Is Joint Custody of Children Best Following Separation of Parents?
Ludwig.F. Lowenstein Ph.D
Southern England Psychological Services
This article considers the value of joint parenting or "equal parenting" in preference to sole custody arrangements. Such an arrangement seems preferable, and especially when there has been acrimonious divorce or separation between such inimical parents. Joint parenting, providing firm structures are put in place, can do much to prevent future problems that arise over contact with a child/children. There needs to be an emphasis on both parents agreeing to co-operate with one another and encouraging mutual contact with the child. The article considers the importance of safeguards to make certain no one parent dominates and seeks total control of the child/children. The expert witness and the Judiciary need to make certain that both partners co-operated with what has been put in place.
Is Joint Custody of Children Best Following Separation of Parents?
The answer to the title is a resounding "Yes". Much depends however, on the capacity of the parents to co-operate with one another. Should this fail it is usually necessary to involve the Judicial system to make certain it works and that both parents share in the carrying out of their responsibilities of care and guidance towards their children. It must therefore be stressed, that there should be a structured access and contact procedure put in place embedded in the arrangement. This is likely to be in the best interest of the child whose parents have parted. Both parents normally wish to be included in the process of rearing the child. There is also the possible tendency for one parent or both parents to seek to dominate the arrangements. Both parents must consider however, what is in the best interest of their child/children and co-operate for the benefit of the child.
Both parents also need to encourage the child to enjoy good contact whenever they are with the other parent. This cannot be emphasised too strongly and too often. When this occurs there is no parental alienation or the desire of one parent to have total power and total control of the child. As a result there tends to be harmony rather than disharmony between the parents and between the parents and the child. In this situation the child benefits as well as both parents.
Most of all both parents must delete the notion of being in total control from their thinking and actions based on feelings of animosity towards one another. This is the best way to avoid future access problems to children and battles associated with a single parent having custody and hence having total control over the child's future contact with the now absent parent (Pearson et al., 1996). This is also the viewpoint of the Children's Rights Council (CRC) and its Director Dr David Levy (2006).
Each year in the United States according to CRS, 50,000 (fifty thousand) divorces occur and they result in high levels of conflict between the two parents. This results when one parent is sidelined and is no longer part of the family. Such parents frequently do not see a child for many months or even years, and sometimes not at all. The parent who prevents access and alienates the child often accuses the absent parent of a variety of abuses against the child.
None of these abuses, on the whole, are ever acknowledged or verified by the police or anyone else. Such situations are more likely to occur when under conditions of sole custody. This is when one parent is given total responsibility and control when there should really be shared parenting. In the latter condition both parents are aware of the rights and responsibilities in regard to their children. Their power in regard to how they will raise and guide the children is "shared". Any one of the parents who seeks to use total power and control at the expense of the other is automatically in the wrong and should be placed before a court of law or other mediating body and held to account. Any one party that seeks total power over the parenting of children, or prevention of good contact with both parents may need to have that power restrained. There needs to be the threat of actual provisions of punishment. The punishment could be a fine, loss of parental control and responsibility and as a last resort even imprisonment. Failure to act as such means that the alienating parent can practice emotional abuse of the child with impunity and without legal action being taken to remedy this situation. Emotional abuse of the child must be considered a "crime" and this fact is described in a separate article by the author.
The legal authority, including the courts, are well aware of the lengths that some parents will go to assert total power and to wield total control over a child. This frequently results in such false allegations of physical and sexual abuse or neglect. These allegations always need to be investigated and when found to be without basis such parents making such accusations against an innocent parent are required to be punished as already indicated earlier. Claims that a child does not wish to have contact with an absent parent must also be investigated in great depth by experts and the courts. Such refusal is likely to be caused by the unfair and unjustified influences of alienation of one parent against the other. This leads the child to reactions of not wanting contact with an often worthy parent. Such rejection of a good parent must never be countenanced.
Too many Judges give undue credence to a child who wishes no contact with an absent parent. For this reason many Judges make unjust decisions based on what the child wants to happen who has been alienated, rather than what is in the best interest of the child. It must be understood the basis of such behaviour of alienation is often due to the implacable hostility of one parent and sometimes both parents and their efforts to manipulate or brainwash a highly vulnerable child. As I have frequently stated, this is taking willful advantage of the alienated parent. The total control of one parent therefore, is the worst possible way of dealing with post separation disputes. As often stated, this is an illustration of "emotional abuse" which the current psychologist considers to be a serious criminal act, no different from physical and sexual abuse, and neglect of a child.
The motive for such behaviour is to neutralise or extinguish the rights and influences of an innocent and caring parent who wishes to play a role in the life of their child. Not only is this unfair and unjust, that one parent is ousted from caring for their child, but undermines the roles which a good parent can play in a child's life. It is a destructive act which damages the child's chance of receiving the love, care and guidance of a good parent.
Again such a scenario is less likely to occur when there is, from the beginning, agreed joint custody of children especially following an acrimonious divorce or separation. There must however be, as previously stated, safeguards by having a highly structured system which delineates how, when, and for how long, each parent has contact and control of a child. This system must be worked out in great detail by the mediator or the Judiciary. What has been arranged needs to be followed religiously. This should be with the input and agreement of the parents if possible but without it if necessary. If the parents fail to agree on such tight arrangements, then the decisions made by the mediator or the Court must be final.
Both parents are encouraged to be flexible when unexpected difficulties arise with a sense of give and take. This being unsuccessful, the arranged structure must be followed. If there is relative good will in both parents many obstacles regarding contact arrangements can be overcome. When this is not the case, then some form of mediation is required at once. This approach failing, due to the report presented to the court by the expert, then there is once more the need to involve the legal system in order to overcome such an impasse. It may mean that one parent may have to be excluded from the caring of the child if they totally lack in co-operation with the other parent.
Joint custody provides at least the awareness in each parent that they can continue, as much as possible, to co-operate with one another much as they did before the separation. Shared parenting and joint custody is the most fair and just arrangement possible, despite the difficulties that may occur. It is better than having one custodial parent with all the power and responsibilities of rearing the child and excluding the other, except when it is the desire of the alienating parent to allow contact! It does something towards preventing of the sidelining of one parent, while giving all power and control to the custodial parent.
The latter is not also in the best interest of the child. This is because it has long been established, that children develop best when they have two equally loving and caring parents of as equal a status as possible. Both responsibility and power (control) concerning the child/children should be shared. Equality in parenting is only applicable to those who do not abuse a child sexually, physically or emotionally and do not neglect the child. Those who practice any of the abuses mentioned have no right to continue to play a role in the child's life.
Levy, D. L. (2006) The need for public awareness and policy makers to respond to PAS: a
neglected form of child abuse. In, R. Gardner, S. R. Sauber, D. Lorandos (Eds) The international handbook of parental alienation: conceptual, clinical, and legal considerations. (pp 153-163). Springfield, Illinois, USA: Charles C. Thomas.
Pearson, J., Thonnes, N., Price, D., Williams, R. (1996). Evaluation of the child access
demonstration projects. In, David Arnaudo, Federal Programme Officer, in report to Congress, July 1996, (p5). Submitted to Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement, US Department of Health and Human Services,