Joint Custody: It’s Not Easy on Divorced Couples or Children
Sometimes, 8-year-old Jennifer Davis wakes up in the middle of the night and isn’t sure where she is. Is it her mother’s house in Anaheim, where she sleeps on a daybed in an upstairs bedroom? Or her father’s in Westminster, where she sleeps in a canopy bed in the same room that she has had since she was a baby?
The situation isn’t quite so confusing now that she changes parents, and homes, every 6 months, spending Wednesday evenings and alternate weekends with whichever parent she isn’t living with during the week. Before that, she spent 2 days with her mother, 2 days with her father, 3 days with her mother and then reversed the pattern.
Jennifer’s divorced parents have had joint legal and physical custody of her since she was 2 years old. Joint custody was popular with legal and mental health experts alike when it was introduced into the California family law codes a decade ago, but as of Jan. 1, the law was revised to reflect the growing belief that it may not always be the best arrangement.
Last week, we heard from some of those experts, who agreed that while the idea may sound good on paper, successful joint custody arrangements are rare. This week, we talk to some of those unusual families about how the setup works for them.
Seven-year-old Joshua Luchau says he always knows where he is at night “because in one home I have a blue cover on my bed and at the other I have a brown one. Besides, at my dad’s I have to share a room with my brother.”
Since last September, Joshua and his brother, Jeremy, 9, have alternated weeks between their father’s place in Tustin and their mother’s apartment in Santa Ana. They go to the same school no matter where they’re staying, and to the same baby-sitter after school.
Nine-year-old Scott Harrah, meanwhile, lives with his mother in San Clemente 3 weeks of every month, then switches to his father’s house in El Toro for a week.
“It’s hard, changing from the rules in one place to another,” he says. “It’s hard to remember. I’m allowed to ride my bike farther at my dad’s. But cleaning my room is the same both places. My bedtime is 9 at my dad’s, but at my mom’s, it’s 8:30.”
Jennifer has the same problem. At her dad’s, she goes to bed at 8:30, but at her mother’s, bedtime is 7:30. Still, Jennifer says she likes joint custody because “you always get to see both parents, no matter what.”
But it isn’t easy, even for the adults. When Scott is in El Toro, his father, Calvin, or his stepmother, Carol, must drive him to school in San Clemente and pick him up afterward, 80 miles of driving altogether.
Even when it works, joint custody isn’t an ideal arrangement, say children and adults alike.
“It’s the best of an imperfect situation,” says Larry Belkin of Mission Viejo, who has joint custody of his daughter, Kara, 15, and son Ryan, 12. “It’s hard on kids; I don’t think there’s any divorce that isn’t,” he says. “But given the choice, both of the kids have told us that they prefer this over any other arrangements we could think of.”
When he and his wife were divorced 3 years ago, Belkin asked for joint custody because “I just really felt the kids still need a father and a mother. In other custody arrangements, the other parent just disappears.
“Joint custody forces you to make a commitment to your kids first.”
Linda Holden, Belkin’s former wife, says she was opposed to the idea of joint custody at first. But she has since changed her mind.
“I really do think kids need both parents,” she says. “I don’t know that exactly 50-50 is what would work best. It really depends so much on the individual situation.”
The Belkin children spend weekdays with one parent and weekends with the other for a month, then switch. Their parents live only 4 miles apart, so Kara and Ryan are still near friends and school, no matter which parent they’re with.
“We’re no longer a couple, but we’re still able to be parents together,” Belkin says. “We don’t go out together with the kids or anything, but we communicate a lot. We’ve both made a commitment that the kids are both of our priorities. We don’t want to set up a situation where they feel they’re being pulled in one direction or another.”
“If there’s a conflict, we’re able to talk about it, and the kids know that,” Holden says. “Not that they don’t try to play one parent against the other, of course. All kids do.”
A commitment to joint custody means making some sacrifices, the parents say.
“If I got a job offer in Northern California, I couldn’t very well accept it,” Holden says.
“If I moved, I know I would be making the decision to leave the kids,” says Kevin Luchau, Jeremy and Joshua’s father. “And I just couldn’t do that.”
Luchau and his former wife, Diana Garofalo, have been divorced 5 years. Until last September, she had sole custody of the boys and he was allowed visitation.
“I was kind of like the fun guy to go and see,” Luchau says. “But after I got joint custody, they began to see me more as a father. It wasn’t as (much) fun because I had to discipline them sometimes, but this way, it’s a lot more realistic.”
“We had a lot of anger between us,” Garofalo says. “But we’re trying to put it behind us now and do what’s best for the kids.”
“You have to learn not to let the little things upset you,” Luchau says.
Still, there are a few bugs to be worked out. “On Christmas, one of the kids got the same thing at both houses,” Garofalo says. “We still have a lot to learn.”
Duplications aside, Jennifer says the extra Christmas gifts she gets are a big plus for joint custody.
Joint custody offers some real advantages for the adults involved as well.
“I really treasure the time that I have with the children,” Holden says. “If I had them more often, I might take them for granted.”
“When the kids aren’t around, it gives you some additional free time without the usual responsibilities of being a parent,” Belkin says.
Sometimes, it’s best not to divide the child’s time exactly evenly between parents, Harrah believes. “When we first separated 7 years ago, it was a high priority for me to at least get some form of joint physical custody, even if it was only 10% of the time,” he says. “Otherwise I would have felt pretty shut out.
“I really think it’s better to have one place where the kid really hangs his hat. It’s best for Scott that he be at one place most of the time.”
Scott’s mother, Esther Batterton, could not be reached for comment.
Of course, parents and children aren’t the only people involved in joint custody. Stepparents are also affected.
“It’s a very complicated way to live,” says Carol Harrah, who married Calvin in 1985. “It’s almost like you’re living two different lives.”
Carol’s 19-year-old son lives with them full time, and she also has a 26-year-old married daughter with three children of her own.
“It’s almost like, which family am I in this week?” Carol says.
Belkin and Holden agree that her husband, Mike, helps make the situation work. “I tend to be more of a disciplinarian, and she’s more of a rescuer,” Belkin says. “But their stepfather is a disciplinarian, too, so if there’s a restriction at my house--grounding, losing phone privileges--he follows through on it there.”
The Luchau boys have unofficial stepparents in Mary Skidmore, who lives with their father, and Dedrick Bentley, who lives with their mother. Both Luchau and Garofalo agree that the extra adults are good for the children.
“Without all four of us, it wouldn’t work so well,” Garofalo says.
But even in the best cases, joint custody is a constant struggle. “I could say without equivocation that it’s the hardest situation I’ve had to deal with in my life, more than the divorce itself,” Calvin Harrah says. “The divorce was over 5 years ago, but this is ongoing. Scott is 9, so we’ve still got 9 years of it to go.”