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But Who Is Looking Out for the Children?

Divorce: Public policy isn't fully taking into account the disruption in young people's lives when their households divide, says the author of a long-term study.

June 03, 1997|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Adults who end a marriage know divorce to be a painful but time-limited crisis in which the most severe impact occurs when the union comes apart. But for children, according to new data from the nation's longest ongoing study of families and divorce, it turns out to be a long-term, cumulative experience whose impact increases over time.

For children, Marin County psychologist Judith S. Wallerstein found, the upheaval of divorce "gathers force as they reach young adolescence," when, because of financial changes resulting from the divorce, "they are often insufficiently supervised and poorly protected." Family restructuring with the addition of stepparents and stepsiblings also is more disruptive to children than previously thought, Wallerstein said at a news conference Monday in San Francisco.

Public policy that focuses on adults thus shortchanges the children of divorce, said Wallerstein, whose research on divorce is considered seminal. Wallerstein offered a preliminary description of her findings on the long-term impact of divorce and will present a paper later this week at an international meeting in San Francisco on family law.

"There is little evidence that we have succeeded in serving or protecting the rights of children," Wallerstein said in a weekend interview. In a country where one in two marriages ends in divorce, "There is a gap between the legal system and the child, who is invisible and voiceless in the proceedings."

Wallerstein contends that an emphasis within the legal system on custody, contact and economic support in the short term fails to accommodate the developmental needs of young people. Under present practice, a child's development "is expected to come to a complete halt, so that a court order or agreement that suits [a child] at age 6 will suit [the child] over years to come."

Wallerstein, who directs the Center for the Family in Transition in Corte Madera and has taught at UC Berkeley, observed, "It is as if we ordered the child at age 12 to wear the shoes that fit when she was 6. And when the child complained because the shoes pinched . . . her objections were turned aside because of the zealous upholdings of the rights of parents to select their children's clothes. Individual review is not an option for many--nor is it the way to fix a system that is greatly in need of revision."

Her conclusions stem from hundreds of hours of face-to-face interviews with 130 Marin County children and both parents, who she has met with regularly since the marriages first unraveled a quarter-century ago. Wallerstein's 10- and 15-year findings were compiled in "Second Chances" (Houghton Miflin, 1989), an international bestseller. The paper she will present this week deals with children who were 2 1/2 to 6 years old when the study began, children Wallerstein and co-researcher Juliet Lewis consider to be the most vulnerable.

But in some circles, Wallerstein's methodology raises questions. Describing herself as an admirer of Wallerstein's work, Boston University psychology professor Kathleen Malley-Morrison cautioned that "you have to be very careful about not over-generalizing from purely qualitative" studies.

At the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, statistician Donald J. Hernandez, who has studied family trends for the U.S. Census, said the major shortcoming of Wallerstein's research is that "it is not nationally representative." A small group of families in a high-income region cannot reflect the broader population, Hernandez said.

But Hernandez also praised the broad scope of Wallerstein's work. "The virtue of the study is you can really learn a lot about these people in a way you could not with pure quantitative" assessment, Hernandez said.

Wallerstein, for her part, dismissed the naysayers by declaring, "First I have to say that my conclusions have held up. That's the proof of the pudding."

Among the recurrent issues that she encountered were:

* A sense of institutional and individual distrust traceable to the divorce and present in many aspects of the children's lives. Even as young adults, she said, they reported "fears of starvation, of waking up in the morning to deserted houses, of returning from nursery school to find no one home."

* Downward economic and academic mobility. More than half of her young subjects ended up with lower degrees than their parents obtained, and 40% fell below their parents' socioeconomic level.

* Intermittent and inconsistent emotional and financial support from fathers, "a pattern of weaving in and out of their kids' lives."

Rather than treating divorce as "a trauma from which the child will recover," Wallerstein urged that divorce should be viewed "as a long-term experience in which these kids will need help along the way." Specifically, she suggested revising divorce agreements at different stages of a child's life. She also proposed that money for child rearing be put in trust prior to the division of marital property. She added that while her findings are far from salutary, she does not consider herself an opponent of divorce. "I've seen too many miserable marriages," she said. "But I am coming out for an entirely different perspective on children."

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