Divided, but still a family. Joint custody can work - if divorced parents can agree on how it should work

`With friends, I just say that during the weekend I'm at my dad's house, and here's the phone number, and during the week I'm at my mom's,'' says 16-year-old Douglass Bratt, making it all sound so easy. Every Friday and Sunday evening since he was in the first grade, Doug has packed up some clothes, toys, and his schoolbooks and moved between the homes of his divorced parents, who live a mile and a half apart in Lexington, Ky.

His parents, David and Carolyn Bratt, have joint custody. Both have a room in their houses that is just for Doug, and both have turned down career opportunities outside Lexington to maintain the fragmented home life that they feel is the best they can offer him.

Virtually unheard of when the Bratts, both law school graduates, talked a Fayette County judge into the arrangement in 1978, joint custody is now a legal option in 33 states, says James A. Cook of the Joint Custody Association in Los Angeles. Though still uncommon, it is gaining widespread acceptance. Twelve states now make joint custody the court's first preference over sole custody.

It has its critics, this legal change that challenges long-held assumptions about what is in the child's best interests.

But as the number of children under 18 involved in divorce has tripled in the last three decades, to more than a million children a year, studies have consistently shown that divorce hurts kids. Many people have come to believe that the traditional custody arrangement - sole maternal custody - is part of the problem. Joint custody, while far from perfect, is seen as a potentially better alternative.

It comes in two forms: joint legal custody, in which parents share equal authority in making the significant decisions affecting the child's life, and joint physical custody, in which children divide their time between the parents' homes.

In practice, joint custody usually means whatever parents agree to make it mean - if divorcing parents can put aside their hostilities toward each other long enough to agree on what is good for their child.

Carolyn and David Bratt sat down with a family mediator at the time of their divorce to work out a plan for jointly raising Doug. ``We figured that if I had him after school, and David had him on the weekends, it would be about the same number of hours,'' Ms. Bratt recalls. ``We went to a child psychologist who suggested Doug stay with me during the week so that he would go to school from the same house.''

Other parents divide child- rearing tasks and time in ways that make sense to them. Some alternate blocks of a week or more with the child, while others agree for the child to have one primary home.

Most parents try to agree on major decisions, such as the child's education and religion, but some divide the areas of decisionmaking between them. However they decide to share day-to-day tasks, each parent has an equal right to see the child and to see information such as the child's school records. Each has an equal responsibility for the child's well-being.

``I think it keeps children in greater contact with both parents, and on ... parents it is a greater commitment and really bonds them to the children's lives more than if they just send a check and that's the end of their responsibility,'' says Louis DeFalaise, a former state representative who proposed the amendment making joint custody a legal option in Kentucky in 1980.

Like the many fathers who are actively lobbying for joint-custody laws, Mr. DeFalaise had personally gone through a divorce involving young children before he proposed the measure. ``I was very trepidatious about how [my relationship with my children] would turn out,'' he recalls.

Father's-rights groups - there are about 200 in the country - say that widespread maternal custody discourages fathers from being active parents and just isn't fair. Nationwide, 90 percent of custody cases are decided in favor of the mother, according to John Guidubaldi, a professor of psychology at Kent State University, who has conducted an extensive study of the effects of divorce on children.

Family issue seen

Concerned about rising divorce rates and the care of kids whose divorced mothers work outside the home, many lawmakers see joint-custody laws as being pro-family. A concentration of support for joint custody is in typically conservative states including Mississippi, Idaho, Nevada, Florida, Kansas, Montana, Oklahoma, and New Mexico. One of the strongest joint-custody laws in the country was written by a Louisiana grandmother.

``I thought it was a family issue, not a gender issue,'' says Rep. Margaret Lowenthal, who co-wrote a 1982 amendment making joint custody a ``preference and presumption'' of Louisiana courts unless both parents agree otherwise. ``We see this law as trying to meet the changing conditions of the family.''

Since she proposed the law, her oldest son has been divorced and has joint custody of his six-year-old daughter. Now, says Ms. Lowenthal, ``I'm personally seeing how joint custody is in the best interests of the child when the parents are cooperative.''

In the line of fire

When parents fight, however, joint custody puts children directly in the firing line. And lawyer David Bratt notes that many divorcing parents are angry. ``They want to get even. And they use the child as a way to hurt the other spouse. The child is still the link.''

Doug Bratt remembers only one serious fight between his parents, who, he says, made such an effort to get along that for years they got together to celebrate his birthday and Christmas. That fight, over whether he should take French or photography in high school, ``was just terrible,'' he recalls.

Other parents, who have strongly different ideas about child raising or bitterness over the divorce, may fight every time they have to make a decision.

``If we could have gotten along, we would be married,'' says Shirley Collins, a real estate agent in Raleigh, N.C., who has shared joint custody of Carrie, 14, and Robert, 11, with her ex-husband Bobby, since 1982.

``A divorce is something you don't want to go through,'' says Robert, a bright, friendly boy who divides his free time between computers and basketball. Since last February, Robert and Carrie and their puppy, Paddington, have lived three weeks every month with Ms. Collins and one week with Mr. Collins, who drives the children from his house to their schools.

``I like joint custody,'' Robert says, and then hesitates. ``Sometimes I like it, but most of the time I don't. The main thing would be if they didn't fight.... That's the real biggy.''

In California, where joint custody is the first preference of the court if a judge deems both parents fit, Santa Clara County Family Court Services each year helps resolve disputes between hundreds of joint-custody parents. Although many parents learn to cooperate, director Warren Weiss says he sees cases in which he believes joint custody should never have been ordered. When parents are unremittingly hostile toward each other, he says, ``it can easily become a battleground in which the child suffers.''

The divorce process itself almost guarantees that former spouses will emerge as enemies, many say. ``Once they get into court in an adversarial-type posture, it frequently creates a schism which is irreparable,'' says Senior Family Court Judge Donald E. Moseley of East Baton Rouge Parish, La. ``Probably the parents will never be able to communicate in a meaningful way again.'' Many court systems now encourage mediation, rather than litigation, of custody cases to try to reduce the antagonism between parents.

Joint custody can mean a lot of adjustment for kids, too. ``At times I do forget to bring everything,'' says Doug, even though he has moved twice a week for most of his life.

Doug says he used to wander back into his mom's neighborhood on weekends to play with friends there. Carrie and Robert Collins say they miss their baby-sitting and lawn-mowing jobs when they are at their dad's. There are different rules at their two homes, too, and ``sometimes we forget,'' Carrie says.

But when parents believe in joint custody, these problems of moving and adjusting can be overcome, says Warren Weiss. ``The child will do well if and only if the parents make the kids feel good about it,'' he says.

Parents also need to feel good about themselves as parents, and some say this is joint custody's most important role. ``Don't you think a mother can hold her head a little higher if she can go out in the community and say, `We have joint custody,' rather than `The court took my child away from me?''' Judge Moseley asks.

Talk more, litigate less

Many judges opposed joint custody when it was initially proposed, fearing that quarreling parents would constantly be back in court. But parents with sole custody come back to court, too, and studies so far have shown no increase in relitigation under joint custody.

Some women's groups have opposed joint custody, saying that it gives fathers the right to interfere with the mothers' decisions, while mothers still do most of the day-to-day care of the children.

``[Joint custody] made it possible for me to continue with my professional life,'' says Ms. Bratt, now a law professor at the University of Kentucky. ``But at first I felt guilty that I like having free time. I think a significant number of women feel that all women should want their children all the time, and that if you agree to joint custody somehow you're not a good mother.''

Other mothers feel that joint custody makes parenting easier. Often a custodial parent is the children's sole disciplinarian, while the noncustodial parent is the one who takes the children on outings and indulges them. ``If the parent's not there, you build all kinds of fantasies and illusions,'' says Gayle Kimball of Chico, Calif.

Ms. Kimball, a women's studies professor at California State University, shares joint custody of her seven-year-old son, Jed, with her ex-husband, Les Hait. She is the author of ``50/50 Parenting'' (1987), in which she describes ways that married and divorced parents can share child raising. For Kimball, the bottom line is what is best for the children. ``There's me, female baby sitters, female teachers ... the main thing is for [Jed] to have a consistent, loving man in his life,'' she says. ``He can't learn from me to be a man.''

Doug Bratt says that he has learned important things from both his parents. At his dad's, he has helped with remodeling projects that involved ripping out walls and building a second story on the house. From his mom, Doug says he has learned the habits of being organized.

``I talk to my two best friends and they both say I have so many traits from both my parents. I feel I wouldn't have had that if I had only been with one of them.'' The way he was raised has its problems, he says. But at its best, ``this is as close to a full family as you can have with a divorce.''

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