In a child's best interest: how one agency works with divorcing families

``The great majority of parents, all they want is what's best for their children,'' says Lane Veltkamp, director of the Family Mediation and Evaluation Clinic at the University of Kentucky's Division of Child Psychiatry. This clinic is where many Kentucky judges send parents who are locked in a courtroom battle over the custody of their children. If parents cannot reach a voluntary agreement at the clinic, Mr. Veltkamp and his staff are the experts who recommend to the judge what is in the best interests of the child.

The clinic's first approach is to try to mediate child litigation cases to see if parents can work out a custody and visitation plan that both feel they can live with. In about half of the cases that come to the Kentucky clinic, parents reach a voluntary agreement.

But Veltkamp does not take a completely neutral stance during the parents' negotiations. ``We are aggressive in getting across the needs of the child,'' he says.

What do children of divorcing parents need?

Veltkamp emphasizes three things. First, children need to maintain a psychological bond with both parents. Particularly for young children, ``it's like a death for that bond to break down,'' he says. Maintaining the bond means that children must spend ``regular and sufficient time'' with both parents.

``We believe that the traditional relationship with the noncustodial parent, like every other weekend, is not sufficient for the child to maintain a solid relationship,'' Veltkamp says. Depending on their age, children may need a block of at least four or five days with each parent.

Second, children need a peaceful environment. ``The greater the conflict between the parents, the greater the internal conflicts in the child,'' says Veltkamp. This is true whether parents are married or divorced.

Third, siblings should stay together to minimize their feelings of loss from the divorce. At the Kentucky clinic, ``We're totally opposed to split custody.''

Veltkamp's beliefs about what is best for children are based on his own years of research and clinical practice, and on the substantial body of research that has been conducted over the last decade on the effects of divorce on children.

One of the most extensive of these studies, conducted by John Guidubaldi, has shown that children from divorced families, especially boys, do more poorly on achievement tests and classroom grades in all subjects, have more behavior problems, have higher anxiety levels, and are more critical of themselves and others than children from intact families.

Mr. Guidubaldi, a professor at Kent State University and president of the National Association of School Psychologists, conducted the study between 1981 and 1984 with the help of 144 school psychologists. The research team gathered data on 699 children in 38 states, with a two- and three-year follow-up of 299 of the children.

``We found that boys suffer more from the effects of divorce than girls,'' Guidubaldi says. ``As they approach puberty, girls seemed to be doing better, while boys seemed to be doing worse.''

The study showed that ``when fathers visited their children more often, children did better, particularly those fifth-grade boys,'' Guidubaldi says.

But of the children surveyed for the study, 38 percent of those from divorced homes saw their fathers ``once or twice a year or never.'' Ninety percent were in the sole custody of their mothers.

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