Fifteen-year-old Brandee Hyre of Columbia knows just how difficult divorce can be on children.
When her parents divorced in 1981, her mother was given custody of her. While living with her mother, her stepfather and four siblings in West Virginia, she became unhappy because she didn't get along with her mother and stepfather.
"There were all kinds of problems," recalled Brandee, who grew so depressed she stayed in her room most of the time. "Negativity was number one. Everything was my fault."
It was during a visit to her father, John Hyre, in Columbia, that Brandee finally got some help, through the Columbia-based Children of Separation and Divorce Center Inc.
In the past 12 years, the group, which also has offices in Montgomery County, has helped more than 5,000 families cope with complications of divorce, separation and remarriage.
Brandee found her way there through the efforts of her father's second wife, who came across the center's number in the telephone book.
"I called all these places in the county, and no one helped us," said Brenda Hyre. "I kept getting transferred."
It didn't take long for Risa Garon, the center's executive director and therapist, to see that Brandee was troubled. She placed the girl in counseling and in a high school group with teen-agers in similar situations.
And Mrs. Garon recommended the Hyres, who married in June 1985, seek custody of Brandee, which they were granted last August.
Sitting on steps inside her family's Huntingdon home last week, with her father, stepmother and two stepbrothers nearby, Brandee said she's happy.
"It's a better environment," she said. "It was well worth it."
Brandee's case illustrates many of the problems and pressures faced by children whose families break apart.
"I think there's a lot of pain involved for children of divorce," Mrs. Garon said. "Children, as well as adults, have a picture-perfect image of what a family should be."
She and Barbara Mandell, former therapists at the Family Life Center in Wilde Lake, started the Children of Separation and Divorce Center to help families with what Mrs. Garon calls the "ghosts" of divorce and separation.
"Divorce can be like death", Mrs. Garon said, explaining the intensity of loss that people feel in the breakup of a family.
In Howard County, with more than 88,000 married couples, there are more than 10,000 divorced couples and more than 3,000 separated couples, according to the 1990 Census.
Mrs. Garon said the center is a first step, not a cure-all, to help families that have been through divorce.
"We felt we had to stop the ugliness that exists between parents," said Mrs. Garon, married to the same man for 25 years. The mother of two was voted last year's Maryland Social Worker of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers' Maryland Chapter.
The center, which was part of the Family Life Center until about two years ago, has five staffers, 35 volunteer peer counselors and 17 contractual therapists.
Its $250,000 annual budget is supported through grants and donations from individuals and corporations. Families are charged on their ability to pay; sometimes the fees are covered by insurance plans.
The center's family-oriented programs include professional and peer counseling, outreach and education. It also offers group sessions for elementary, middle and high school-aged children, young adults, women, men and stepfamilies.
With backing from United Way, the center recently started a partnership with Wilde Lake High School to provide support to students from single-parent and stepparent families.
And two years ago, the center began a monthly parenting seminar, which judges in Montgomery County now order couples to attend before obtaining divorce decrees.
In addition, the center often works behind the scenes with judges and lawyers to avoid potential adversarial situations between spouses that can hurt the children.
"We help to reach agreements," Mrs. Garon said. Many parents think they have "a piece of gum called their child, and say, 'I want half.' "
Members of the group also take an active role in the political
Last Wednesday, for instance, Mrs. Garon testified in Annapolis in support of a bill that would require couples -- and their children -- get counseling before getting a divorce.
Mrs. Garon said the center's staff works hard to demystify counseling and to eradicate stereotypes about divorce.
"It's hard to walk through the doors of a mental health center and say, 'I need help,' " Mrs. Garon said.
Helping the children
The primary focus is on the children in divorce situations, many of whom become depressed, even suicidal, or angry and violent, Mrs. Garon said.
"Seventy-five percent of the kids we work with experience problems in school," Mrs. Garon said.
Stefanie Pearlman, 22, a peer counselor at the center whose parents divorced when she was 8 years old, works closely with teen-agers coping with divorce.
"I think I'm helpful to them because I'm close to their age and I went through a lot of the difficulties that the adolescents are going through," she said.
For example, Ms. Pearlman had a difficult time dealing with her divorced parents' dating, and difficulty in thinking of her biological father's new apartment as her home.
"I felt uncomfortable getting a drink of water without asking him," she said. "There's a whole host of issues that come up when your family is divorced because your family is constantly organizing."
'A reality check'
Mr. Hyre, Brandee's father, said the rocky experience of the divorce and its effect on his daughter has given him "a reality check," prompting him to take time to talk to all his children.
"That's the most important thing in a child-parent relationship: communication," Mr. Hyre said.
He and his wife said Mrs. Garon and the center definitely helped their family.
"She's a fantastic person," Mr. Hyre said. "She's been so supportive of all of us."
Further information about the Children of Separation and Divorce Center Inc. is available by calling Risa Garon at (410) 740-9553 or (301) 596-1677.