.
So with Paul's knowledge of the Internet and Dara's organizational skills, Paul says the two came up with the idea for Our Family Wizard, a Web site where separate households coordinate schedules and exchange information about the kids. Paul Volker says in stressful relationships it can be a big improvement over face-to-face and phone conversations.
"Managing intact marriages is always difficult with communication and kids running around doing this, that, and everything else. And now you have to plan for your former spouse to be informed and up to speed about what your children are doing and likewise. And I think the problem you run into is you're reluctant to make those calls until the last minute," he says.
And when you finally make or get that call, Dara says, the emotion is already riding high.
"Sometimes you're so angry you didn't even hear the request and you might be saying 'no' because you're angry and upset. And if you're have some place to read about it or look at it before you hit that hot button, they may get a different response," she says.
Paul and Dara enlisted the help of Jai Kissoon to set up the program.
A parent can go to the site and access the master calendar, which color codes each parent's responsibility for each day's activities. They can block out weeks for vacation months in advance so the other parent is up to date on days that may not work or times they can trade visits.
The site also acts as a kind of online file cabinet for the kids' medical histories, such as immunizations and allergies, so parents may access that information from anywhere in the world with an Internet connection. Kissoon says the program will take care of documenting shared expenses such as medical co-pays.
"You put in the full amount of the expense and it automatically calculates your percentage of it and then it sends a note to the other parent and says 'hey, you got a new expense, go check it out.' Then the other parent has the ability to either approve or refuse the expense. If they approve it, it sends a note to the parent that entered the expense and says the expense has been approved and then that parent just waits until the expense has been paid," Kissoon says.
That kind of documentation keeps everyone honest, says Hennepin County Family Court Judge James Swenson. Swenson, who has a box filled with Our Family Wizard promo materials in the corner of his chambers, says the program is not fool-proof. He says some parents still find ways to vent their anger even with the program. But he says the documentation radically cuts down on the number of he said/she said contempt hearings. Swenson says the bottom line for him is that it takes the heated communication between ex-spouses outside of a child's ears.
"They're happier kids because they're not sitting in the kitchen doing their homework while mom or dad's shouting on the phone to the other parent. They're happier kids when there are exchanges go well because parents are communicating," says Swenson.
Swenson says he offers the program to parents at the beginning of their case but only orders it in the most contentious divorces. Creators say parents in 38 states and five countries are using the program.
Parents pay $99 each for a year's access to Our Family Wizard, but is available at a reduced rate to families that can't afford it. For families that don't have computers, the creators have listed locations that offer free Internet access.