Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Let's change child custody system Declaring winners and losers in custody fights can lead to tragedy

I am going to reprint this article in it's entirety as it looks as though soon a subscription will be needed in order to access it... This is the link directly to the article and this is the link to the homepage of St Paul Pioneer Press.

It is a sad day for all of us when a parent takes the life of his or her children. We all mourn as we hear of yet another parent, John Tester, killing himself and his own child ("Woman's court statements in a bitter custody battle detailed her fears long before the murder-suicide of her ex-husband and child," Sept. 8).

This senseless and preventable tragedy sends chills down all our spines. In the past year, there have been at least three high-profile cases locally in which mothers killed their children. Contrary to popular belief, mom is not always the victim and dad is not always the monster.

But what drives parents to do this? From the point of view of an outside, general observer, it appears that mothers tend to kill their children because they can't take the pressure of raising their children (presumably alone), and men kill their children because they can't take the pressure of being deprived of the equal opportunity to raise their children; all as a result of being unmarried parents.

If men want more time with their children, and women want less time with their children, why has our society been so slow to allow fit parents a presumption of joint physical custody, which would reduce the main stressor of both parents?

At the same time, this could also reduce litigation and acrimony.

Our current laws are made to pit one parent against the other ? one parent is selected custodial parent and one parent must be labeled non-custodial parent. Federal policy has fostered a system in which mothers, predominantly, seek and win sole physical custody even though equal joint shared physical custody is clearly in the children's best interest. Joint physical custody is rare. Conflict in divorce and custody battles is only exacerbated by the win-lose mentality created when parents use the children as a continuous weapon against the other parent. When this battle escalates to hiding children, murder, and/or murder-suicide, the tragedy awakens our conscience.

We need to be thoughtful about this unfortunate disaster. Instead of the typical knee-jerk reaction to put all the blame on one person, we need to courageously look objectively at the "system" ? the government system and the family system that piled on the fear, guilt, shame, hopelessness and hurt ? that would cause such an outcome. These are complicated matters, and the answer is not to keep more dads away from their children. Was there evidence that this dad was unstable whose access to his child must be limited? Or, did the system take him over the edge? We will never know the whole story.

Currently in Minnesota, if one parent opposes joint physical custody, joint physical custody will not be allowed "because the parents can't get along." Additionally, even in cases where both parents agree to joint physical custody, judges often deny this because they are led to believe by erroneous reports and faulty research that joint physical custody is never in the best interests of children.

Judges then order the easiest most politically correct custody arrangement to the mother, often without sufficient evidence.

Citizens must pressure legislators to pass laws that would create a presumption of joint physical custody unless there is imminent danger, due to abuse, neglect or harm. Could the refusal by the judiciary to mitigate the bitterness and custody battles by allowing (or requiring) both parents to have equal time with their children be part of the problem?

A series of speakers at an August "listening session" by the Supreme Court concluded that the government officials and professionals in the family law system are completely incapable of differentiating the level of risk to determine which parents might do something tragic and which are unlikely to do so.

As a result, all non-custodial parents are limited to reduced time with their children averaging four days per month (every other weekend) and a few evenings a month.

The outcome is often tragic with a dangerous parent spending too much time with the children and a responsible healthy noncustodial parent not getting to spend enough.

Olson is volunteer executive director of the Center for Parental Responsibility in Roseville.

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