Saturday, October 30, 2004


" Holstein : Joint custody is best for kids"


By Ned Holstein / Guest Columnist



A member of Fathers and Families juggled his shifts so he could pick his pre-school daughter up from daycare every day at 2:00 p.m., while mom was still at work. He would tuck her in for her nap, make her dinner, play with her after dinner, and read stories to her at bedtime. She giggled when he croaked like Kermit, and shrieked with delight when he swung her in circles.


     After he and his wife divorced, he was allowed to see his daughter every other weekend, and she was in daycare 10 hours per day.


     Can there be any doubt that this child was wounded, and that she mourns the loss of her father? Almost everyone knows a child who has suffered this.


     Many Massachusetts voters have a chance to help thousands of children such as this little girl on election day, by voting in favor of a non-binding ballot question that urges legislators to support joint custody legislation. Family court judges seem to be caught in an "old-think" rut, and they need to be encouraged to abandon old ways of doing things that hurt kids, namely, sole custody of children to one parent. In most cases, there is no reason why children have to be cut off from one parent after a divorce (as well as entire extended families on one parent's side).


     Of course, there are some cases where joint custody is not best for children, such as where there is domestic violence, or where there are practical obstacles such as parents living far apart. The ballot question explicitly addresses these concerns. Also, that's why this ballot question is non-binding, so that responsible legislators such as state Rep. Stephen LeDuc, D-Marlborough, co-chairman of the legislature's Children's Caucus, will have flexibility. They will be able to fashion detailed legislation that will nudge the family courts towards shared parenting without taking away the judge's discretion to do what is best for children in each individual circumstance.


     Here's why our children deserve the voters' support for joint custody. False alarms about the dangers in a minority of cases should not stand in the way of what's best for most kids. We can help the great majority and also protect the few who need protection.


# Shared parenting after divorce is best for children. Research over the past twenty years proves this more and more conclusively. That's why, for instance, Dr. Michael Lamb, Head of the Section of Social and Emotional Development at the National Institutes of Health, has written, "...Parenting plans that allow children to see their fathers every Wednesday evening and every other weekend clearly fail to recognize the adverse consequences of weeklong separations from non-custodial parents...Instead of promoting parenting plans that marginalize one of the parents, custody evaluators should promote continued involvement by both parents..."


# Kids want shared parenting. Distinguished researcher Robert Emery in Virginia surveyed young adults whose parents had divorced. They expressed persistent feelings of sadness, emptiness, and of having missed out on a better life because of the limited time they had with their fathers. Another researcher, William Fabricius, asked such young adults what is the best arrangement for children of divorce; 75 percent responded, "Equal time with both parents."


# Shared parenting is the only measure that reliably increases child support compliance. Researcher Sanford Braver found that when joint custody was awarded, child support zoomed up to 97 percent compliance.


# Shared parenting is the fairest arrangement for parents. No parent wants to walk into court as a father (or mother), and walk out as a "visitor."


# Sole custody creates conflict, joint custody alleviates it. Many divorcing couples engage in bitter custody battles. These are totally unnecessary, and could be prevented by assuring both parents that neither will lose custody. Afterwards, the sole custody decision promotes still more conflict. As attorney Ronald Henry has written "The parents still must deal with one another in connection with all aspects of the child's life, but they do so in the unstable and unhealthy relationship of victor and vanquished."


# Shared parenting probably decreases post-divorce domestic violence. It is well known anecdotally that conflict provoked by sole custody sometimes boils over into violence.


# Sole custody freezes parents in stereotyped gender roles. Fathers, bearing large child support orders, must be breadwinners, often working two jobs, and have no time or legal right to be real parents. Mothers are trapped into nearly full-time motherhood, and most are unable to manage an ambitious career.

     This ballot question will run in all or in part in Marlborough , Millis, Natick , Northborough, Norwood , Sherborn, Shrewsbury , Southborough, Wellesley and Weston.



( Ned Holstein is president of Fathers and Families in Boston , )