James Cook dies at 85; fathers’ rights advocate helped write joint custody law

James Cook
James Cook became a fathers’ rights advocate after an unhappy divorce and helped write California’s pioneering joint custody law three decades ago.
From a Times Staff Writer

James Cook, whose unhappy divorce led him to help write California’s pioneering joint custody law three decades ago, died of natural causes Feb. 21 at a nursing facility in West Los Angeles. He was 85.

James Cook obituary: The obituary of joint custody advocate James Cook in Thursday’s Section A said a 1980 California law made joint custody a first preference in custody decisions. The law states that it doesn’t establish a preference but allows discretion in choosing “a parenting plan that is in the best interest of the child” and emphasizes that courts in granting sole custody should consider whether the custodial parent is willing to allow “frequent and continuing contact” with the noncustodial parent. —

In 1974, when Cook and his wife divorced, he asked for shared custody of their son but the law favored mothers as the primary custodian, with limited visiting rights for the father.

“The judge thought it was preposterous,” Cook told Time magazine in 2001. “He told me, ‘I don’t have permission to do it.’ ”

After losing custody, Cook started attending fathers’ rights meetings and met other divorced men who had had similar custody battles. He decided to change the law and convinced a Ventura assemblyman, Charles Imbrecht, to sponsor the legislation.

The law, supported by 85 fathers’ rights groups around the country, was passed in 1979 and took effect in 1980, making California the first state to endorse joint custody as a first option. It eventually was adopted across the country, in large part due to Cook’s advocacy.

“Jim Cook was the father of joint custody,” said David L. Levy, president of the Children’s Rights Council, a Landover, Md.-based group. “He is the main reason why every state in the U.S. now recognizes joint custody, and why it is a preference or presumption in 37 states and Washington, D.C.”

A native of Indiana, Cook earned a bachelor’s degree at UCLA in 1949 before spending a decade with the U.S. Information Agency as a Middle East specialist. He also worked for the Rand Corp., produced a public affairs program on local television and was a lobbyist for commercial property owners.

In later years, Cook was active in the nonprofit Global Children’s Organization as a board member and volunteer at its peace camps for children traumatized by war, intolerance and terrorism.

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