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One afternoon last June, Monica Arana picked up her six-year-old son Clark from kindergarten at Palm Springs North Elementary School in north Miami-Dade. The boy showed her a coloring book, which he said a teacher had given him. The title was I Survived the Divorce Monster.
Arana, who at the time was separating from the boy's father, leafed through the fifteen-page book. On page two was a connect-the-dots drawing of an ugly creature with horns and fangs. "This is the Divorce Monster," read the caption. "He is not exactly a friend of mine." The next page featured a sketch of a bedroom window. "The monster used to peek in my window at night when Mom and Dad would fight," explained the text. The child was asked to "draw the Divorce Monster peeking in the window. Draw your parents in the room."
Arana freaked. "I couldn't believe my eyes," she says. "It was scary, exactly what you don't want your kids to feel when you are going through family problems. I couldn't believe anyone would give something like that to a little boy."
It is unclear how many of these coloring books were distributed to Miami-Dade students. Some domestic abuse experts nevertheless contend that the I Survived the Divorce Monster dramatizes a problem: School administrators don't review such material. Children may therefore be exposed to harmful instruction or information.
Sherry Randazzo, the counselor whose signature appears on Clark Arana's book, did not return calls from New Times. Palm Springs North principal Dawn Hurns says she has never encountered the coloring book. And deputy superintendent of Miami-Dade Public Schools Dr. Henry Fraind says he has never seen it either, does not want to see it, has heard no other complaints about it, and does not know in how many schools it had been used. He explains that teachers and counselors can choose educational tools without the approval of superiors. "We have a very free school system," he insists. "We don't censor materials."
The book was copyrighted in 1990 by mar*co products, based in Warminster, Pennsylvania. Marla Chiarolanza, a mar*co employee, says the company stopped distributing it at least two years ago. She does not know the reason for the halt, the quantity distributed, or whether parents in other locales have complained.
How bad is the coloring book? On its pages Arana found
*a drawing of a suitcase and sealed boxes on the day the father leaves the house. "That's when the Divorce Monster moved in and tried to ruin my life," reads the text.
*an illustration of two adults arguing. "One time when Dad came to pick me up, Mom and Dad got into a terrible fight. I was afraid what the Divorce Monster might do."
*a child being tugged in opposite directions by adults. "At first it seemed Mom was pulling one of my arms and Dad was pulling the other one. They fought about me constantly. But when Dad got a new family, it seemed like he didn't love me anymore. He didn't visit or call or write."
*the monster pictured with the child and a report card. "The worst thing the Divorce Monster ever did was tell me it was my fault my parents got divorced. It said that if I had eaten all my broccoli and kept my room clean and gotten all A's, this divorce wouldn't have happened. This isn't true."
At the top of page fourteen Arana found this statement: "After the Divorce Monster comes to your house, your life is never like in the fairy tales where they lived happily ever after. You hurt inside for a long time."
On that same page the child is shown hitting the monster over the head with a mallet. "As you get bigger, the Divorce Monster gets smaller. You learn to talk about those yucky feelings and you don't hurt so much inside." On the final page, the child proudly wears an "I survived the Divorce Monster" button. "You'll survive the Divorce Monster too," reads the final caption.
"That book was doing more harm than good," complained Arana, who also has a three-year-old daughter. So Arana went to the school and complained to an administrator, she says. She cannot remember that person's name. On July 16 Arana appeared before Judge Bertila Soto seeking a restraining order.
"[Arana] told me that she thought her son needed counseling," Soto recalls. "She said one reason the child required help was he was having nightmares. She blamed this coloring book he had been given at school. She described it to me and I told her it couldn't be that bad."
But Arana later took the coloring book to Soto. "And she was right," says the judge. "I'm divorced and I have a child. If anyone handed this to my daughter, I would be outraged. My daughter would be petrified. We need to reassure children in that situation, not frighten them. I'm sure whoever gave this to that little boy did so with the best intentions, but that person either doesn't have kids or didn't read the thing."
Amy Karan, administrative judge for Miami-Dade's Domestic Abuse Court, agrees. Court officials recently formed a committee with members of the school board and other school employees to create a domestic abuse curriculum. "I want to make sure they don't use a document like this in the course," Karan emphasizes.
Karan asked a court employee to present a copy of the coloring book to some school board members at a meeting in September -- though she doesn't know which members received it. Seemingly none of them contacted Palm Springs North principal Hurns.
"There apparently is no centralized review of materials such as these," Karan says. "There should be."
Judges Karan and Soto both believe that the book undermines county efforts to help children who are having family problems. In Miami-Dade all couples seeking divorce who have minor children must complete a four-hour course that teaches them to help their kids cope. Children ages six through seventeen must also attend a three-and-a-half-hour course called the Sandcastles Program. Final divorce decrees are not granted until all the classes are completed.
Nationally known family therapist M. Gary Neuman of Miami Beach designed the Sandcastles Program, which is mandatory in more than a dozen American cities. "You don't want to lead children into fears they are not experiencing already," he says of the coloring book. "There may be some kids who would find the Divorce Monster funny and it would do them no harm, but others would find it frightening.... Before we give something to our children to use, it should be tested.