Does joint custody help to reduce conflict between parents or is it simply that more cooperative parents are more likely to agree to joint custody arrangements in the first place?
Many studies have demonstrated that joint custody arrangements lead to much better compliance in financial child support and greater parental involvement. But opponents of joint custody have claimed that these benefits occur only because the more cooperative parents were the ones that chose joint custody. A new study by Judith Seltzer, University of Wisconsin-Madison, provides strong evidence to refute this claim.
Seltzer used data from the National Survey of Families and Households, a survey of over 13,000 families that collected data in two waves, 1987-1988 and 1992-1994. Because the NSFH included data on the quality of family relationships, it was possible to study the effects of joint legal custody while controlling for pre-separation family relationships. Seltzer identified data on families that had separated or divorced between the first and second survey periods. The results clearly indicated positive effects for joint legal custody: "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 the mothers have sole legal custody."
Remarkably, Seltzer found that the level of conflict before separation had no impact on the prospects of parents obtaining joint legal custody at divorce. She says, "My findings show that neither conflict nor marital happiness before separation affect the likelihood that parents will acquire joint legal custody at divorce."
The fact that children benefited from joint legal custody even after taking account of the quality of family relationships and economic resources before separation provides further evidence that these positive effects are not simply the result of more cooperative parents choosing joint custody. Seltzer proposes a "role oriented" explanation for the benefits of joint legal custody. She says that "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]
Seltzer concludes that children's advocates appear to be right: "At least on the dimensions of increased contact between nonresident fathers and children, joint legal custody may, as advocates claim, make the lives of children after divorce more similar to their lives before divorce or to the lives of their peers in two-parent households." Seltzer's report is entitled "Father by Law: Effects of Joint Legal Custody on Nonresident Fathers' Involvement with Children."
The report can be obtained through the internet at http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/cde/nsfhwp/home.htm or from the Center for Demography and Ecology, Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison, 4412 Social Science Bldg., 1180 Observatory Drive, Madison WI, 53706-1393.