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Time Shares : Joint physical custody is increasing as an option in divorce cases. When conditions are right, children may benefit by dividing their time equally between the homes of parents.

November 09, 1994|JULIE BAWDEN DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Dee Wade of Fountain Valley expected to make traditional divorce arrangements, so she was shocked by what the divorce mediator suggested.

The couple's 3-year-old daughter, Veronica, should spend alternate weeks living with one parent, then the other, the mediator urged. It's called joint physical custody.

"The mediator gave me information that showed it could be a positive experience, but that just fed my intellect," Wade said. "Emotionally, I wanted my daughter with me on a full-time basis."

After eight years, Wade has a different view. Afraid at first that the shuttling between households would damage the girl emotionally, Wade instead has seen her daughter grow into a happy, well-adjusted 11-year-old.

"Her father is a good parent, and we have basically the same ideas in terms of rules and how to handle situations," Wade said. "Veronica was happy to stay with both of us and has developed friends in both neighborhoods. She's been going back and forth since she remembers, and to her this is how life is."

It's how life is for an increasing number of children and their divorced parents as California courts, taking advantage of a pioneering 1980 law that allowed joint legal custody, are decreeing joint physical custody as well.

The Joint Custody Assn. in Los Angeles, which helped lobby for the 1980 legislation, estimates that joint legal custody is now being awarded in 80% of divorce cases involving children. In about 20% of such cases, parents are also being assigned roughly equal time with their children.

All-out child custody battles are notorious for being vitriolic, yet, even in seemingly amicable divorces, joint physical custody can be inappropriate, said Alexandra Rosenberg, a social worker in Newport Beach.

"Kids may experience conflicting loyalties if the parents play each household off the other and try to be the better family," she said. Problems are compounded when each parent imposes different rules for manners and household chores.

But when joint physical custody works, it works very well, Rosenberg said. Children grow up with role models of both sexes, which is nearly impossible to duplicate with merely occasional visitation, and each parent gets a regular respite from the pressures of single-parent child-rearing.

"Raising two boys can be exhausting when you're all alone with them," said Betty Callaway, 43, an Irvine real estate agent. "When they were younger, I was so frazzled by the time they went to their dad's that I couldn't wait for them to leave. Then, when it was time for them to come home, I couldn't wait to see them."

The arrangement has allowed her to better balance her business and her child-rearing, Callaway said. "When the kids are at their dad's, I will spend a lot of time at work. The weeks they're with me, I focus more attention on them."

And a joint physical custody arrangement can resolve the problem of fathers who, given only occasional visitation, become more like visitors than parents.

David Foust, 40, of Huntington Beach admitted he had been the breadwinning father who spent too much time at work and not enough time with his children. "Now, when the kids are with me, I can't stay at work, which is nice," he said.

But some effects of such arrangements are less obvious. Child support, for example, can change dramatically, said Nola McGuire, an Irvine attorney.

California courts set the amount of child support according to a formula that takes into account not only the income of both parents but the time children spend in each household. Joint physical custody can reduce or reverse the usual child-support situation, sometimes requiring that the mother pay support to the father.

More involved fathers are also less likely to become deadbeat dads, according to statistics. Fathers who share physical custody of their children pay their child support more than 90% of the time, according to the 1993 Census, compared to 79% for fathers who just have visitation privileges and 44.5% for fathers without visitation provisions.

And children, given regular, live-in access to their fathers, may avoid straying from the path, said Michael Pitts, executive director of the Children's Rights Council in Washington, D.C.

"Studies show that over 80% of people in prison come from single-parent homes. Gangs are full of fatherless young people," Pitts said.

"Over the last 50 years many children have lost their fathers because of the court's obsession with sole-custody determination. The very idea of visitation connotes going to see a stranger and implies a tenuous relationship."

But Jonathan Cannon, a family law judge in Orange County, says there is a basic contradiction to such joint physical custody arrangements. "In a way, it is ludicrous, because these type of situations require a great deal of cooperation between two people who have demonstrated that they can't get along."

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