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NPO in the media

Holstein in Newsweek: Courts should start with presumption of joint physical custody

December 18, 2008

Boston, MA–Ned Holstein, MD, MS, Executive Director of is a central figure in the new Newsweek article Not Your Dad’s Divorce: How changes in child support laws, and a push by fathers for equal time, are transforming the way this generation of ex-spouses raise their children (12/15/08).

The piece’s author, reporter Susanna Schrobsdorff, to her credit, has a shared custody arrangement with her ex-husband. She explains:

¬†When his parents divorced in the 1970s, they adopted the standard every-other-weekend-with-Dad setup. He remembered missing his father tremendously and didn’t want that for our kids.

According to the article:

Fathers and Families believes [fathers aren’t] getting a fair shake. Dr. Ned Holstein, a public health physician who heads the 4,500-member group, says it represents men who want more time for the right reasons. He attributes the fact that statistics still show that about 85 percent of primary physical custody goes to women to the variety of factors leading fathers to cede custody to mothers…

Why don’t the men who are unhappy with the arrangements they have fight for more time? (Currently about 7 percent of sole custodial parents are men.) Holstein says the legal system deters them. “The lawyers are telling them, ‘You can’t fight this, you won’t get it, and it will cost you a lot of money and heartache.'” While the numbers show that men who do fight for primary custody win as much as women do, Holstein says those cases are self-selecting: “They’ve been told in advance they have a chance at winning because they were Mr. Mom before the divorce-or there’s an obvious problem with the mother.”

Fathers and Families’ Holstein argues that making kids feel at home at Dad’s house is difficult when support payments can eat up as much as 40 percent of his after-tax income. They may have to leave the neighborhood for smaller quarters, leaving children’s friends behind.

To change that, and to give Dads more time and an adjustment in child support according to the new laws, Holstein feels the courts should start with a presumption that there will be joint physical custody. Much of the research on the subject shows that a majority of kids who have grown up in joint physical custody arrangements report that they are satisfied with the way it worked, while kids who grew up in an “every other weekend arrangement” were more likely to be dissatisfied and want more contact with their fathers.

Some of the opposition’s arguments in the article are problematic. For example, Jocelyn Elise Crowley, author of “The Politics of Child Support in America” and “Defiant Dads”, says the problem with linking support payments and time spent with kids is that in some cases it can create a “less than pure incentive for fathers to ask for more time with their children.”

This is a common feminist argument, and one which ignores the obvious converse–if a dad may seek 50% physical time with his children simply to lower his child support obligation, a mother may seek 85% physical time in order to increase it.

Another quote:

Still, joint custody may not be for every family. Paul Amato, a leading researcher on the subject and a professor of sociology at Pennsylvania State University, argues that…forcing uncooperative couples into a joint arrangement could end up creating more parental conflict, which most experts agree is the most damaging part of a divorce for kids. “I do not think it’s a good idea to impose joint physical custody on unwilling parents,” he says. “This strategy is likely to do more harm than good.”

I don’t doubt that this situation isn’t good, but what’s the alternative? In most cases, it’s the mother who doesn’t want to share custody with the father. If you don’t “force” joint custody, what you’re essentially saying is mom gets to have sole custody and dad is pushed to the margins of his kids’ lives. This is what’s known as the “Hostile Parent Veto.”

The full Newsweek article is here. To write a Letter to the Editor, click on Letters@newsweek.com.

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