For five years, Rodney Jenkins, a counselor with the D.C. Department of Corrections, has fought to share custody of his 8-year-old son with his former wife.
A court awarded Jenkins the right to see his son, Ramal, on weekends, but Jenkins complains that his former wife frequently finds ways to cut into his time with the child.
"A father will never ever truly understand fatherhood if he is denied access to his children," said Jenkins, 35. ". . . I see Ramal placing less and less importance on our relationship and I went to court to say his former wife is not handling sole custody properly."
Samantha Embrey, a Washington resident who was divorced a year ago, said she concluded it was right to allow her former husband to share joint custody of their 6-year-old daughter.
"A large part of me wanted sole custody for the sense of power I would have," said Embrey, 43. "I gave up a certain amount of control over my daughter and I have not regretted it."
Jenkins and Embrey urged the D.C. City Council last week to adopt legislation to allow divorced parents joint custody of their children.
They were among about 50 people who spoke during a four-hour roundtable discussion at the District Building, sponsored by the National Council for Children's Rights and chaired by council member William Spaulding (D-Ward 5). Most of the witnesses knew first-hand the pain of divorce and the trauma of being denied access to their children.
The current law calls for the awarding of custody "in the best interest of the child" and District judges have interpreted that to mean sole custody to one parent, according to David Levy, president of the children's rights council. Judges are more likely to award joint custody in cases where both parents agree to it.
NCCR is a nonprofit organization created last year to push for law reforms that would more easily allow joint custody because the group believes children need both their mother and father after a divorce, Levy said.
Dr. Carol Stack, director of Duke University's Center for the Study of the Family and the State, said research shows that black families in Washington preferred joint custody because it is "most harmonious with family values and . . . supports rather than undermines deeply entrenched cultural values."
Stack, who has written extensively on the black urban family, testified last week that, "Sole custody perpetuates the dependency of women while joint custody lays the basis for gender equality and is not based upon outdated notions that men should be breadwinners and women should raise children."
Witnesses also said that joint custody frequently relieves individual parents of some of the emotional stress of rearing children. Lucy Conner, a legislative aide on Capitol Hill who has custody of two children, aged 4 and 9, said she has experienced many problems, especially after her former husband stopped paying child support.
"Sole custody is not always the best approach," Conner said. ". . . I feel laws should encourage joint custody of children and I urge lawmakers to enact legislation which will provide for sharing in bringing up children."
Larry Gaughan, a law professor at George Mason University, said mediation and conciliation between divorced couples in many cases could lead to joint custody agreements. He said that court custody battles often force divorced couples to pay exorbitant legal fees and "denigrate each other" in front of a judge.
"If the money spent on courts could be channeled into college education, we will get better educated people," he said.
Spaulding, chairman of the council's Government Operations Committee, said after the hearing that joint custody "has a lot of merit" and that he intends to introduce a bill dealing with the problem.