Child Custody Evaluators, Child Custody Evaluations: No Science and a Denigration of Due Process.  Reevaluating the Evaluators Child Custody Evaluation - Dealing with child custody evaluators' refusal to comply with discovery in court Parenting Coordination, a bad idea

Parental Dissatisfaction with Joint Custody

By Trish Wilson, © 2002.
All rights reserved by author

"The Impact of the Custody Plan on the Family: A Five-Year Follow-Up. Executive Summary.
Statewide Office of Family Court Services, Administrative Office of the Courts, State of California.
Margaret A. Little, Ph.D., Los Angeles County, Family Court Services;
Hugh McIsaac, Directory. May 1991.


    "...studies of families who came to joint custody through litigation, rather than amicably agreeing to it, suggest that highly conflicted families may be unable to overcome their animosities sufficiently to make joint custody a viable option for them."

    "The relatively few fathers who sustained a joint physical custody arrangement over the six years between the divorce and the interview are more likely than nonresidential fathers to report that they share in making decisions about their children, are involved in a range of activities with their children, and are satisfied with both the legal and physical custody arrangement. This finding is consistent with previous research. What has not been noted in previous research is that the mothers in these families are less likely to report being satisfied with the legal and physical custody arrangement than mothers who have sole physical custody. Thus, in terms of parental satisfaction, any increase in the incidence of joint custody may have a mixed outcome."

Description of Current Custody Behavior

Turning to the self-reported custody behavior of the families interviewed, most of the families reported that the children reside with their mothers, and about a quarter reported little or no contact with their nonresidential parent, usually the father. However, 44% of the families said that the children have at least one overnight with each parent each month.

Thus, two very different types of post-divorce custody patterns of behavior can be seen in this sample. For some families, the divorce resulted in the children being raised almost exclusively by one biological parent. For others, both parents are meaningfully involved in their children's lives. It is inaccurate to assume that coparenting is typical of all post-divorce families, but it is also inaccurate to assume that it is normative for children to lose contact with one parent following the divorce. In this sample, both post-divorce custody behavior patterns were fairly common.

Most nonresidential parents and joint custody parents stated they wanted to spend more time with their children. The only group of parents in which the majority were satisfied with the amount of time they have with the children were those who reported having primary physical custody of the children, suggesting parents view anything less than primary physical custody as insufficient time with their children. Thus, in most divorced families, whether the custody arrangement is primary residence with one parent or shared physical custody, at least one parent is dissatisfied with the amount of time he or she has with the children. In joint custody families, both are often dissatisfied."

In terms of legal custody, high levels of joint decision making are associated with high levels of contact between the children and both parents. At least partially as a function of this relationship, parents who reported the children reside with both of them reported higher levels of joint decision making than those who reported that the children live primarily in one of their homes. In terms of satisfaction, residential parents were more likely to report being satisfied with their role in decision making than parents who reported that the children reside with the other parent.

"As with satisfaction with the amount of time spent with the children, a small percentage of joint physical custody parents were dissatisfied with their role in decision making than among nonresidential parents, but also a smaller percentage were satisfied than among parents with primary custody."[Citing Steinman, Zemmelman, and Knoblauch (1985)]

It is notable that fathers rate higher on the conjoint decision-making scale than do mothers. Across every category, the group means for fathers are higher than those for mothers. This finding has implications for researchers relying solely on reports from one parent. It also has implications for practitioners working with divorced families in that

Comparison of the Initial Custody Order and Current Custody Behavior

Initial physical custody orders awarding the mother primary custody demonstrate a great deal of stability over time. The overwhelming majority of others and fathers showed a similar pattern of contact with the children when they were the nonresidential parent. No evidence was found in this survey to suggest that nonresidential mothers and fathers behave differently. However, the sampling design (i.e., excluding families with initial order of primary custody to the father) limits the potential of this research project to assess gender differences in post-divorce custody behavior.

These families reported that the children still reside with the mother at the time of the interview. Joint physical custody plans show more fluidity; only 36% of those with an initial custody order of joint physical custody reported in 1989 that the children still reside with both parents.

Those families awarded joint physical custody at the time of the divorce and who reported sharing physical custody in 1989 are characterized by the following: initial custody plans that gave the children equal time with each parent, less conflict at the time of the divorce, mothers who are not remarried, fathers with higher incomes, and parents who live in close geographic proximity.

As has been found in other studies of divorced families, these survey data suggest that fathers awarded joint physical custody at the time of the divorce continue to have more contact with their children over time than nonresidential fathers. However, in the absence of information about the family dynamics at the time of the divorce, it is impossible to know if the initial custody plan itself has an impact on later custody behavior or if the initial custody order is simply an indicator of other dynamics in the family that are crucial in determining the father's level of contact with the children following the divorce.
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