Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Separated Parents: The Bible, The Courts, And The Science.

Those who read regularly know one of my pet peeve arguments is “ U.S. laws are based on Christianity”. It is total chutzpah. The reality is first “Christian values” were based on values that had evolved to be socially functional. “Don’t lie”, “don’t cheat”, “don’t steal”, “don’t kill”, “respect your parents”, “expect to be treated the same way you treat other people” are not profound revelations. They are rules for a community to reduce aggressive behavior. If in fact he was a deity, he came down only to point out the ideas we should already have been aware of. The US laws were designed around these basic understandings. However, with about 90% regularity, if a value falls in the grey area, the US laws are crafted in complete disregard for what the bible would council.

I could go on citing examples, but that would make a long post. Instead the one that is fresh on my mind is the lesson highlighted by the story of King Solomon. For reference sake I will sum it up. Two women had babies of about the same age. One woman’s child had died. Both women claimed the living baby as their own. (I know it is hard to envision this in our separated living type culture, but remember back then they were more tribal living arrangements.) Unable to resolve the dispute they were brought before the king. The King Solomon proposed to just “split the baby in half”. One woman actually agreed to the decision. The other broke into tears saying she would rather see her baby live then to suffer such a fate. The king recognized that the real mother would never allow her baby to be hurt and awarded the custody to the second woman.

In this area US laws are 180 degrees out of the teaching of the bible. Here our courts don’t just suggest, but often demand that the baby be “split in half”, at least emotionally speaking. First and foremost the laws are set up as such that the mother gets primary custody unless proven to be a vengeful homicidal abusive maniac. Even then the courts only want her to go through a program, and show that she has gotten her emotions under control. Even if one of the parents are proven to be to the extreme, the courts still generally allow some sort of visitation and custody rights. These are the extreme cases. The grey areas in between where a parent is shown to act irresponsibly and/ or out of the best interest of the child, that parent is still awarded custody. If it is the mother, she is often awarded primary custody. This is a situation that allows a parent who is looking to emotionally torment the other parent a link to do so. We all know people who have crazy ex’s that use the kids to do irrational acts.

Generally US family courts try to establish what they call “joint custody”. (Picture a thick burly royal guard with giant sword.) This is where the two parents share equally in decision making and often living arrangements. This only tends to work if the separation was something that both parents wanted and they had been emotionally sepaerated for years. They often became some variety of “friends” over the course of their together but separate lives.

Joint custody certainly doesn’t work if only one parent wanted the separation and the other is hurt and frustrated with the other parent. The parent often uses the child as a pawn in some game of emotional chess. They will say and do things to the child that shouldn’t even be consider acceptable. It also doesn’t work when neither parent wanted the split, but just became involved in some kind of hurtful game escalated to the extreme of divorce. I have seen this a few times personally where not only my friends ex is acting not on the best interest of the child by doing irrational activates, but so was my friend. Every now and then I would check him by saying, “what are you doing. I though you guys were through with each other. Why would you continue the drama?” One friend made my jaw drop when in a burst of raw honesty she said, “I still love him, and I hate him for that.” I mean what do you say to that? I ordered a round of shots.

So in this instance as in many others the US laws are not “based on biblical teachings”. But wait, there’s more. It turns out they don’t even act in accordance to scientific understanding either. Here is a study that was conducted by Professor Yongmin Sun of OSU released in early 2008. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/05/080507132910.htm

It turns out that children of separated families have greatly varying chances of success depending on their custodial situation. First of all, as has been said by every councilor and even during the “separated parents” seminar I was forced to attend they stress that just having separated parents greatly reduces their chances at reaching their full potential. As Sun put it in this interview, “A stable family situation after divorce does not erase the negative effects of a divorce.” The study goes on to show that children of stable custodial environment are far more likely to succeed and be functional then children of changing custodial situations. The main point in the article showed that while children of single parent custody had the same chance of going to college as an “always married” family structure. However, the level of degree was reduced in the cases where sole custody was the norm. Children of “joint custody” environments fared half as well in most aspects as their other peers. Bottom line, divorce is a damming experience for a child. Passing the child back and forth is further damaging. Yet that is what the courts try to do.

The reasoning behind the disadvantage of the separated parents are no mystery. The fact that split parents suffer from reduced financial backing and social continuity was cited by the study. The courts attempt to recreate the “standard of living” in two places. Most couple could barely afford to do it in one. The second is a core understanding of the meaning of relationship and commitment to a common goal that are demonstrated by a divorce. These children often are more willing to give up on goals and commitments that are needed to drive their way up the ladder of success.

So as unusual, when I trash a social norm, I have a solution. Well part of one. In this case marginalizing the damage seems about the best one can do. First, obviously the situation has to be taken into account. A pregnant teen is a vastly different situation then an established marriage that were not “till death”. I have talked at length about teen pregnancy in the past, and will not address that here. But improving the fate of a child from a marriage that ends should have a different set of criteria.

First of all, I draw on wisdom from a short story I read I think in 6th grade called the “test”. The basic jest of the story was that people attempting to get their drivers license were put under hypnosis and made to believe they were involved in a horrible crash that killed their love ones. When they woke, if they still wanted their license they were committed. If they didn’t they were approved to get it. The first test of a parent should be making sure they understand the ramifications of separating. If they are still willing to go through with it, then maybe they shouldn’t be allowed to have custody of their child. This concept should not wait till people are in divorce court to be explained, it should be part of the marriage license process. If one of you are willing to separate, break your vows, or dissolve the family, then that person risks loosing access to their child. There has to be consequences. Now if the person is looking to separate for reason of abuse, then obviously the courts would have to consider. But simply wanting out is not an acceptable excuse. It demonstrates a selfish disregard for the child and the sanctity of marriage. It is damage that is actually felt financially upon the entire system and community as demonstrated by the study. Too many times marriages that have just reached minor lows end without properly addressing the issues has progressed. Making the consequences more dire might make the couple reconsider.

As a personal experience, I know a dozen or so divorced couples with children. Two of them stand out. Both of these children have very little interaction with more then one parent. In those cases, the children have grown to be very functional and are off to renowned success. Luckily, one of my friends recently got the chance to do it again with the right person. He is so ready it seems.

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