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August 16, 2006
Column #1,303
Advance for August 19, 2006
The Need for Shared Parenting
by Mike McManus

John Murtari, 49, is sitting in a Syracuse jail for two weeks as I write, and has refused to eat or drink to protest  "gross and repeated injustice" by the court system in a custody battle over access to his son, Domenic, 13.

From the state's perspective, he is a deadbeat dad, who owes $60,000 in child support.

However, the initial support level was not based on his income, but the $70,000 he once earned as a software engineer for a defense firm.  When the company filed false reports, he says he blew the whistle and was fired the next day.

Though president of his own software firm, his earnings are half of what he used to make.  The first injustice is that his child support level was set far too high. Second, the court allowed his wife to move to Colorado, in spite of his protest.  She's studying for a third college degree, which she could have pursued in New York State. Why should any court allow a divorced parent to move so far away that child visitation by the parent left behind is almost impossible?

If Domenic visited him, John had to fly to Colorado, pick him up, bring him back, and then return with him to Colorado.  Three round trip tickets cost $1,000 per visit.  But the court would not allow him to deduct that from his child support payments. That's a third injustice.

Fourth, he repeatedly filed for modifications of his child support level, and was denied. He was assigned a public defender who told him, "John, just pay the money.  You'll see your son when he is 18."

John has been paying $50 a month, which is skimpy.  However, he estimates he has spent $60,000 in support of his son, but none of it counts in the court's eyes. In the last seven years, he flew out four times a year for visits, and picked him up for vacations in New York twice a year. "How many of those could I have traded away - and not lost our relationship?" he asks.

So he sits today in debtor's prison, to call attention to the plight of divorced parents denied regular access to their children.  John told me before going to jail that he would not eat or drink and would force the prison to keep him alive with a feeding tube. For ten days the jail refused to do so. His weight dropped from 155 pounds to 127. His blood pressure fell to a dangerous level. 

Stories appeared in local newspapers, and a feeding tube was inserted. He asserts, "This is not suicide wish or hunger strike. My goal is not to hurt myself but to make them expend an uncomfortable amount of effort to keep me in custody."

There has to be a better answer and there is.  It is called "shared parenting," or "joint custody," which is granted in only 16 percent of cases. According to a study by the American Psychological Association, "A major advantage of joint custody may be its ability to address the high rate of current father absence subsequent to divorce. Joint custody has been correlated with increased father involvement."

Second, "Joint custody versus sole maternal custody was associated with adolescent's positive adjustment.  Several studies found that increased and reliable visitation by the noncustodial parent (usually the father) predicted positive adjustment of children."

Feminists oppose joint custody on grounds that child support will be reduced. However, "the consensus of studies" found that "child support is either increased" or not significantly different. A fourth benefit is that there is "decreased re-litigation" with shared parenting, and less conflict between spouses in general.

Thus, research proves what common sense would suggest.  Shared parenting results in greater father involvement, more financial support, less litigation and happier children.

David Levy, an attorney who is President of the Children's Rights Council, reports another great impact of joint custody. States with the greatest amount of joint custody enjoyed a big drop in divorce rates. The six states with the most joint custody are, in order, Montana, Kansas, Connecticut, Idaho, Rhode Island, and Alaska.  The states with the highest decline in  divorce in the 1990s were Alaska, Kansas, Connecticut, Illinois, Montana and Idaho.


"If a parent knows that he or she will have to interact with the child's other parent while the child is growing up, there is less incentive to divorce," says Levy.

Here's a political issue for this political season.

Candidates for governor or state legislatures: why not fight for more joint custody to support kids and lower divorce rates?

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