Maryland's Broken Custody System
Charges against a Montgomery County father in the deaths of his three young children on March 30 [Metro, March 31] remind me of the killing by a Maryland dad of his three children, his ex-wife and himself last Thanksgiving.
It is difficult to step back and assess the context of these cases within the overall custody system, but it is about time we did so. Aside from considering the mental illness of a parent who would kill his children, we need to examine the circumstances in which these awful cases occur, rather than the usual reaction that the courts should have separated this father from his children. It is difficult to know beforehand which one out of 10,000 cases will erupt so disastrously.
We do know that both tragedies -- last November and last week -- were tied to bitter custody battles. These were sole-custody battles, in which each parent was fighting to be the dominant, primary force in the lives of their children after the divorce.
The hallmark of these sole custody cases is that each parent works to picture himself or herself as the better parent, and even at the cost of going bankrupt, a parent will spend thousands on lawyers and expert witnesses to show the court why he or she is entitled to sole custody. The battles can continue for months or years, and the emotional and psychological effects on the family grow more attenuated the longer the battle continues.
Most states and the District have found a way around this custody warfare: They have established a presumption or preference for joint custody, also known as shared parenting. Under joint custody, the child is entitled to spend at least a third to half of the time on a year-round basis with each parent. Various arrangements are possible to suit the needs of divorced, separated or never-married families. The result is that each parent knows that he or she will continue to be an integral part of the child's life, so there is less cause for struggle and warfare.
Maryland, like 12 other states, has no preference for joint custody. When I tell this to people, they often say, "But Maryland is such a progressive state!" Yes, but not when it comes to children of divorce. The District presumes joint custody, and Virginia mildly encourages it. Maryland law does neither.
The question one might immediately ask is, "You mean you would have given joint custody to the fathers who have killed their children?" Of course not. If I could have predicted what these two parents would do, I would have ordered absolutely no contact between parent and child, and the fathers ordered into psychiatric evaluation. Protecting the children comes first.
But the point is that sole-custody court battles often drive mothers and fathers, pardon the expression, "nuts," especially if they were mentally challenged to begin with. And violence can't be predicted scientifically.
Courts need to provide more psychological evaluations in contentious divorces, coupled with mediation, counseling and parent education. And courts need to step up their use of access centers, which are operated by the Children's Rights Council and other organizations, usually free to parents. These centers offer a safe, secure way to transfer children between parents and provide supervised access where necessary -- to prevent a parent from taking the child from the premises until serious issues can be investigated.
Would all of this have stopped these murders? There is no way to tell, but an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, as our grandparents used to say, and we need broad reform, not just knee-jerk reactions.
-- David L. Levy
The writer is chief executive of the Children's Rights Council, a global child advocacy organization.