Divorce rates in area counties among highest in state

By Julie Fann
star staff

Divorce rates in Tennessee's rural counties are on the rise, and poverty issues seem to be the predominant cause. According to a new 2000 U.S. Census Report, Johnson County ranked second highest, above Davidson County, in percentage of divorces, and Carter County ranked 16th out of the state's 95 counties.
   "I sometimes think that financial problems can almost be the greatest of all problems that people, married couples, can have. When they get really pinched for pennies, it's hard to maintain a cool, calm approach to anything. It has such a devastating effect on people and their behavior toward one another," said Cocke County Judge Ben Hooper.
   Cocke County had the third highest divorce rate in the U.S. Census study, with 13.5 percent of all marriages ending in divorce. In addition to drugs and alcohol, Hooper blamed substance abuse problems and a devaluing of basic principles.
   Caroline Hawkins, Circuit Court Clerk of Johnson County, said that poverty also leads to other problems such as domestic abuse and alcoholism. "We don't have a lot of places for young people with families to work. You know, when you don't have money, you want to blame someone, so couples start blaming each other, then more problems develop," she said. Out of a population of 14,656, approximately 13.8 percent of marriages in Johnson County ended in divorce in 2000.
   Hooper said that many people in Cocke County marry young, which he believes is also connected to financial stress, and also leads to divorce. "There's a lot of people getting married to get out of the home they live in. They marry young, and we see a lot of that," he said.
   Hooper believes if people lived "better lives," they would have a tendency to stay together. "I think if couples went to church more often and resisted temptations with the opposite sex...those things obviously create a lot of divorces," he said.
   However, Berlin Skeen, Carter County Divorce Attorney, believes poverty is actually encouraging Elizabethton couples to stay married. "I'm seeing more people who are trying to work things out because of the cost. The litigation expense is huge when it comes to a divorce case," he said. According to the U.S. Census Report, 12.2 percent of all Carter County marriages ended in divorce in 2000.
   Skeen also said couples with children seem more reluctant to divorce because child support laws have become so stringent. "I've actually had couples decide it's easier, all the way around, to stay married than to get a divorce," he said.
   Phil Poston, pastor of First Free Will Baptist Church in Elizabethton, said that few couples come to his church for counseling. He blames that on a decreased desire to remain committed due to societal changes that make divorce easier.
   "People think, hey, if it (marriage) doesn't work out, then we can get a divorce. But the Bible says that marriage is intended for a lifetime commitment," he said.
   Poston, who once pastored a church in Bristol, blamed the increase in divorce on a basically selfish society and a greater tendency to run from problems. "From my perspective, there's not a lot of people here (in Elizabethton) who seek counseling, and there doesn't seem to be as much of a desire to work things out here," he said.
   Rep. Bob Patton, R-Johnson City, sponsored a recent bill requiring those who refuse premarital counseling to pay an extra $60 for a marriage license. In addition, Patton has sponsored a bill, debated in the state budget committee last week, that would use those funds to provide services for child abuse and for the indigent to receive mediation.
   According to The Associated Press, Tennessee leads most southern states in broken marriages, with 11.3 percent of people 15 years or older divorcing, topping Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia. Only Florida was higher in 2000, with a 11.6 percent divorce rate.