- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 15, 2001

NEW ORLEANS Burdened with the legacy of wicked fairy-tale stepmothers and the too-cute-to-be-true Brady Bunch, America's stepfamilies are in need of wiser advice and stronger support from clergy, therapists, lawyers and financial planners.

That was the core message at a recent national conference billed as the first of its kind drawing together experts from a wide range of professions to consider the complexities of stepfamily life.

"Most of our laws and policies are based on first families," Margorie Engel, president of the Stepfamily Association of America, said at the opening session. "It creates pretty bizarre results when you apply these to all the stepfamilies around the country."

Miss Engel's association, chief sponsor of the two-day National Conference on Stepfamilies, estimates that half of all Americans will be involved in a stepfamily relationship of some sort.

Yet three decades after no-fault divorce began softening the stigma of broken marriages, Miss Engel said, many stepfamilies feel misunderstood and often are frustrated by the advice they get from professionals.

"A lot of these people don't have a clue how to deal with stepfamilies," said Miss Engel, citing problems with therapists, lawyers and financial advisers.

The conference was designed to promote attitudes and public policies that better reflect stepfamilies' needs. Speakers from a variety of fields suggested steps to accomplish this.

The Rev. Ron Deal discussed a stepfamily ministry that he has developed at the Southwest Church of Christ in Jonesboro, Ark., and urged clergy nationwide to be more attentive to stepfamilies.

"Despite the prevalence of stepfamilies in the U.S., the church keeps acting as if the two-parent-biological home is the only thing out there," he told a conference workshop. "Divorce is not the unforgivable sin. We have a message of redemption that stepfamilies need to hear."

One common problem, Mr. Deal said, is that many stepfamilies don't want to think of themselves as different and strive to be "an instant biological family" comparable to the Brady Bunch.

Mr. Deal's essential message to such stepfamilies: "Your family is different and complex not dysfunctional, not bad, not unholy."

Another major topic at the conference was the legal and financial problems facing stepfamilies. Speakers noted that most stepparents are in the legal sense strangers to their stepchildren, and thus need to take extra steps to ensure that the stepchildren are included in wills or health insurance plans.

Other problems cited by speakers include school counselors and military officials unfamiliar with stepfamily dynamics, therapists wedded to "first family" models, and doctors unsure how much authority a stepparent has to approve major medical treatment for a stepchild.

"Some really bad advice is going out," Miss Engel said. "The husband and wife are not getting the information they need."

Kay Pasley, a professor of family studies at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, said debate on stepfamily policy is complicated by the lack of accurate national statistics. She estimated that nearly 30 percent of America's children are in stepfamilies, but said the Census Bureau does not compile the kind of data that would nail down a figure.

Another elusive statistic is the national divorce rate, which is generally estimated at between 40 percent and 50 percent. Miss Pasley said remarriages, often because of the strains of stepfamily life, end in divorce about 60 percent of the time.

James Bray, a professor at the Baylor College of Medicine, said his research suggests that stepchildren are no more prone to drinking and drug abuse than other children, but have roughly double the rate of other behavioral and learning problems.

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