Increasingly, in Clark County: ‘You’re divorced’

In Clark County Superior Court, more and more people hear this decree

By Laura McVicker, Columbian staff writer

Published:

 

On a Friday afternoon, there isn’t an empty seat in the corner courtroom on the third floor of the Clark County Courthouse.

Packed together on benches, dozens of men and women scan their cell phones anxiously, fidget or glance at the paperwork in their lap until, finally, the court commissioner calls their name.

Some of them have been waiting for a half hour or longer. Still, they aren’t happy when it’s their turn.

“Is your marriage irretrievably broken?” Superior Court Commissioner Dan Stahnke asks each person who stands before him.

A woman in her 20s tells the commissioner she was married only three years. An older man says he wants to make sure he keeps his Harley-Davidson. The next is concerned about what will happen to property he owns in California.

Stahnke asks whether the division of assets is fair and if children are involved. Eventually he says those significant words: “You’re divorced.”

This painful ritual has skyrocketed in Clark County. Divorce cases have increased by more than 45 percent over the past several years, from 2,058 divorce filings in 2006 to more than 3,000 last year.

This trend counters nationwide statistics showing divorce rates are falling. In Washington, divorce rates have stayed flat.

Locally, however, divorce filings were steady at about 2,100 cases per year between 1995 and 2006. Then the numbers began steadily increasing, taking a jump in 2010.

The rates are outpacing the county’s population growth. In 2006, Clark County’s divorce rate was 5.04 per 1,000 people; in 2010 the rate was 7.12 per 1,000.

The explosion, particularly among people filing for divorce without lawyers, led the Superior Court to open an additional Friday docket last year.

Some days, 50 people show up to finalize divorces. On the busiest days, it takes several hours to get through all the cases.

And there’s no sign things are slowing down. “Business is good, and that’s bad,” said Superior Court Judge Edwin Poyfair, who chiefly hears family law cases, including dissolutions.

Experts attribute the hike to the economic recession, saying financial stress is to blame for failing marriages. Yet those same experts can’t explain the discrepancy in local and nationwide rates. Some say it’s counter-intuitive that divorce rates would be increasing here and flat or decreasing elsewhere.

“It surprises me,” said Keith Hackett, executive director of Vancouver’s Columbia Pastoral Counseling Center. “Some people can’t afford to get divorced. Some couples, if they get divorced, they have to sell their house.”

That could be why many litigants are filing for divorce without lawyers. Alison Greene, a Vancouver divorce attorney, said many people who would normally be able to afford her services are opting to represent themselves. As a result, her business has declined, even though she’s had more people call to see how much it costs to retain her. She tells them her fee is $2,500 plus hourly charges.

“People just don’t have that kind of money,” Greene said. “There’s a lot of price shopping going on.”

The court system has felt most of the brunt, as court clerks have increasingly had to explain the law and walk litigants through the process. It’s not a fast process, either, because there’s a waiting list to get divorces finalized that stretches into the spring, Poyfair said.

Pointing to a stack of files on his desk 2 feet tall on a recent afternoon, the judge said: “This is my docket for Friday.”

Discrepancy

While lawyers and marriage counselors can’t explain why Clark County is bucking the national trend, they can speak to the reasons why they believe our rates are soaring.

Experts suggest divorce rates mimic the decline of the economy and the county’s high unemployment rates, and that financial stress on marriages is likely a large factor.

Finances have always been at the top of the list as a reason couples quarrel, said Dwight and Michelle Lathim, who head a divorce recovery group at Vancouver’s New Heights Church. But it has become more pronounced over the past few years, they say.

A common scenario, they say, is that either spouse takes a second job because the other one was laid off, resulting in less time together. Or, with finances tight, the couple will bicker about how to spend their money.

Financial stress, however, is not insurmountable in a good marriage, where the couple has good and open communication and spends quality time together.

But “in a bad marriage, it can be the breaking point,” Michelle Lathim said.

When the couple started the group a decade ago, other marital problems appeared more salient, such as differing parenting ideas or unfaithfulness. However, “we hear about (financial stress) a lot more today,” Michelle Lathim said.

That’s not to say that the couple hasn’t seen the economy cause the opposite scenario. They’ve seen several couples decide to stay together for the sole purpose of saving money.

“It’s largely financial,” Michelle Lathim said. “A lot of people, because finances are tight, aren’t getting a divorce.”

Long hours

Among the county’s divorcés is 53-year-old Bruce Cook, who took the Lathims’ three-month divorce recovery class for newly single people last spring. Married for 15 years, Cook said he initially separated from his wife with the hope that they would work through their problems and reunite.

But it didn’t happen. Their divorce was finalized in fall 2008.

Cook said money was definitely a factor in their marital problems. A Presbyterian pastor in Eastern Washington, Cook decided to get out of ministry in 2002 and find a career that was more stable for his wife and three kids.

Because his wife had roots in the Vancouver area, they moved here and Cook took a temporary job as a Schwan’s route driver, working long hours to support his family. It took its toll on the quality time they spent together. Some nights he would work until midnight.

Cook said the couple didn’t nurture their relationship.

“If you can’t spend time together and the only thing that you do talk about when you are together is financial stress, then you’re not going to have a lot of marital bliss,” he said.

Through the divorce recovery group, Cook grew and healed, so he decided to help the Lathims teach a class last fall. Now he’s leading his own group this winter at Vancouver’s Columbia Presbyterian Church.

He said the lessons he’s learned greatly affect his ability to see where others are coming from and to offer advice.

“I thought my marriage would last until the day I died,” he said. “I think the key is working on the marriage before it gets to the separation stage.”

Cook said he isn’t surprised to hear the divorce rates are rising.

“Finances are one of the major problems that lead to strife in marriage,” he said. “The need for these classes is growing.”

Why Clark County?

Times are tough everywhere, so what makes Clark County have rising divorce rates?

Attorneys, judges and marriage counselors couldn’t explain the trend. When Superior Court Administrator Jeff Amram provided statistics on divorce filings to a reporter, he ended the e-mail by saying: “No idea why.”

The most that divorce lawyers could offer was conjecture.

“I would have to assume it’s the economy,” said Scott Horenstein, a prominent and longtime Vancouver divorce lawyer. “I wouldn’t see any other problems.”

And lawyers and marriage counselors say they aren’t seeing any new trends among divorcés — they aren’t younger or older than before. Middle-age folks and twentysomethings are still separating at the same pace, they say.

Some legal officials suggested domestic violence is on the rise in Clark County and, therefore, it could be a factor. However, statistics from the prosecutor’s office show the number of felony and misdemeanor domestic violence crimes has stayed relatively flat: 1,776 cases in 2006 compared with 1,787 last year.

Judge Poyfair said he thought more people were coming to Clark County from the Portland area to get divorced because Washington’s dissolution laws aren’t as stringent as in Oregon. To file for divorce in Washington, you have only to claim residency on the day you petition for dissolution, compared with Oregon’s six-month mandate.

Statistics suggest Poyfair’s theory could ring true. Multnomah County Circuit Court divorce filings have declined slightly, from 3,014 filings in 2006 to 2,933 in 2009.

Clay Mosher, a sociology professor at Washington State University Vancouver, also suspected the soaring numbers are attributable to the transitory nature of our county, compounded by the recession.

“More people are moving into Clark County than other counties in Washington,” Mosher said. “Generally, people who move more are not in a stable situation.”

Mosher also listed off factors that generally lead to higher divorce rates. Among them: people who marry younger, those who have been married multiple times, and non-Hispanic populations who divorce more frequently.

“While Clark County has experienced increases in the Hispanic population, these increases may not be as great as elsewhere in the country and Washington state,” Mosher said by e-mail.

It’s tough to tell whether the other factors could be at play because the Census Bureau does not have recent statistics on Clark County’s average marrying age or those who have been married multiple times.

Still, Mosher suggested another explanation for the surge:

“It could just be anomalous.”

Laura McVicker: 360-735-4516 or laura.mcvicker@columbian.com.