June 29, 1998 12:00 PM

The 12 children, 6-and 7-year-olds, eye each other nervously. Strangers, they’ve been left by their mothers or fathers in this bare and unfamiliar Miami classroom and told only that they are there to learn how to deal with their parents’ divorce. Counselor Chuck Bryant, sensing their wariness, herds the kids into a circle, counts them—and keeps on counting, well past 12. “That’s too many!” one boy shouts, as the others laugh and relax a bit. Then Bryant cuts to the chase.

“What is divorce?” he asks, and the answers come back rapid-fire. “It’s when your dad won’t work.” “It’s when your mom gets a new boyfriend.”

“It’s a really scary time.”

“You feel kind of alone.”

The definitions may vary, but the gut feelings are the same. Divorce struck these kids like a tidal wave, leaving behind emotional wreckage that many of them feared was beyond repair. But not Miami Beach family psychotherapist Gary Neuman. He has a saying: “Our lives are like sand castles worn away in the tide. “With a little effort they can be rebuilt.” From this homily sprang Sandcastles, Neuman’s innovative program to guide children ages 6 to 17 and their parents through one of life’s most traumatic upheavals. Neuman developed the course through his practice and in 1994 presented it to the Miami-Dade County family court, where it is now mandatory for divorcing couples. Florida families have found Sandcastles so successful that 20 jurisdictions in 13 other states now also use it. To date, more than 30,000 children and their parents have taken the 4-hour course.

“Gary hit upon something,” says Max Baer, administrative judge for the family court in Pittsburgh, who has been using the program since 1997. “I always say the kids are victims of friendly fire. Each parent figuratively shoots them with fire intended for the other parent.”

The wounds run deep. In Neuman’s experience, children of divorce display disproportionately high rates of depression, substance abuse and delinquency. Yet few receive guidance. “If a parent dies, the child’s friends and family know how to give help and comfort,” says Neuman, 33, who holds a master’s in mental health from Miami’s Barry University and a Rabbinic Degree from Talmudic University in Miami Beach. “In the case of divorce, the community basically says, ‘That’s tough, kid, get in line.’ ”

At Sandcastles, counselors lead children through interactive therapies—including role-playing, drawing family pictures and writing letters to their parents—designed to help them identify and vent their fears, anger and frustration. In a separate class, parents are taught techniques—say, using diplomatic language or complimenting each other’s child rearing—that reduce hostility and discourage dividing their children’s loyalties. Not surprisingly, some parents resist the class. “People are often very mad that they have to come here,” says Pat Lindsay, coordinator of the program at Miami-Dade Community College. But by the end, most are grateful. “It was great to learn ways to get along with his father,” says Jackie Quintana, 30, who brought her son Emilio, 10. “I thought I was part of the problem,” says Emilio. “Now I know I’m not.”

Though an expert on divorce, Neuman, who recently published Helping Your Kids Cope with Divorce the Sandcastles Way, has experienced only domestic bliss. The youngest of four sons of David Neuman, a Baltimore accountant, and his wife, Celia, he has been married for 11 years to Melisa, 32, mother of Yehuda, 10, Esther, 8, Michael, 4, and twins Daniel and Joshua, 3. The couple, Orthodox Jews, had an old-world courtship: Until their wedding night—three months after being introduced—they had never held hands or even been alone together. But they are nothing if not romantic. On their weekly “date night,” Neuman says, “we remember those moments when we were falling in love.”

When they do argue, Melisa asserts, it is a kind of dialectic. “We don’t blame,” she says. “We say, ‘This is important to me. That hurts me.’ “If all couples could be as reasonable, perhaps, Sandcastles might have fewer clients. “None of us are perfect,” Neuman says. “But as long as you focus on your love and the goodness you see in each other, you can work through any difficulty.”

Sophfronia Scott Gregory

Greg Aunapu in Miami

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