Dottie Keville appears self-assured, articulate, beautifully dressed -- the kind of woman who might have given up her children for a career. But such was not the case.

When her marriaged ended, Keville, 47, went to court and tried for months to get custody of her children; her ex-husband was also trying to get custody. Finally, she agreed to joint custody -- with the children living with her ex-husband -- because she wanted to spare the children a trial. "His parents had money and promised to send our children to college. Their father had a master's degree. I had a high school diploma. I was 38 years old and had just started to work," she says. "I decided it was in the best interests of the kids not to put them through any more pain and I would do it all -- I would try to suffer all the pain and free them that. I was naive . . .

'I cried every day for two years. I would avoid people that lived in the same town as my children. I was afraid they would ask me about my kids. What made it awful -- I would see a very judgmental look in their eyes. So I avoided people that I would have to tell about my situation," she recalls. That was nine years ago.

"I agreed to give him the house and furniture . . . because my kids were there. I wanted everything to be as close as possible to what it was when I was there. I took all five of them together, held them, and told them I had to leave and that I loved them very much and that I wasn't leaving them, I was leaving their father. And that no matter what anybody said, I would always be there for them, and we would work it out."

Keville moved into an unfurnished apartment. She worked and at night earned a master's degree without ever having been an undergraduate. In lieu of a college diploma, the school accepted a scrapbook of newspaper clippings documenting her community involvement. She worked for the state of Massachusetts, won a fellowship from the Department of Health and Human Services and moved to Washington; now she directs government affairs for a professional association and counsels homeless mothers without custody at a local shelter.

Keville started a mothers without custody group when she first moved here, but soon merged it with the new national Mothers Without Custody. She held the monthly meetings at her home for three years, but eventually became burned out from the painful intensity that new members brought. She is still involved as a regional director, and has risked her family's disapproval by speaking out through national press and television. She says she'll keep talking until judges abide by her personal custody standard -- award children to the parent who promises the other parent the most generous visitation.

Patience and persistence have rewarded Dottie Keville with what she considers strong, healthy relationships with her children. One son who barely spoke to her for five years decided to spend a summer with her. A college-age daughter lived with her for two years, and a 20-year- old son will move in this fall. "I feel privileged that I know what real love is, what caring is. My kids feel that with me, and they return it."