Sunday, February 8, 2009

Visitation and custody

In my many conversations with fathers that are fighting now or have fought for the joint custody of their children, I have discovered, to my surprise and worry, that the distinction between custody and visitation is not clear for most people, and therefore, why the former is much more important than the latter is not clear neither.

When courts award sole physical custody of a child to one of the parents, they are disregarding the proven benefits of joint custody. In 1981, Beck v. Beck, the seminal case on joint custody in New Jersey, the custody of two adopted girls was decided in favor of joint legal and physical custody. Mr. Beck used as professional support of his claims for joint custody the testimonies of Dr. Warren Clark, a school psychologist, and Dr. Judith Greif, a psychiatric social worker who has conducted independent research on the topic of joint custody. The court found “…rational the viewpoints of Drs. Greif and Clark and hence adopted their conclusions”. Dr. Greif testified that:

…as long as both parents are fit, “the most important thing is to maintain the child’s open and meaningful access to both parents.” (…) Visitation, for Dr. Greif was not “meaningful contact.” She stressed that the continuity of relationship allowed by alternating physical custody is more important that the discontinuity of physical environment caused by it. 86 New Jersey Superior Court 492 (1981)

And by “meaningful” contact, we should read physical custody. As this case helped to clarify, visitation is not, it cannot be, meaningful contact (86 New Jersey Superior Court 492). Dr. Greif:

…distinguished between custodial time and visitation, describing the former as “meaningful contact” and the latter as “entertainment time.” It saw the contact and involvement of the girls with two fit, concerned parents as “going to be what’s good for the girls.” (86 New Jersey Superior Court 493)

Beck v. Beck repeatedly states that only physical custody can develop a healthy bond between divorced parents and their children:

Alternating physical custody enables the children to share with both parents the intimate day-to-day contact necessary to strengthen a true parent-child relationship. 86 New Jersey Superior Court 485 (1981)

The award of joint physical custody to both parents is the only way to preserve the relationship between them and their children. And those of us who love our children must keep on fighting until joint custody arrangements be the rule and not the exception, as they are now. We have to. Our children are waiting.

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