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Journal Issue: Children and Divorce Volume 4 Number 1 Spring/Summer 1994

The Determination of Child Custody
Joan B. Kelly

Access as a Primary Factor in Custody Determinations

During the decades of maternal presumption, the limited visitation given to non-custodial fathers reflected the perceived insignificance of the father in children's development. Many fathers visited infrequently or ceased contact because of lack of interest, personality problems, maternal opposition to visits, long distances, limited income, or the belief that they were not important to their children. Other fathers became infrequent visitors because of the pain of loss experienced each time they visited and the increasing superficiality of the father-child relationship over time.19,48,73,92 The increased number of divorces in the 1970s and new research on children of divorce forced a reexamination of the concept of limited access. Early studies of children in maternal custody described children's intense dissatisfaction with infrequent contact with the father, the diminution over time of the father's importance to the child,19,28,80,81 and reported a positive relationship between visit frequency and children's adjustment, particularly for boys, unless the parent was poorly adjusted or extremely immature.19,28 In response to these findings, legislation encouraging "frequent and continuing contact" between noncustodial parent and child was passed in many states, and visitation patterns slowly expanded in the 1980s.19,49,93 Increased access was often achieved by adding a weekly week overnight to the every-other-weekend pattern, thereby shortening the number of days children waited between visits and doubling the amount of time that children were spending on a monthly basis with their noncustodial parents, usually fathers, from less than 15% to nearly 30%.

It is not possible to determine, on a national basis, how much time children are actually spending with their fathers at present, although a significant trend toward more contacts has emerged in the past decade. Early reports of families separated in the 1970s indicated that approximately half of the nation's children were not seeing their fathers at all several years after divorce, and very few were visiting their fathers once a week or more.94 These data were collected before influential divorce research was available and prior to the adoption of joint custody or "frequent and continuing contact" statutes in most states. Compared with noncustodial fathers, noncustodial mothers have generally maintained higher levels of contact with their children,94 although along many dimensions, mothers without custody cannot be considered comparable to fathers without custody.95

It is now apparent that fewer children than previously reported have no contact with their fathers after divorce, and more children are experiencing weekly contacts. A 1988 national data set indicates that 18% of the children had no contact in the prior year; 25% saw their fathers one or more times a week.49 Recent regional studies also suggest the level of contact between divorced fathers and children is further increasing in that only about 10% of nonresident parents had not seen their children in the previous year.93,96,97 Separated parents who never married have much higher rates of no contact than do divorced noncustodial parents.49 Contacts with fathers diminish with time and distance after separation,19,49,94,98 although recent studies suggest considerable stability in patterns of contact between fathers and children in the first several years after separation,35 particularly when fathers share physical custody.46,93 If parents do not establish the visitation pattern immediately after separation and do not include overnights in the schedule, the likelihood of visits continuing in the future is considerably diminished.19,35

The importance of noncustodial parents' continued contacts after divorce has been questioned by research finding no relationship between visit frequency and adjustment.45,90,99 Newer research indicates that the psychological adjustment of the custodial parent and the extent of conflict during the marriage and after divorce are more profound influences on children's adjustment than visit frequency.45,90,100 However, a number of studies suggest that continued father involvement after divorce is advantageous to children under certain circumstances. When the relationship with the noncustodial parent is a positive one, children with expanded and flexible visitation are more content and satisfied, and view the divorce less negatively.19,80,100,101 And when the custodial mother approves of the father's continued contacts with the child, the link between visiting and child adjustment is strong, particularly for boys.102-104 Economic advantages accrue as well, in that greater contact between child and father is associated with higher child support compliance,49,50 payment of more supplemental child expenses,50 and less father dropout in the longer term.35,49,93,105 Research is needed to assess the longer-term effects of noncustodial parent involvement for children of different ages and gender, using a broader range of variables including father-child closeness, legal and parent conflict, parent social and psychological adjustment, the child's self-esteem, sense of being loved and supported, and academic and social functioning.38,100