|Submitted Tuesday, April 16, 2002
By Pennsylvania attorney Eugene Wrona
Here are some results of studies conducted by competent
researchers that substantiate that shared parenting is best for
children in most cases. It's a little long, but contains many useful
conclusions based on studies of multiple paradigms of families in
I believe these summaries can be used to persuade politicians to
support legislation advancing the mission of CCJ and the rights of
children to unfettered access to both parents.
Research on Shared Parenting and Joint Custody
Joint custody and shared parenting (i.e., joint physical and
legal custody) have been studied for more than a quarter-century,
with the majority of studies indicating significant benefits for
children. About a third of existing studies show no difference
between joint and sole custody for children's adjustment to divorce.
The critical factor appears to be conflict between parents. When
parents cooperate and minimize conflict, children do better with
shared parenting/joint physical custody. If there is significant
conflict between parents, however, shared parenting provides no
benefits and children do no better (and no worse) than they do in
sole custody. This section summarizes some of the research published
in the past decade.
Joint Physical Custody -- Adolescents After Divorce, Buchanan,
C., Maccoby, and Dornbusch, Harvard University Press,1996.
A study of 517 families with children ranging in age from 10.5
years to 18 years, across a four and a half year period. Measures
were: assessed depression, deviance, school effort, and school
grades. Children in joint physical custody arrangements were found
to have better adjustment on these measures than those in sole
American Psychological Association, Report to the U.S. Comm.
on Child and Family Welfare, June 14, 1995.
This report "summarizes and evaluates the major research
concerning joint custody and its impact on children's welfare." The
report concludes that "The research reviewed supports the conclusion
that joint custody is associated with certain favorable outcomes for
children including father involvement, best interest of the child
for adjustment outcomes, child support, reduced relitigation costs,
and sometimes reduced parental conflict." The APA also noted that
"The need for improved policy to reduce the present adversarial
approach that has resulted in primarily sole maternal custody,
limited father involvement and maladjustment of both children and
parents is critical. Increased mediation, joint custody, and parent
education are supported for this policy."
Wilkinson, Ronald Richard, "A Comparison of Children's
Post-divorce Adjustment in Sole and Joint Physical Custody
Arrangements Matched for Types of Parental Conflict" Doctoral
dissertation, 1992; Texas Woman's University
This study included "forty boys and girls, ages 8 to 12, in
attendance at selected private secular and parochial schools in a
large Southwestern metropolitan area participated, along with their
middle to upper-class parents." The study compared adjustment of
children in joint and sole physical custody, controlling for level
of conflict between parents, to determine if parental conflict would
be more detrimental to children in joint or sole custody. The author
summarized findings as follows: "Overall, no significant difference
between joint and sole physical custody groups was found."
Rockwell-Evans, Kim Evonne, "Parental and Children's
Experiences and Adjustment in Maternal Versus Joint Custody Families
" Doctoral dissertation, 1991. North Texas State U.
This study compared 21 joint custody and 21 maternal custody
families, with children between the ages of 4-15.
Results showed that misbehavior and "acting out" were more common
among sole custody children: "A multiple regression analysis of
these data found children in joint custody families had fewer
behavioral adjustment problems with externalizing behavior than
children in mother custody families." "Regardless of custody
arrangement, parents with low self esteem were more likely to have
children with behavioral adjustment problems when predicting the
child's overall behavioral adjustment and internalized behavior."
J. Pearson and N. Thoennes, "Custody After Divorce:
Demographic and Attitudinal Patterns", American Journal of
Orthopsychiatry, Vol. 60, 1990.
"Consistent with other studies of joint and sole custody
[citations], our joint legal and residential non-custodians were
decidedly more involved with their children following divorce than
were non-custodians in sole custody arrangements. . . . Lastly,
respondents in joint custody arrangements were more apt to perceive
their ex-spouse as having a good relationship with the children and
to report satisfaction with that person's performance as a parent."
" . . . conflict between divorcing parents in our sample did not
appear to worsen as a result of the increased demand for
inter-parental cooperation and communication in joint legal or joint
residential custody arrangements. To the contrary, parents with sole
maternal custody reported the greatest deterioration in the
relationships over time."
Glover, R. and C. Steele, "Comparing the Effects on the Child
of Post-divorce Parenting Arrangements," Journal of Divorce, Vol.
12, No. 2-3 (1989).
This study evaluated children aged 6 to 15 in the areas of locus
of control, self-concept, and family relationships. The children
were divided into three groups: shared custody, maternal custody,
and intact families. Intact family children had averaged higher than
divorced family children on self-concept and father relationships,
and shared custody children averaged higher the sole custody
children in these areas. Intact family children had fewer
least-positive responses in all areas than divorced family children,
and shared custody children had fewer least-positive responses than
sole custody children in all areas except mother relationship. This
study indicates that, on average, a two parent intact family is the
best arrangement for children, and a shared parenting arrangement is
better than a sole custody arrangement, i.e., a two-parent family is
better even if parents are divorced.
Ilfeld, Holly Zingale "Children's perceptions of their
relationship with their fathers in three family constellations:
mother sole custody, joint custody and intact families" Doctoral
dissertation, U. of California, Davis 1989
This study evaluated children's perceptions of their fathers at
least four years post-divorce, comparing joint custody, sole custody
and intact families. The subjects were 43 latency-age children: 11
from maternal custody families, 14 from joint custody families and
18 controls from intact homes.
Results: "There was a significant difference in the perceptions
of children in sole and joint custody. Joint custody children
reported spending more time with their fathers in child-centered
activities, activities which were considered pleasurable and
important to children." And: "No differences were found as a
function of custody arrangements in children's perceptions of
emotional closeness to the father, acceptance by the father, or
fathers's potency or activity."
Lerman, Isabel A. "Adjustment of latency age children in joint
and single custody arrangements" California School of Professional
Psychology, San Diego, 1989
This study evaluated 90 children, aged 7 to 12, divided equally
among maternal, joint legal, and joint physical custody groups.
Results showed negative effects for sole custody: "Single custody
subjects evidenced greater self-hate and perceived more rejection
from their fathers than joint physical custody subjects." Conflict
between parents was found to be a significant factor, which may
explain the better adjustment for joint physical custody children:
"Degree of inter-parental conflict was a significant predictor of
child self-hate. Higher conflict was associated with greater
self-hate; lower conflict was associated with lower self-hate."
"Higher father-child contact was associated with better adjustment,
lower self-hate, and lower perceived rejection from father; lower
father-child contact was associated with poorer adjustment, higher
self-hate, and higher perceived rejection from father. "
In situations with high levels of conflict, mental illness, or
domestic violence, joint physical custody is no better (and no
worse) than sole custody.
Surviving the Breakup, J. Wallerstein and J. Kelly; Second
Chances, J. Wallerstein and S. Blakeslee; and other publications.
Judith Wallerstein and colleagues have produced many publications
on a 20+ year study of 184 families that had been referred to her
clinic for therapy. The parents were predominantly mentally ill,
with approximately half the men and half the women "moderately
disturbed or frequently incapacitated by disabling neuroses and
addictions," including some who were "sometimes suicidal." An
additional 20% of the women and 15% of the men were categorized as
"severely disturbed." Approximately one third of the sample were
considered to have "adequate psychological functioning" before
divorce. Although there was a significant level of attrition, with
families dropping out of the study when problems were resolved, some
conclusions emerged from the remaining families. Children in joint
custody situations did no better than those in sole custody,
indicating that parents must be reasonably psychologically healthy
for shared parenting to benefit children.
Johnston, Janet R., Marsha Kline, and Jeanne M. Tschann,
"Ongoing Postdivorce Conflict: Effects on Children of Joint Custody
and Frequent Access," American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, Vol. 59,
No. 4 (Oct. 1989).
Johnston et al. studied 100 low income families involved in
ongoing custody disputes that included frequent verbal and physical
aggression. Approximately one third of the children were in joint
physical custody arrangements averaging 12 days per month with the
less-seen parent, with the others in either mother or father sole
physical custody averaging 4 days a month with the less-seen parent.
The study found that "there was no clear evidence that children are
better adjusted in either custody type", and that "mean scores for
the Child Behavior Checklist lie within the normal range for all
custody types." Also, "there was no evidence that the clinically
disturbed children were more likely to be in joint than in sole
custody." However, the study did find that more frequent contact
between parents in either joint or sole custody arrangements was
"associated with more emotional and behavioral problems in the
Johnston's study indicates that shared parenting may not reduce
disputes between parents in extreme high-conflict situations, but
also shows that sole custody does not protect children from the
effects of conflict between parents. In high conflict situations, it
is probably better to reduce interaction between parents. For
example, parents can pick up children from school instead of from
the other parent's house.
The study did find one significant benefit from shared parenting
even in these cases: "Only one parent with joint custody ceased
contact with her child, whereas 12 parents of sole custody children
'dropped out'." Thus joint custody does appear to protect children
from the complete loss of a parent, even in high conflict
Joint Legal Custody
Although not as beneficial to children as equal shared parenting
(joint physical custody), joint legal custody helps to some extent.
The main benefits of joint legal custody are in reducing visitation
interference and improving child support compliance.
Joint legal custody has been consistently linked with more
parental involvement, higher child support compliance, and less
conflict between parents. Until recently, however, it was not clear
whether these benefits occurred as a result of joint legal custody,
or simply because more cooperative parents chose joint custody in
the first place. The 1997 study by Seltzer provides strong evidence
for a cause and effect relationship between joint legal custody and
the benefits associated with it.
Seltzer, J. "Father by Law: Effects of Joint Legal Custody on
Non-residential Fathers Involvement with Children," NSFH Paper No.
75, Feb., 1997, U. of Wisconsin-Madison, http://ssc.wisc.edu/cde/nsfhwp/home.htm
Seltzer used data from the National Survey of Families and
Households, a survey of over 13,000 families that collected data in
two waves, 1987-88 and 1992-94. Because the study included data on
the quality of family relationships, it was possible to study the
effects of joint legal custody while controlling from pre-separation
family relationships by analyzing data on families that had
separated between the survey waves.
Seltzer concluded that "Controlling for the quality of family
relationships before separation and socioeconomic status, fathers
with joint legal custody see their children more frequently, have
more overnight visits, and pay more child support than fathers in
families in which mothers have sole legal custody." She suggests
that joint legal custody helps reduce visitation denial: "By
clarifying that divorced fathers are 'by law' still fathers,
parents' negotiations about fathers' participation in child rearing
after divorce may shift from trying to resolve whether fathers will
be involved in child rearing to the matter of how fathers will be
involved." [emphasis in original]
Gunnoe, M.L., and S.L. Braver, "The Effects of Joint Legal
Custody on Family Functioning, Controlling for Factors that
Predispose a joint award," Child Development.
This study evaluated 273 families, controlling for 28 variables
that influence a predisposition to agree on joint legal custody.
Controlling for these factors, children in joint legal custody
families had more time with their fathers and fewer adjustment an
behavior problems. The custody type, however, did not affect the
adjustment of fathers or mothers post-divorce, conflict between
ex-spouses, or child support compliance.
Sanford Braver,"Determining the Impact of Joint Custody on
Study consisted of 378 families; some with unmatched partners, in
various custody arrangements.
". . .Sharlene Wolchik, Iwrin Sandler and I found in 1985 that
children in joint custody had higher feelings of self-worth than
children in sole maternal custody."
"Our results showed considerable benefits for joint custody, even
when equating predisposing factors. After this adjustment, children
in joint custody were found to be significantly better adjusted, and
to exhibit less antisocial and impulsive behavior than sole custody
families. Fathers also visited more, and were more involved in child
care, as well as more satisfied with the divorce settlement.
Mothers, however, were significantly less satisfied with the custody
arrangements in joint custody families."
"When the couple disagrees initially, which is better for the
family, for the father to get his preference (joint [custody]) or
for the mother to get her preference (sole [custody])? We found that
the groups differed significantly in terms of how much financial
child support was paid: when sole custody was that arrangement
despite the fathers' wishes, 80% was paid (according to what the
father reported; the figure was 64% by mothers' report), while when
joint custody was awarded despite the mothers' preference, it zoomed
to almost perfect compliance (97% by fathers' report; 94% by
mothers' report) . . . A similar relationship was found for fathers'
contact with the child. It was significantly highest for the group
in which joint custody was awarded despite the mothers' preference."
"Joint custody, even when awarded despite the contrary preference of
the mother, leads to more involved fathers, and almost perfect of
financial child support; controlling for predisposing factors, it
leads to better adjusted children. . . We believe these findings
call for policy makers, in the best interest of the children, to
adopt a presumption that is rebuttable for joint legal custody, that
is, a judicial preference that both parents retain their right and
responsibilities toward their children post divorce."