The term child custody employed here refers to child consequences and parental responsibilities following separation and divorce. Child custody may also refer to legal terminology related to guardianship and legal authority in the care of a minor child following adoption, loss of parental rights due to abuse or neglect, or other situations. In each case, the concept of “in the best interest of the child” is often applied.
Child custody matters are a central concern among human development experts in the United States due to the high number of divorces. A great deal of research devoted to how custodial and guardianship matters impact child development and outcome have resulted.
Child custody is often determined after legal proceedings that may include a trial, civil mediation, or a hearing involving a state child welfare agency. Mental health experts assist in providing important information for the judge or hearing officer. Clinical social workers often complete a home study or investigation of the future possible home environment, as well as observations and opinions about the fitness and capability of the potential parents/guardians. Psychologists are also involved.
The American Psychological Association has specified the role of psychologists in child custody decisions. These guidelines direct psychologists to take the child’s interests and needs into account as the primary determinant in recommendations to the legal system.
The typical child custody evaluation assesses the capacity of an adult desiring the responsibilities related to caring for a minor child. This is done by interviews, background checks, psychological tests, and structured observations of the adult and child in interaction. Evaluations may also include direct observation of the home environment.
Psychologists are then asked to make recommendations to the court regarding the best interest of the child. Psychologists should take into consideration key variables, including the child’s developmental level, the level of functioning of the child, and a range of variables related to parental fitness in the adults. In addition, the fit or match between the adult(s) and child is also to be taken into account. The range of parental variables will include an assessment of parenting and discipline styles, consistency of behavior, and psychological qualities such as maturity level, freedom from psychopathology, and experience with children.
The psychologist provides expert testimony and opinion. Psychologists and other mental health specialists do not directly determine the final placement of a child—this is the responsibility of the judge or hearing officer.
Child custody issues after divorce are often related to new conflicts or disagreements. If old unresolved issues interfere, counseling is recommended. In addition, these three activities often help minimize conflict:
- Trying new ideas out on an experimental basis. There arise legitimate disagreements over some issue for which there is no “right” way or solution. Families should try each proposed solution on an experimental basis in order to see what is best for their child. In the example of a dispute about overnight visits during the school week, one way to resolve the matter is to try both solutions for 1 month each and monitor the child’s response in as fair a way as possible.
- Asking a trusted third party to help resolve your dispute. When both parents believe that their position is best for the child, a third party can bring a fresh perspective. This individual should be a professional (a trusted therapist, counselor, or clergyperson). Such a competent third party will help both parents see what is best for their child.
- Attempting civil mediation to resolve disputes. Many final divorce judgments include a mediation clause, requiring this alternative in an attempt to limit post-divorce caseloads, which overburden the family court system. It also encourages divorced parents to work out their problems between themselves, which leads to better, more personal solutions. Civil family mediation is intended to help parents reach a cooperative, mutually agreeable solution with assistance from a trained mediator. Much data suggest that families and children fare better when disputes are resolved through mediation because this settlement is family centered and individualized.
Child Custody Arrangements And Coparenting
Following divorce, a child may be placed in the sole custody of one parent or placed in a joint custody status. States have differing statutory guidelines for these decisions. In Florida, for example, minor children are to be placed in a joint custody arrangement, called shared parental responsibility (SPR), in all cases unless there is good reason to deny either person his or her parental rights and responsibilities. The Florida statutes say that it is the will of the people that children be raised by both parents in an arrangement termed coparenting. SPR is a court-ordered relationship in which both parents retain full parental rights and responsibilities with respect to their child and in which both parents confer with each other so that major decisions affecting the welfare of the child will be determined jointly. In cases where one parent is determined to be unfit or unable to parent, or is a threat to the welfare of the child, then sole custody is awarded to the fit parent.
Coparenting is based on cooperation and respect between biological/adoptive parents, no matter their marital status, over the lifetime of their child. Coparenting involves (1) keeping the needs of children first and foremost no matter the feelings about the other parent; (2) working out plans that allow each child enough time to maintain and nurture relationships with both parents; (3) sharing responsibility and decision making for the children’s care and needs; and (4) developing a means of communication that is straightforward, child centered, and problem resolving in the children’s best interest.
The importance of coparenting has been documented in the social science literature. Children who have access to, and are influenced by, two caring involved parents fare best following separation and divorce. With appropriate coparenting, children have the minimum amount of later difficulties. When hostility and conflict interfere with coparenting, those children suffer the most. Level of involvement for each parent varies, but should be determined by the child’s needs.
Coparenting is not always easily accomplished because bitterness, anger, and resentment from the divorce may interfere with successful child rearing. The child psychiatrist Richard Gardner has described and identified a pattern termed parental alienation syndrome (PAS). PAS is the opposite of coparenting and is defined as “a disturbance in which children are preoccupied with deprecation and criticism of a parent—denigration that is unjustified and/or exaggerated.” PAS is a systematic process involving efforts by the “programming parent” which ultimately creates within the child (without further parental aid) an obsession to maintain his bond with the programming parent at the price of rejecting the other parent.
The hallmark symptom of PAS is the child’s complete lack of ambivalence. The “hated” parent is all bad and the “loved” parent is all good and can do no wrong. One powerful way this plays out is when the alienating parent insists on taking a neutral stance, thus empowering the victimized child to make decisions about visitation. But with full knowledge that the alienating parent opposes the contact, the child refuses visits. Alienation also impacts the child, as when the child feels guilt during a required visit, leaving the programming parent abandoned.
There is some degree of alienating behavior between practically every divorcing parent dyad, which will eventually subside as the parties make their adjustments. It is when the alienation behavior is raised to a very high level, fueled by conflict and anger, that a child becomes endangered by his parents.
Coparents who are making their own positive adjustment will be more likely to be able to identify and respond to their child’s needs following divorce. A successful child custody outcome is often dependent on the following four areas:
- 1. Children’s remarks are often stated to elicit a response on two levels. A child complaining about being picked up late from school may also be worried by abandonment fears: “Will I be left alone like dad or mom?”
- Once a child’s concerns have been identified, parents must reassure their child. Making time to be with them without competing activities and seeking outside resources such as therapy, support groups for kids, and time with the school guidance counselor are essential.
- 3. Children can see that normalcy has returned by introducing new ways of doing family things like celebrations, holidays, and birthdays. In post-divorce situations, the child will need to adjust to alternating holidays and other events with different parts of their family. One should encourage children to come up with new ideas and traditions for the new family conf
- 4. The former in-laws remain relatives to your child after the divorce. Depending on how much contact was usual prior to the separation/divorce, that will be a predictor for what level of involvement is expected and needed by your child. If the child had regular and frequent contact with other relatives, there should be an honest attempt to keep that involvement alive. At all times, respect must be shown for all of the child’s
- American Psychological Association. (1994). Guidelines for child custody evaluations in divorce proceedings. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/practice/childcustody.html
- Association of Family and Conciliation Courts. (n.d.).Resource center. Available from http://www.afccnet.org/resources/indeasp
- Gardner, A. (1989). Family evaluation in child custody mediation, arbitration, and litigation. Cresskill, NJ: Creative Therapeutics.
- Putting Kids (n.d.). Co parenting. Retrieved from http://www.puttingkidsfirst.org/coparenting.html
- Sclafani, J. D. (2004). Parenting and co-parenting issues related to div The educated parent: Making sense of the current literature. Westport, CT: Praeger.
- Shulman, D. (1997). Co-parenting after divorce: How to raise happy, healthy children in two-home families. Sherman Oaks, CA: WinnSpeed