"Do what’s best for the kids."
Everyone says that during a divorce. But determining "what’s best" often becomes a mud-slinging tug-of-war where no one wins – especially the children.
Shared parenting plans attempt to diffuse the fighting, putting the children first. Both parents get joint legal and physical custody. The terms "custodial parent" and "visiting parent" no longer apply.
Supporters say joint custody helps fight the "fading father" syndrome, keeping dads emotionally and financially involved.
It makes sense. In a perfect world, children should grow up in a loving, supportive environment with both parents. And in a perfect world, both parents should share equal responsibilities, eradicating "traditional" gender roles where the father’s the sole breadwinner and the mother’s the sole caregiver.
But in the real world of divorce, the rational, level-headed thinking that joint custody often requires doesn’t always seem possible. And that’s the biggest barrier.
Read the Prairielaw.com message boards and you’ll see firsthand the emotional roller coaster of divorce.
It’s not easy for an ex-husband to drop the kids off at the home of his former wife, who he says lives with a new boyfriend every other month. It’s equally difficult for an ex-wife to encourage her kids to see their dad after he walked out on them. And one woman complains that shared parenting keeps her from moving up in her career, since she can’t take her dream job across the country without giving up her son. She questions adhering to the rules when, in her opinion, the father ignores the children and doesn’t pay any child support.
But David Luevy, an attorney and president of the Children’s Rights Council, based in Washington D.C., says that, overall, shared parenting works better than sole custody arrangements.
Luevy says studies from the American Psychological Association show that children tend to fare better emotionally when both parents are involved, minimizing the lasting effects of divorce. And fathers who share custody are also more likely to pay child support.
A U.S. Census Bureau report published in 1989 shows that 90.2 percent of fathers with joint custody pay the support due, while only 79.1 percent of fathers with visitation privileges pay full child support and only 44.5 percent of fathers with no visitation pay.
Judith Seltzer at the University of Wisconsin in Madison says that after studying more than 13,000 divorced families, she found that joint custody keeps fathers more involved.
About one in five currently divorced dads hasn’t seen his children in the past year, says Seltzer in her report "Father By Law: Effects of Joint Legal Custody on Nonresident Fathers’ Involvement with Children."
The only time shared parenting doesn’t work better than other custody arrangements is if the parents continue to fight, says Luevy. Arguing, crying and all the other emotional baggage that’s hard to shed hurts the children more than anything else. (Of course, joint custody isn’t possible if one of the parents is abusive or unfit in other ways.)
Diane Lye, author of the Washington State Parenting Act Study, which examined the effectiveness of Washington’s divorce and custody laws, agrees that if parental conflict exists, shared parenting "has adverse consequences for children in high conflict situations."
With that said, should fighting parents even attempt 50/50 shared parenting arrangements?
Luevy says yes.
"Even the most contentious parents can make joint custody work with highly structured visitation schedules," he says. "A flexible schedule will not work."
That’s why the Children’s Rights Council promotes using "drop off points," a neutral setting to transfer the kids, so that parents don’t have to see or talk to each other.
"Community centers, churches and day cares make excellent neutral settings," he says.
Joint custody is now the preferred and presumed custody arrangement in 26 states and the District of Columbia. And more than one out of five divorces has shared parenting arrangements, says a 1997 report from the National Center for Health Statistics.
"Considering the fact that for hundreds and hundreds of years, sole custody has been the only acceptable custody arrangement, it’s remarkable how quickly shared parenting has caught on," says Luevy.
He says only about five to 10 percent of divorced parents actually duke it out in court for custody.
But even the courts are increasingly favoring joint custody, instead of choosing one parent over the other. Recently a divorced couple in Boston made headlines when an Appeals Court ruled that the mother and father would rotate school years, so that one parent gets the child during the school week and the other parent gets the child for the weekends for one year. Then the parents will reverse the schedule the next year. Both parents had asked for sole custody.