New Study, Case May Help CA Children of Divorce

By Glenn Sacks

One of the greatest tragedies children of divorce in California face is the way courts allow custodial parents to move hundreds or even thousands of miles away after divorce, damaging or sometimes destroying the bonds between children and their noncustodial parents. However, new research and a case pending before the California Supreme Court may change that.

In the case of In re: Marriage of Lamusga, a Contra Costa County custodial mother seeks to move out of state with her two young boys and her new husband. The boys’ father, who enjoys joint legal but not joint physical custody, seeks to block the move, arguing that it is not in his children’s best interest because it will damage their relationship with him. The mother, who first tried to move to Ohio, now seeks to relocate to Arizona in order to provide her new husband with better career opportunities.

Since the 1996 Burgess decision California custodial parents, usually mothers, have had the presumptive right to move. However, according to Arizona State University researcher Sanford Braver, this decision and others like it were made in a "vacuum" of information on the long-term effects of move-aways.

Braver and his ASU colleagues Ira Ellman and William Fabricius have begun to fill this vacuum with a newly released study which shows that move-aways are correlated with damaging long-term consequences for children. The study, published in the June 2003 issue of the Journal of Family Psychology, found that among 14 variables related to a young adult’s overall well-being, move-away status was correlated to significant, negative impact in 11 of them.

These negative consequences include: greater inner turmoil and distress from parents’ divorce; health problems, particularly in the case of girls; more hostility in interpersonal relationships; negative feelings towards their parents; greater conflict between divorced parents; and greater problems in general life satisfaction and personal and emotional adjustment. Not surprisingly, financial support, including financial support for college expenses given voluntarily by the noncustodial parent, was significantly higher when children grew up within a one hour drive of their noncustodial parent.

The study, conducted from a pool of 2,067 college students enrolled in an introductory level class at a large university, may even understate the damage of move-aways. As the survey’s authors point out, many of the children most damaged by divorce and alienation from their noncustodial parents were not measured because they probably never made it as far as college.

The study’s results also indict noncustodial fathers who move away from their children, finding that such move-aways are also correlated with long-term negative consequences for children. Noncustodial fathers often justify their moves by arguing that the custodial mother is already denying them access to the children anyway, or that these moves are necessitated by their child support obligations. The second claim, however, is no more legitimate than custodial mothers’ claims that moving helps them financially.

While the study’s findings on move-aways are new, studies documenting the disastrous effects of fatherlessness on children are not. Research shows that the largest single factor in predicting whether a child will graduate high school, attend college, become involved in crime or drugs, or get pregnant before age 18 is the presence (or absence) of a father in the child’s life. Studies show that this remains true even after adjustments for household income.

The Burgess decision and others like it ignore the fact that children need more from their fathers than a check in the mail--they need the love, guidance and strength which fathers provide. Allowing a custodial parent to move away often removes one of the two people in the world who love a child the most from that child’s life. How could that be in a child’s best interest?

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