Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Custody is for Parents

It's always seemed ironic that people who support the death penalty are often those most adamantly opposed to government programs. They distrust government to provide health care, education, regulation of businesses, protection from hazardous waste and to set a fair level of taxation, but give a "thumbs-up" to political institutions picking which people will live or die in an official government killing program.

I firmly believe that government has its purpose, but killing isn't one of them.  I also question the level of government interference that divorcing couples invite into their lives, especially when it involves the heart-wrenching issue of child custody.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not equating divorce with the death penalty. In many cases, divorce is far worse – a sentence of seemingly unending turmoil, confusion, loss and sadness, a kind of living death for some people. With divorce, the imagined trajectory of marital bliss is brutally terminated.  Instead of an expected cocoon of protective love and support, the marriage becomes an arena of gladiatorial brutality. For couples with children, the situation often becomes tragic and self-defeating. And one of the great self-defeating tactics is when a couple invites government to get involved to determine who takes care of the children, where, for how long, how much each is to pay, etc.

Take the now-celebrated case of Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Erik Bedard. In the midst of a furious pennant race, Bedard's ex-girlfriend had him served with child support papers prior to a Major League game – by a Yankees fan!  The mother of Bedard’s daughter, Julie, was seeking to tear up their previous agreement on child support, which provides for Bedard to pay $80,000 in child support and another $80,000 for Julie's education.

The case has gotten more than a 1,000 news mentions, the couple is funneling money down the courthouse drain, and daughter Julie is being subjected to the specter of their parents fighting in public over her and her future. 

When a marriage breaks up, the temptation to retreat behind walls and lob bombs at your Ex is almost impossible to resist. Betrayal, heart-break, broken dreams all come with the territory. But so do your kids. Any kind of warfare between the separating couple is guaranteed to inflict collateral damage on innocent bystanders, especially your kids.

I have followed this issue for years and come across cases where men, women and most importantly children have lost big when the hand of government gets involved.  A hard-working New York lawyer whose stay-at-home husband challenged her claim for primary custody lost – and was handed that dreaded consolation prize, "visitation rights." A father I know who had  his wages and benefits at work reduced went to court to reduce his child care payments by a corresponding amount – and saw the court actually increase payments based on the inflation rate.

The question here is – who knows your children better than you and your Ex? Rather than "lawyering up" and heading for court, experts recommend that divorcing couples grow up and work out their custody issues together.  It helps to have a state law like California's presumption of "joint custody" to encourage divorcing parents to see themselves as equals in this process rather than Aggressor vs. Potentially Vanquished.  Going into a conflict knowing that the most you'll win is 50% of anything takes away the incentive to screw the other person.

My Ex and I, my partner and her Ex, and hundreds of thousands of divorced couples across the country have worked out joint custody arrangements that fully involve both parents in the emotional and financial care of their children. It wasn't easy, but well worth doing. 

There are a number of organizations working for joint custody laws and co-parenting across the country, including Fathers & Families, The American Coalition of Fathers and Children) and Kids' Turn.  Joint Custody/Co-parenting is a win-win-win situation. Divorcing couples saves tens of thousands in legal fees, children are spared the specter of their parents squabbling well past the final out of their marriage, and an example is set for a lifetime of cooperation to further your children's life. 

Of course if you need a lawyer to overcome an unyielding or abusive Ex, by all means get one. But first try to work it out together.  Keep the government out of your divorce.

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