Putting Kids First After Parents Split


Every year, a million new American children are involved in divorce - a disquieting pattern that has continued uninterrupted since 1972. Yet as their parents create new lives in separate homes, these children often find their own voices going unheard, muffled by rigid courts and overburdened service agencies.

Now a growing number of family and legal experts are calling for changes to help children. They are suggesting ways to mitigate the negative consequences of marital breakdown, from more divorce education classes to greater financial support.

"For children, divorce is not a short-term problem but a cumulative experience over many years in the divorced family, or remarried family, or re-remarried family," says Judith Wallerstein, a preeminent researcher on divorce. Yet "we are not prepared in our planning to think of the long-term effects."

Already, fledgling efforts are under way. Around the country, 560 counties now require parents to enroll in

mandatory divorce education programs. Their purpose is to make parents more sensitive to the needs of their children.

By law in Utah and Connecticut, all divorcing parents must take divorce-education classes. Elizabeth Hickey, a divorce mediator in Salt Lake City, describes her state's program as "very powerful" and "a motivator." She adds, "We have a lot of empathy. We're preaching how parents need to cooperate with each other for the sake of the children." Ninety percent of participants have said they planned to make changes in their parenting agreements as a result.

In Virginia, some courts require parents to take a seminar called "Children Coping With Parental Separation."

For Dr. Wallerstein, such efforts are essential for children's well-being. This week, she released findings of a 25-year study. After spending hundreds of hours interviewing young adults between the ages of 27 and 32 whose parents had divorced when they were 2 to 6, she has come to a sobering conclusion: The impact of marital breakdown can continue into adulthood.

She discovered that they had less education and a lower economic status than their parents. They were more likely to have abused drugs and alcohol. And they were less likely to marry, for fear of repeating their parents' failure.

Although Wallerstein emphasizes that not all children are adversely affected, some critics see her views as too negative. They charge that her sample of 26 young adults in Marin County, Calif., is narrow, focusing only on white, middle-class families.

Yet other family specialists point out that her research represents the longest-running study of its kind. David L. Levy, president of the Children's Rights Council in Washington, acknowledges that Wallerstein's sample is small and includes no control group. Nevertheless, he says, "Her general findings are right on the mark. There is confirming research from many quarters that divorce is a long-time stressor for children."

Calling the research "significant," Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, author of "The Divorce Culture," adds, "Certainly it squares anecdotally with what I hear from younger adults."

Repealing no-fault divorce is not the way to solve these problems, Wallerstein insists. Instead, she says, "We have to reshift our orientation, and then a lot of things will begin to change."

As part of that reshifting, Wallerstein calls for more flexibility on the part of courts and a willingness to include children in divorce decisions. Among children in her study, she says, "If the court said they had to spend every summer with Daddy, nobody ever asked them if that was an acceptable plan." Explaining that custody arrangements created when a child is 5 may no longer work well when he or she is older, she says, "Orders should be written so the child can have an input at 8 or 10 or 14."

Wallerstein continues, "It's like we fitted a child to a pair of shoes when she was 6, and we expected the child to walk in the same shoes when she was 8 or 10 or 12. If she started to limp, we didn't pay any attention. We didn't say, 'Get her a new pair of shoes.' In an intact family, we acknowledge the child's development."

Michael Ewing, president of the Virginia Fatherhood Initiative in Chesapeake, Va., believes another solution lies in reforming custody laws to include fathers. Although many studies document the negative effects of paternal deprivation, he says, Virginia courts still award custody to mothers in 90 to 95 percent of cases.

"I want to see statutory presumptions in every state that when both parents are fit, they will share in the custody of children," Mr. Ewing says.

"We have an erroneous belief that shared custody means a 50-50 split of the child," he adds. "It can be 60-40, or 70-30. We need to do whatever is humanly possible to encourage, rather than discourage, father involvement in children's lives. They may be the ones, if brought back into the loop, who can offset some of these consequences of divorce."

Again and again, family experts emphasize the need to educate parents about the importance of maintaining what Ms. Whitehead calls "a well-functioning, post-divorce parental partnership."

Whitehead underscores the need to focus on remarriages. She notes that 6 out of 10 second marriages are likely to fail, compared with 4 out of 10 first marriages. "Multiple divorces are extremely damaging," she says. "If you really have kids' interests at heart, we should begin to look very carefully at how to strengthen second marriages as well as first marriages."

As further evidence of efforts to help children of divorce, Mr. Levy points to the welfare-reform law. It provides $10 million a year to help states develop mediation, parenting education, and alternative custody arrangements.

Other solutions depend on parents themselves. Levy emphasizes that all children need to be reassured that the divorce was not their fault. And they need to know that "both parents will be there, fully committed and active, and both will have continuing close contact with the child."

Levy adds, "More public awareness of the fact that divorce adversely affects many children is going to be a clarion call to do something about it. It can also give more encouragement to parents to try to stay together. Parents will tell you, 'I made every effort I could.' But too often parents don't make enough effort."

In a similar vein, Wallerstein says, "We must help parents understand that parenting is harder in a single-parent family."

Whatever form solutions take, Wallerstein always comes back to her central message: the need to "prepare parents for the long haul." Although short-term fixes may help, ultimately, she says, "It's the long haul that matters."

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