Chapter 1: What Parents SaySummary
In late spring 1998, the Washington State Supreme Court Gender and Justice Commission and the Domestic Relations Commission began a study of the Washington State Parenting Act. One of the goals of the study was to gather information about parents' experiences with the Parenting Act. The Commissions were particularly interested in learning about how parents formulate their parenting plans; their satisfaction with the civil justice system; how parents use their parenting plans; whether they are satisfied with their parenting plans; and whether they follow their parenting plans.
Ten (10) focus groups with Washington State parents with a court-approved parenting plan were held at four locations around the state. Focus group participants were recruited through the Office of Child Support listing of parents and through community organizations. The researcher led the participants through an informal, nondirected discussion of the parenting plan, the civil justice system, and post-divorce parenting.
Most parents develop their parenting plans as pro se litigants and find the civil justice system extremely difficult to access and utilize. Parents who have legal representation express dissatisfaction over its cost. Parents find the mandatory parenting plan forms hard to use. Parents have limited information and few places to seek help. As a result, parents often end up with "the standard plan" or "what most people do."
Most parenting plans provide for an every-other-weekend residential schedule. Many primary residential parents regard this as the most practical and workable schedule. But many nonprimary residential parents regard every other weekend as too little time and inimical to real parenting. Some parents favor 50/50 arrangements, but most parents regard this as impractical and undesirable. There appears to be considerable support for arrangements that provide the nonprimary residential parent with more time than every other weekend, while still having the child live most of the time in one household.
Most parenting plans provide for joint decision-making. Few parents follow this provision. Generally, the primary residential parent exerts greater control over decisions. Primary residential parents tend to view this as most practical; nonprimary residential parents tend to view this as an expropriation of their parental authority.
Most parenting plans provide for dispute resolution by mediation. Most parents had little information about mediation and did not know how to invoke the dispute resolution procedures in their plans. Most parents were skeptical about the likely success of mediation.
Most parents adopt a flexible approach to following their parenting plans, making adjustments to adapt to changing circumstances. However, a significant minority of parents follow their plans quite closely, and a smaller, but troublesome, minority refuse to follow their plan and seek to undermine it. Parents whose ex-spouses refuse to cooperate are extremely frustrated at the lack of an enforcement mechanism other than going to court, and live with constant uncertainty and anxiety about parenting issues.
Domestic violence survivors have particular difficulties negotiating and using a parenting plan. They find the civil justice system particularly hostile. Their abusers often attempt to use the civil justice system to continue to harass them by stalling the process or by showering them with bogus paperwork. Domestic violence survivors may also encounter unsafe situations as they navigate the system, when, for example, they are required to attend parenting classes and their abuser is present, or if they are pushed into mediation. Some provisions in the final parenting plan may also be unsafe, or allow for continued harassment of domestic violence survivors, including unsupervised exchanges of children and joint decision-making.
In designing this research project, one of the most important priorities of the Gender and Justice Commission and the Domestic Relations Commission was to gather information about parents' experiences with the Parenting Act. The Commission was especially interested in parents' interactions with the civil justice system, how parents formulate their parenting plans, how parents use their parenting plans, and parents' satisfaction with the civil justice system and the provisions of the Parenting Act. In order to meet this research goal, it was essential to gather information directly from parents. In addition, the Commission was committed to developing information that would go beyond a straightforward description of current patterns, and would also provide insights into the processes that give rise to various outcomes. In order to meet this goal, an open-ended research format was preferred to a traditional survey approach.
The dual research priorities of the Commissions, to gather information about parents' experiences and to learn about processes, shaped the study design and methodology. Focus groups with parents with a current Washington State parenting plan were held at four locations around the state. These focus groups allowed information to be gathered directly from parents, while providing an open-ended, process-oriented research format. The information from the focus groups was supplemented with information gathered through interviews with professionals who work with the Parenting Act, and with information drawn from a sample of recent parenting plans (see Chapters 2 and 3).
In the course of conducting the focus groups with Washington State parents it became apparent that some of the research questions were overly narrow, or overly broad and, as a result, the research questions were rephrased. Information from other parts of the study, including interviews with professionals and the analysis of a sample of parenting plans, also prompted some rephrasing of the research questions.
The research questions addressed in this report include:
The focus group discussions of these topics were wide ranging. Frequently, not all the topics were covered in the allotted time, and often time was spent on issues that are not directly mentioned in the research questions. This additional information is included in this report (see 3. FINDINGS).
The research questions outlined earlier (see 1. PURPOSE AND GOALS) focus on parents' experiences in formulating and living with parenting plans, and their satisfaction with these experiences. In order to address these questions, information was gathered directly from parents with a current Washington State parenting plan1 in focus groups held around the state.
Focus groups have a number of significant advantages.
The most important limitation of focus groups is that the participants in focus groups are generally not representative of the population as a whole. This means that information gathered in a focus group should not be assumed to be applicable to the population as a whole.
i. Recruitment through the Office of Child Support
The Office of Child Support (OCS) maintains the most complete list of divorced parents living in Washington State. The OCS list includes all divorced parents with a current child support order, whether as payer or recipient. Since nearly all dissolutions of marriage involving children have a child support order, the OCS list includes nearly all divorced parents. Moreover, the OCS list contains current addresses. The use of the OCS database is strictly regulated in order to protect the privacy of the individuals in the database. Therefore, OCS could not provide the names and addresses of divorced parents to the researcher. Instead, the researcher provided OCS with stamped envelopes containing a letter of invitation to participate in a focus group and a stamped, addressed reply card on which the invitee could provide his or her telephone number. The letter of invitation and the reply card are reproduced at the end of this chapter. OCS printed mailing labels for the envelopes and mailed them. In this way, invitations to participate in focus groups were distributed using the OCS list while protecting the confidentiality of the list.
Letters of invitation to participate in focus groups were mailed to 800 parents in King, Spokane, and Snohomish Counties (the three most populous counties in the group of eight (8) counties included in the analysis of parenting plans). The 800 invitees were selected at random from the OCS list by OCS computer staff, and included equal numbers of women and men and equal numbers of payers and recipients of child support. By design, no ex-husband-ex-wife pairs were included in the mailing to avoid bringing former spouses into contact with each other at the meetings.
Eighty-eight (88) invitees returned the reply card indicating that they would like to participate in a focus group. While this response rate, 11 percent, would be unacceptably low for survey research, it is within expected bounds for focus group recruitment, particularly where the initial contact is made by unsolicited letter. It is important to recognize that the parents who returned the reply card are not representative of the population of divorced parents as a whole. It is likely that parents who were having difficulties with their parenting plans would be more motivated to return the reply card and attend a focus group. Thus, the focus groups help identify problems with the Parenting Act and the civil justice system, but do not provide any indication of how widespread those problems are.
The researcher contacted the invitees who returned the reply card by telephone to inform them of the date and locations of the focus group. All invitees who returned the reply card were contacted at least twice; once one month before the focus group and once five to three days before the focus group. Invitees who were eager to participate but who could not attend at the scheduled time were given the option of having a brief telephone interview with the researcher. Eleven (11) invitees elected to be interviewed. Their comments were combined with the materials from the focus group they were scheduled to attend.
Eight (8) focus groups were held with participants from the OCS list. Three (3) groups met in Seattle, two (2) met in Bellevue, one (1) met in Everett, and two (2) met in Spokane. A total of 52 parents participated in the groups, 24 men and 28 women. The group sizes ranged from three to eleven. One of the groups in Seattle was all-male. All the other groups were mixed gender.3 The focus group participants included members of diverse minority groups and people from a wide range of economic backgrounds.4 Although no ex-husband/ex-wife pairs were invited to focus groups, one woman brought her ex-husband, with whom she had a positive coparenting relationship, to the focus group. Three (3) focus group participants brought new spouses/partners with them to focus groups, and two (2) participants brought friends with parenting plans to focus groups.
ii. Recruitment through Community Organizations
In addition to the focus groups held with participants recruited from the OCS list, two (2) focus groups were held with participants recruited through community organizations. Numerous community organizations were solicited for help in recruiting focus group participants, however, only two organizations expressed an interest in becoming involved with the research: the King County Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Taking Action Against Bias in the System.
One focus group was held with participants recruited through the King County Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Ms. Toni Napoli, M.A., Chair of the Coalition and a psychotherapist who works with domestic violence and abuse victims, coordinated the recruitment of participants in this focus group. Ten (10) women attended the group, which was held in Seattle. The participants included members of diverse minority groups and people from a wide range of economic backgrounds. It was important to hold a separate focus group for victims of domestic violence and abuse as these women may not have felt able to share their experiences with the Parenting Act in a broader group5 .
One focus group was held with participants recruited through Bellevue attorney Ms. Lisa D. Scott, who is a cofounder of a community organization called TABS: Taking Action Against Bias in the System. TABS' mission statement includes:
"TABS believes in presumptive custody, equal and shared without gender bias for both parents who have a record of responsible, caring behavior."
Thus, TABS advocates a presumptive residential schedule that would give equal or nearly equal time to both parents, and Ms. Scott testified in favor of such a presumption to the State House of Representatives Judiciary Committee. Eighteen (18) men attended this focus group which was held in Bellevue. While some of these men described themselves as TABS activists, or as fathers' rights activists, others did not self-identify as activists. All these men, however, expressed the view that the civil justice system is heavily biased against men and fathers and felt that they had been unfairly treated by the system. It was important to hold a separate focus group for these men because they felt their experiences and perspectives tended to be discounted or minimized in a broader setting.
This section presents the findings from the focus groups. Consistent with the open-ended, nondirected nature of focus group research, the material is presented thematically and is organized around the themes that recurred most often in the focus group discussions. Some direct quotations from the focus groups are presented in this section. These quotations are typical statements indicative of widely stated views. For ease of identification, quotations from the focus groups are presented in italics.
The organization of this section is as follows. The section begins with a discussion of parents' experiences finalizing a parenting plan. The next three sections talk about the three main sections of a parenting plan: the residential schedule, decision-making, and dispute resolution. Next, information about parents' perspectives on parenting classes is presented. Finally, parents' accounts of how they actually use their parenting plans and what problems they encounter, are presented. This order of subject matter does not reflect the significance parents attached to each of these issues nor the amount of time parents spent discussing each of these issues.
All the focus groups began with a discussion of how the participants got their particular parenting plans and what sources of information they had relied upon. The participants' experiences varied greatly. Some had worked with attorneys, but most had not. Some had begun the process as pro se litigants and had later sought the help of an attorney. Some had begun by working with an attorney but had completed the process unassisted. A few had worked with more than one attorney. Some of the participants described their dissolutions as "very straightforward" or as "agreed," while others recounted their experiences through protracted legal battles. Only a few, however, had actually gone to trial. The members of the two focus groups recruited through community organizations were more likely to have gone to trial than the participants recruited through the OCS lists.
In describing their experiences formulating, negotiating, and finalizing their parenting plans, the following themes were most important:
i. Access to the Civil Justice System and Information - Pro Se Litigants
Most parents, as pro se litigants, first learned about the Parenting Act when they obtained a packet of mandatory forms necessary to complete the dissolution of marriage process. For parents the parenting plan form was one more lengthy, complex form among a rather large packet of forms.
Rather than approaching completing the parenting plan form as an opportunity to discuss their child's well-being, many parents seem to have viewed completing the form as a necessary chore and expressed the attitude that it was simply a routine formality.
"I got all the paperwork for my divorce from a community center. I think it was free. It [the parenting plan] was one of the forms. I did it all myself, on the kitchen table."
Overburdened courthouse staff, such as facilitators, who steer people through the process may inadvertently reinforce the notion that completing the parenting plan form is routine. Many participants, when faced with the lengthy and highly detailed parenting plan form, asked courthouse staff, "What do most people do?" and, as will be discussed later, were advised that the so-called every-other-weekend schedule was most normal. Other parents gleaned the same information from friends and acquaintances.
"I bought a packet of forms and someone down at the courthouse told me how to fill them out. She said it was standard."
Another factor in many parents' perception that completing the parenting plan forms was routine and standardized was the use of guidelines in some counties. County guidelines typically outline residential schedules that are deemed appropriate for children of various ages. Some county guidelines, like those in Spokane County, for example, are lengthy, detailed documents. The Spokane guidelines were based on the work of an internationally renowned panel of child development experts and provide rationales for the proposed schedules. They also encourage parents to review the guidelines and assess the guidelines' applicability to their own child. Thus the guidelines are intended as informational. Other guidelines, like those in Yakima County, for example, are brief and prescriptive--they tell parents what they should do. Many parents in the focus groups believed the guidelines were the law--that they had no choice in the parenting plan.
"Why do they make you fill out that stupid form when it's all fixed anyhow. They should just give you a copy."
"We thought we could pretty much decide ourselves. But the judge said we had to do this [every other weekend] because of the state guidelines. What a crock. . . . We know our kid best."
For many pro se litigants the civil justice system was clearly overwhelming and extremely difficult to access and use. Many focus group participants recounted their struggles in trying to understand what was required of them and their struggles to get help in the system. Parents regarded "the system" with suspicion and dislike. For parents, dealing with "the system" is extremely stressful. One woman humorously recounted the following experience, laughing at her earlier naivete:
"One day I got this letter--more of a form really. Well every time anything came from the courts I was a mess right away--thinking it was my ex--you know--trying to mess with me. So when I opened it up I couldn't make sense of it--something about a dissolution of marriage and seeing a court commissioner. I freaked. What was all that stuff about marriage? I wanted a divorce. And I didn't know who a court commissioner was. I decided I'd better go down there and try and sort it out. So I called work and told them I wouldn't be in the next day--the whole nine yards. Then that evening, I got to thinking, and I realized it was just my appointment to go and get the papers signed. But that's what it's like--you're in such a state that you can't think straight and there is all this paper."
Many focus group participants said they wished they could have accessed low cost legal advice. A few had tried Internet web-sites but expressed concerns about the accuracy and reliability of the information.
None of the participants in the focus groups had accessed any free legal services. A few knew about or had tried to access low cost legal services, available through law schools and community organizations, but these focus group participants were extremely critical of these services, regarding them as second best or as worse than going unrepresented. Focus group participants were especially critical of community organizations using paralegals to provide advice and assistance.
None of the parents in the focus groups had accessed so-called unbundled legal services, where litigants pay a flat fee to an attorney to prepare a specific document or perform a specific task.
Parents perceived family law facilitators as overburdened and as hard to get to talk to. They tend to interpret facilitators' refusals to provide legal advice as either an unwillingness to help or as a desire to push all parents into the same plan.
Although all the focus group participants expressed frustration with the civil justice system, the women who were survivors of domestic violence were particularly vocal and appear to have found the experience especially difficult. They described waiting around for days, not knowing where to go at the courthouse, or who to talk to for help. They described hearings as brief and impersonal where they felt disrespected, demeaned, or ignored.
"I came tonight because I thought there'd be a judge here. I want to talk to one of them so bad. [Researcher: What would you say?] If I could talk to my judge I'd tell her, I'm a person just like you. I'm smart; I'm a professional. Look at me. [She begins to cry.] I've got a good job and I'm raising three kids on my own, and I never see a child support check. But four years ago when I was on my knees pleading for help you [the judge] crushed me." [Researcher: How?] "It wasn't anything she did. It was what she didn't do. She never even looked at me. Just sat there, leafing through papers while he smarmed and slimed."
Many of these women also felt that their abusive former spouses had been able to use the system to continue their abuse and harassment--by showering them with legal paperwork requiring responses and causing confusion and fear. One woman in the domestic violence survivors' focus group had spent so much time attending to bogus legal matters raised by her abuser that she lost her job.
Thus, most parents in the focus groups began the process with inadequate information about the Parenting Act. Parents received and completed the mandatory forms with little or no guidance about the purpose and intent of the forms. Few parents saw completing the forms as an opportunity to reflect about what would best meet the needs of their child. Rather, with limited access to additional information or to creative ideas about how to develop a parenting plan parents did what they understood, through folklore or informal advice, to be "the usual thing." When parents were provided with guidelines, they tended to interpret them as rules (as indeed they are in some counties). Parents experienced the civil justice system as baffling, confusing, overwhelming, and occasionally as abusive.
ii. Access to the Civil Justice System and Information - Litigants With Attorneys
A minority of the parents in the focus groups began the process of getting their dissolution of marriage with legal representation. These parents learned about the Parenting Act and the legal process from their attorneys.
It might be expected that parents with attorneys would be better informed about the Parenting Act and its goals, and would have seen greater creativity and flexibility in the process of authoring a parenting plan. For the most part this was not the case. Like their pro se counterparts, parents who had attorneys often saw completing the parenting plan forms as routine and standard.
"We didn't know anything. We asked the lawyer what most people did."
"Our lawyer--well actually my wife's lawyer, although I paid the bills, told us we had to have a parenting plan. She made out like it was a standard deal, no big thing. It was only later when I realized I should have had help."
As is discussed elsewhere (see What Providers Say), many attorneys adhere to the view that there is a standard plan that "most" parents should and do have.
Very few of the focus group participants had anything positive to say about their attorneys. Most participants, who had attorneys, grudgingly admitted, as they heard the stories of their pro se counterparts, that their attorneys had helped them get through the system.
Anti-lawyer rhetoric was a recurrent theme in all the focus groups. Many participants claimed that their attorney (or their ex-spouse's attorney) had deliberately stirred up conflict in order to prolong the process and increase their fees. A few of the pro se litigants mentioned a belief in this phenomenon as a rationale for not seeking legal assistance.
An important caveat must be noted here. The parents in the focus groups, whether or not they had legal representation, were extremely critical of the civil justice system and the professionals who work in the civil justice system. However, it is unlikely that individuals reflecting on their divorce experiences are able to separate their feelings about "the system" or "attorneys" from their broader emotional state at the time. Divorce is a difficult, emotionally painful, and stressful time, and people's opinions about the civil justice system are likely to be colored by their emotional state at the time of their divorce.
Occasionally, the researcher asked focus group participants to consider the possibility that their highly negative evaluations of the civil justice system reflected the negativity of the divorce experience. Many of the focus group participants agreed that they were evaluating the emotional process of getting divorced as much as they were evaluating the legal process. One man remarked:
"I didn't want to get divorced. I was dumped. So I hated everyone and everything that was helping me get dumped--the judge, her lawyer, my lawyer, the lady receptionist at the courthouse. I hated it and I hated them."
Most focus group participants had no suggestions for how the civil justice system could be improved. A few suggested that excluding attorneys from the process would help, but most people rejected this idea.
Almost as soon as the discussions of formulating and negotiating a parenting plan began parents spoke about the high costs of getting a dissolution of marriage. Many of the pro se litigants said that they would have preferred to have legal representation but could not afford it. Participants who had approached attorneys reported that attorneys often gave figures between $1000 and $5000 for a "simple, uncontested divorce." Some participants reported being asked to pay attorneys' advances or retainers of $1,000 or more. Parents in Spokane generally reported lower amounts--several said that their expenses had totaled around $500.
Focus group participants who had worked with an attorney often reported that their legal bills had been very high. Several reported figures of $10,000 to $15,000, and many parents reported that they had sold property, including real estate, cars, and boats, to cover legal expenses. One parent observed:
"I spent my kids' college tuition on legal fees."
This remark stimulated considerable discussion. Many parents expressed the same sentiment, but parents were divided about whether the expense had been worthwhile. Some said they believed that what they were fighting for (generally more residential time) was so important to their child that they would do it over. Others, however, concluded that the advantages of a college education outweighed the benefits of more time with them. A few observed that the conflict itself had been detrimental to their children.
The fathers who participated in the focus group organized by Ms. Lisa Scott reported the highest legal expenses; two of these fathers had gone bankrupt.
Although most parents focused on attorneys' fees as the central component of the high costs of divorce, parents also mentioned other expenses, including the costs of parenting classes, mediation, parenting evaluations, and supervised residential time. Many parents, including some of the pro se litigants, reported incurring large expenses for these services, and some parents were angered that they had to pay for services that were court-ordered and that they did not want. Others were angered at having to pay for services they believed had not benefited them. One woman, a participant in the domestic violence survivors focus group, explained that she had given up trying to get a divorce and parenting plan once a parenting evaluation had been ordered as she had no money and felt the evaluation would be biased against her. Instead, she had kept herself and her children hidden from her abusive husband.
Many of the focus group participants pointed out that the high costs of getting a dissolution of marriage can introduce inequities into the civil justice system, especially when one ex-spouse can afford legal help, and private parenting evaluators, mediators, and so forth, and the other can not.
"It's not a man woman thing--it's a dollars and cents thing."
Domestic violence survivors were particularly vocal about inequities in the civil justice system. Many of them had fled situations where they believed their lives (and their children's lives) to be in danger and had no resources whatsoever.
Many participants expressed the view that they had not secured the parenting plan they wanted because they could not afford any, or good enough, representation. Among these participants, some had agreed to parenting plans because they had run out of money. A few talked about one day modifying their parenting plans, if they could ever amass enough money to "really fight." But most parents held such negative views of the civil justice system they said they would never go back to the courts.
Despite these problems, the parents in these focus groups did not view the Parenting Act as the cause of the high legal fees. There was a widespread view that "custody battles" are expensive whatever the legal environment. Some parents used this observation to explain why they had refrained from contesting the residential schedule with their ex-spouse. Others argued that their rights to parent were so fundamental that any expense was justifiable, and even that the state should assume the expenses. Parents were far more likely to blame "the system" meaning judges, court commissioners, and mental health professionals for the high costs than they were to blame the law. But most parents in the focus groups blamed attorneys for the high costs.
Most parents in the focus groups believed that the process of getting a dissolution of marriage and establishing a final parenting plan was too slow. Parents complained about long waits to meet court-imposed requirements (such as attending parenting classes or undertaking mandatory mediation). Most parents, by the time they obtained the packet of forms, had decided to divorce, had an outline of the arrangements they wanted in mind, and were eager to formalize their arrangements and get on with their lives.
Some parents reported that as the process dragged on, relations with their ex-spouse deteriorated, and the lengthy process promoted conflict rather than a businesslike relationship.
Some parents reported that their ex-spouses deliberately slowed the process, for example, by refusing to attend a mandatory class in an effort to harass them. In King County the wait for a parenting seminar is six weeks. If one parent refuses to attend the one s/he is originally scheduled for, it may be a further six to eight weeks before family court services reschedules the parent. Depending on the circumstances, the court may wait until a parent has missed three or four scheduled classes before waiving the requirement that both parents attend. Recalcitrant parents can use mediation and parenting evaluations in a similar way to slow the process. Domestic violence survivors were particularly likely to report that they had been harassed in this way.
v. The Mandatory Forms
As already noted, many of the parents who participated in focus groups approached developing a parenting plan as a routine task involving the completion of the mandatory forms. However, whether or not parents viewed completion of the forms as routine, they were very critical of the forms. Parents found the forms extremely difficult to understand and complete. Many pro se litigants reported making several trips to the courthouse before satisfactorily completing the forms.
Common problems included:
The focus group participants favored simpler, more clearly printed forms. Many also said they would have liked an instruction booklet with the form or even as part of the form.
A dissolution of marriage necessarily involves negotiation between the parties as they divide their property and make arrangements for their children, and some of these negotiations involve the parties in trading. However, the Parenting Act intended to emphasize that children are not property, and that time with children should not be traded in divorce proceedings. Despite this goal, parents in the focus groups reported that parents frequently made trades involving time with children.
Common trades included:
The parents who participated in the focus groups found the process of developing and finalizing a parenting plan extremely arduous. Parents had little information, found the system unfriendly, and had little success accessing possible sources of assistance. Parents found the mandatory forms very difficult to work with. Parents found the process extremely costly and too slow. Faced with these difficulties, many parents adopted a rather routine approach to filling out the parenting plan forms.
As noted elsewhere (see What Providers Say), the goal of the Parenting Act to eliminate the language of custody and visitation had not been achieved. Just as most providers speak about custody and visitation, rather than about residential time, so do most parents. But parents also use the new language, speaking of "residential time," or simply saying where their children live at various times. The following is a common account of a particular residential schedule:
"The kids live with me most of the time but they live with their dad every other weekend and for half the summer."
In other words, while the old language of custody and visitation is not gone, the new language of residential time has become quite widely used. In fact, the language of residential time is more widely and consistently used among parents than by the providers who were also interviewed for the research (see Chapter 2, What Providers Say).
ii. Every Other Weekend
By far the most common residential schedule, comprising nearly half of all plans, is the so-called every-other-weekend schedule (see Chapter 3, What the Records Show). Under this arrangement children live with a primary residential parent most of the time, and have residential time with the other parent every other weekend (typically Friday after school till Sunday evening) and one evening a week (from after school until 8 or 9 o'clock). As noted elsewhere (see What Providers Say), this arrangement is promoted by many professionals working in the civil justice system as well as by county guidelines.
Many primary residential parents are satisfied with every-other-weekend schedules. These parents view this arrangement as practical and sensible. Primary residential parents are particularly concerned that the school week should not be disrupted by additional overnights with the other parent.
"Let's be honest. We all want more time with our kids. But you can't have it all. That's part of getting divorced. You have to be practical."
"My ex wanted the kids to stay over with him Wednesday or Thursday night. I fought that. It just shows how much he knows. They need to be home on school nights. I wouldn't let them sleep over with a friend on a school night."
"Really you have to do every other weekend. Anything else gets too complicated what with their activities and all."
"Even that Wednesday visit is too much really. They're exhausted by it, and I see it the next day. They're always wiped out after his weekends. So I really think every other weekend is about the best you can do."
"I read in a book that parents should live close enough to each other that the kids can ride bikes between houses. Then the kids can see both parents as often as they like. But that's just not realistic for most people."
In contrast, many nonprimary residential parents viewed every-other-weekend schedules as unfair, token, and completely unacceptable. Many parents were very angry about this schedule.
"Every other weekend sucks. You spend all your time in the car and that's not really being in your kid's life. It's just a visit."
"You need to be with your kids on regular days--not just weekends. You need to see them day to day--when they get in from school, doing homework, all that stuff."
"They can call it residential time, but it's the same old a visit."
For many parents the every-other-weekend schedule had been a source of conflict.
"Of course I fought. When my lawyer said I could get every other weekend, I said, No--she can get every other weekend--they can live with me.'"
"It makes you fight--you can't be a parent on 26 weekends. So if you want to be a parent, a real parent, you fight."
iii. 50/50 or Shared Parenting
Although very few court approved parenting plans provide for 50/50 schedules (see Chapter 3, What the Records Show) a significant minority of parents at the focus groups had experimented with these types of schedules at one time or another.
"I call it reality based parenting--and it works great."
"We did 50/50 while we were getting the legal stuff together and it worked fine. But then the court said we had to follow the guidelines. And that's when the fight began."
Some of the nonprimary residential parents who were dissatisfied with the every-other-weekend schedule favored 50/50 schedules. They argued that these schedules were fairest to the parents and that a legal presumption in favor of these schedules would reduce conflict between parents.
"The restrictions on 50/50 are unfair. They say you can only do it if there is no conflict. But there's always conflict when a marriage ends. And that means one parent can veto 50/50. Women have no incentive to even try--because the court will most likely favor the mother."
However, many parents, including some with every-other-weekend schedules that they disliked, felt that 50/50 schedules were unfair to children and put parents' wants above children's needs.
"Fifty/fifty sounds OK--but it's not good for the kids. They need a home. And what if the parents can't both live close to school. There are too many practical problems. But there has to be something better than every other weekend."
"I don't want 50/50--my son needs a place to be and his mom does a good job. But you can't be a real parent every other weekend."
iv. As Agreed
About one in every five plans does not specify a residential schedule but instead leaves the schedule to be agreed between the parents. A few of the parents in the focus groups had this type of schedule. Most of them were pleased with the arrangement and found it workable. However, all of them were concerned about the possibility of changing circumstances and of not continuing to agree with their ex-spouse.
v. Gender Bias
All the male focus group participants and many of the female participants believe that the civil justice system is biased in favor of mothers so that mothers are more likely to become the primary residential parent.
"The bias works both ways. The feminists only care about getting child support and the conservative judges think the only way to be a dad is to be a breadwinner."
This study was not designed to assess the extent of gender bias in the system, and thus we do not know whether this perception is accurate or not. To be sure, mothers are the primary residential parent in 75 percent of first parenting plans. But mothers and fathers are almost equally likely to be primary residential parent in modified parenting plans. Furthermore, the prevalence of mothers as primary residential parents does not by itself provide evidence of gender bias. The high prevalence of mothers as primary residential parents may reflect other factors such as the parents' preferences.
Even so, the fact that most parents believe the civil justice system to be stacked in favor of mothers is worthy of note and attention. There may be widespread, systematic bias. Or the belief in bias could be based on parents hearing about a few isolated events, the behavior of a few individuals in the system, or events that happened in the past. Even when fathers had successfully become the primary residential parents, they still viewed the system as biased.
"I don't think the judge in my case was biased--he was fair. After all, the kids live with me most of the time. But I think the system as a whole is biased against dads."
In contrast to most of the focus group participants, who felt that the courts had a fairly straight forward pro-mother bias, women who were survivors of domestic violence felt that the bias in the civil justice system was more complex.
[Participant 1]: "I think they favor the mom unless you somehow get labeled a bad mother. And once you get that label you can't get rid of it--no matter what you do, no matter how awful your husband is, even if it was never true."
Another women in a different focus group provided a similar account.
"He was found guilty of assault. The abuse was documented. But he got the same old visitation--every other weekend. Meanwhile, I had to attend AA and a drug program. I never had a drinking problem and I never used drugs. All my UAs [urine analyses] came back clean. It took me 18 months to get out from under that."
The most common post-divorce residential schedule in Washington State is the every-other-weekend schedule. Most primary residential parents are mothers, so children spend every other weekend and a midweek evening with their father. Many primary residential parents are satisfied with this arrangement, viewing it as practical and sensible. Many nonprimary residential parents are extremely dissatisfied with this arrangement regarding it as old-style custody and visitation. Frustration with every other weekend has led some parents to call for mandatory 50/50 schedules. Most parents, however, view 50/50 as impractical while still wanting more than every other weekend. A large majority of parents view the civil justice system as biased in favor of mothers. Domestic violence survivors, however, point out that there are countervailing biases that favor men and that abusive men are often able to exploit the civil justice system to continue their abuse.
In the focus group conversations it was clear that very few parents were actually able to sustain joint decision-making. Often one parent spent so much more time with the children than the other parent that they effectively operated sole decision-making--with or without the other parent's consent. Also many parents' relationships were so discordant that they were unable to communicate well enough to share decision-making. The following issues came up in every focus group and sparked lively discussions:
i. Practicality and Enforcement
The parents in the focus groups were forthright about why joint decision-making hardly ever works: most of them quite simply did not get along well enough with their ex-spouse, or did not communicate with their ex-spouse often enough, to make joint decision-making practical.
Many of the parents in the focus groups had deliberately arranged their parenting plans and parenting behavior to minimize contact and communication with their ex-spouse. Often attorneys, mediators, counselors, and other professionals had encouraged them to create this distance to avoid situations in which conflict might arise. (This tendency was also apparent in the analysis of the sample of parenting plans--see What the Records Show.) Thus, most parents avoided each other and avoided conversations. This type of distanced relationship is antithetical to joint decision-making, which requires parents to enter into a dialog either in person, by telephone, or in writing. Moreover, many of the parents had experienced conflict over parenting issues prior to their divorce, and differences over parenting had contributed to the marital break-ups of some of the parents in the focus groups. In short, for most of the parents in the focus groups joint decision-making was unrealistic and impractical.
When parents were unable to make decisions jointly the parent with most residential time assumed de facto sole decision-making authority.
Primary residential parents tended to view their assumption of sole decision-making as the only practical way to proceed, and regarded the Parenting Act's goal of continued joint decision-making as unrealistic. These parents often viewed the nonprimary residential parent as having a low level of involvement in their child's life and as not knowing important information.
"He doesn't know anything about my kid's life."
"He's not interested. I left messages about schools, but he never called or anything. It's sad, but that's the way it is."
"I never see him. How can I ask him anything?"
Several pointed out that their ex-spouse's low level of involvement was not recent:
"He was never interested. I tried to get him to come and check out day cares with me. He said, "You decide." Now suddenly he's gonna be interested?"
Primary residential parents also justified their assumption of sole decision-making by arguing that most of the decisions were minor and did not require input from their ex-spouse.
For some nonprimary residential parents, the primary residential parent's assumption of sole decision-making authority was acceptable and practical.
"We talk stuff over--but the kids live with her most of the time so she has the final say."
But many nonprimary residential parents were profoundly angered by what they viewed as their exclusion from decision-making and as the usurping of their parental rights.
"Mutual decision-making--it doesn't mean anything."
"It's [mutual decision-making] a joke. Sometimes she tells me afterwards."
These nonprimary residential parents repeatedly said that the courts ought to enforce joint decision-making or abandon it.
Although the parents in the focus groups were dissatisfied with joint decision-making, very few parents, except those who had been abuse victims (see 3.c.ii. Abuse), had sought sole decision-making. Those who had sought joint decision- making had generally been advised to do so by divorced friends.
"That was the only thing we fought over. The kids are living with me, and I didn't want the decision thing coming back to bite me. I didn't want to be beholden to him. So I have sole decision-making. "
A substantial minority of primary residential parents in the focus groups reported that their ex-spouses had used the provision for joint decision-making to harass or psychologically abuse them. Some of this harassment is low level and takes the form of not returning phone calls, stalling, and so forth. Of course, while this behavior may be stressful for the primary residential parent, children are most adversely affected as they must wait for a parent to sign a routine consent form.
But often the harassment occasioned by joint decision-making is sustained and severe and constitutes continuing emotional abuse. This type of behavior includes making arbitrary or capricious decisions and changing the decision multiple times, insisting on certain decisions, linking one decision to another, and making threats. Sometimes the perpetrator of this type of harassment is able to use the civil justice system to increase the harassment by filing numerous court papers.
Many women in the focus groups had experienced this type of harassment around decision-making. However, the most adversely affected were domestic violence survivors. All the women in the domestic violence survivors' focus group had experienced sustained harassment of the type described above. On occasion, their abusive ex-husbands had used the joint decision-making provisions in the parenting plans to force unwanted contact, to threaten their victims, and to try to force their victims to behave in certain ways.
Some readers may question whether this behavior, undesirable as it is, really constitutes abuse. Domestic violence researchers have shown that threats of abuse and creating a state of uncertainty for the victim are important components of abusive behavior in addition to physical violence because they create and sustain a climate of fear and terror. Domestic violence victims, who are often suffering emotional and psychological consequences of abuse, are particularly susceptible to this type of terrorization, even after they have left the relationship. Because joint decision-making in the parenting plan forces ongoing negotiations and discussions between the victim and the abuser it provides the abuser with an opportunity to sustain the abuse. Therefore, joint decision-making is not appropriate in families with a history of domestic violence and abuse.
Joint decision-making is often problematic for parents because decisions have financial consequences. Perhaps the most commonly mentioned decision in this regard was the decision to seek orthodontic treatment (braces) for children, which can be very costly. But the choice of daycare provider and extra-curricular activities were also frequent topics.
Primary residential parents often justified their assumption of sole decision-making by arguing that their ex-spouses were not interested in paying for extra-curricular activities or orthodontia.
"Anything that might cost him a cent--well he'll just say no. So I don't ask him and I pay."
In contrast, nonprimary residential parents often felt that the only time they were involved in decision-making was when a choice had financial consequences; i.e., when they were being asked to contribute toward paying for something.
"She only involves me if she wants money for something."
iv. Confusion with the Designation of Custodian
Many parents in the focus groups, both primary residential and nonprimary residential, were confused about the purpose and meaning of the designation of custodian in the parenting plan. Many parents interpreted the designation of custodian as overruling joint decision-making. Since the custodian is usually the primary residential parent, some primary residential parents saw this as justifying their assumption of sole decision-making.
"We have joint. And after four years of 50/50 parenting and getting along real well, we're headed back to court. She wants to move our daughter [aged 14] to a group home--she's severely disabled and needs a lot of care. I'm still willing to do it [care for her]. I'm not ready to let her go yet although I know I'll have to someday. So my wife says she's going to do it anyway. She says she can because she's the legal custodian."
Although most parenting plans provide for joint decision-making, very few parents actually make decisions jointly. More often, the primary residential parent assumes decision-making authority. Joint decision-making is especially problematic for domestic violence survivors, as abusers may try to use this provision to continue the abuse.
Eighty (80) percent of parenting plans specify mediation as the mechanism for dispute resolution (see Chapter 3, What the Records Show). In addition, many counties require mediation for couples formulating a parenting plan if any disagreement arises.
Many of the parents in the focus groups had experience with mediation either with services associated with the court or with mediators in private practice. Despite this wide experience with mediation, many parents had a limited understanding of mediation, were very critical of mediation, and were very dissatisfied with their experiences.
i. Lack of Information
Many parents in the focus groups, even parents who had been involved in mediation, had little information or knowledge about mediation. Parents often did not understand how mediation is conducted and what the goals of mediation are. Thus, they entered mediation with the view that it was merely a hurdle they had to go through before they could go to court. This lack of awareness about mediation is an obstacle to effective mediation.
Some parents, including a few living in counties with mandatory mediation for parents formulating parenting plans, were unaware that they could use mediation to help develop a parenting plan.
"I didn't think you could do mediation until after you had a plan."
Parents whose parenting plans provided for dispute resolution by mediation were also unsure about how it should work. Often they did not know how to invoke the dispute resolution mechanism, or how to get themselves and their ex-spouse into mediation.
"I don't know how it works--how do I start off the dispute resolution? I don't know who to call."
ii. Lack of Cooperation
Many parents in the focus groups said they were interested in mediation, but they had been frustrated by their ex-spouse's refusal to participate.
"It takes two to mediate and she wasn't interested."
Some parents had tried mediation but had been frustrated by lengthy waits for services. In King County it can take six to ten weeks for a family to get into mediation through family court services. Other parents had tried mediation but were frustrated when a resolution was not achieved and saw the mediation as a source of delay in reaching a satisfactory resolution.
"It was a waste of time. I had to go to court anyway."
A few parents in the focus groups felt they had been inappropriately or disrespectfully treated in mediation, and had been pushed into agreements they did not really want. Several participants said they felt that the mediator was more interested in getting to a solution than in being fair. This underscores the point that "agreed" solutions are not necessarily low-conflict solutions.
[Participant 1]: "I sat in a room for three hours getting badgered. There was no negotiation--they just kept telling me do this'. So I gave in. I wish I would have gone to court."
It is unlikely that a plan developed in this manner will be satisfactory and workable for both parents.
Finally, a significant minority of parents was completely opposed to mediation, viewing it as inferior to litigation as a means for dispute resolution.
"I'm an American. I pay my taxes and I have a right to my day in court."
Many focus group participants viewed mediation as costly, even though many dispute resolution centers offer low cost mediation and utilize a sliding scale for fees, and even though mediation is typically far less expensive than litigation. In general, the focus group participants were reluctant to pay for mediation which they regarded as unlikely to succeed and as subject to the whims of their ex-spouse with whom they are in dispute.
"I'm sick of paying for it. He won't go along. Then I'm left with the bills. And still no solution."
iv. Domestic Violence and Abuse
As noted elsewhere (see Chapter 2, What Providers Say), there is considerable controversy concerning whether mediation is appropriate in situations where domestic violence and abuse have occurred. In general, counties that mandate mediation for couples in dispute as they formulate a parenting plan explicitly provide an exemption for situations involving domestic violence, so that victims are not "forced to negotiate" with their abuser unless they explicitly choose to.
Despite these efforts, domestic violence survivors sometimes do end up in mediation against their wishes. Thus, protections for domestic violence victims are not always adequate. Several of the women in the domestic violence survivors focus group, as well as other women in the study who self-identified as domestic violence survivors, reported that they had been required to enter mediation with their abusers against their wishes. All these women experienced the mediation as highly stressful, if not abusive, and as extremely frightening. Several of the women were motivated to participate in the study solely because they wanted to recount this experience.
The parents in the focus groups had little information about mediation and tended to be very skeptical of its benefits. Parents saw mediation as unlikely to succeed, as easily sabotaged by an uncooperative ex-spouse, as expensive, and as a potential waste of time.
Most professionals involved with the Parenting Act believe parenting classes to be extremely beneficial to the parents and their children, and believe that classes can assist parents as they negotiate their way through the civil justice system (see What Providers Say).
At the end of each parenting class session, parents are invited to evaluate the usefulness of the class by completing an evaluation form. These evaluations are generally extremely positive. (Evaluations from King County were provided to the researcher by the instructor.)
In contrast to the generally positive view of parenting classes held by providers, the parents in the focus groups held rather mixed views of parenting classes.
i. Parents' Views about Parenting Classes
Some parents, including a few who had not attended classes, were very positive about the parenting classes.
"Wow--what a good idea. I wish I'd known about it. Could I go now?"
"It was really good. It made me think about how my behavior affected my kids."
"I went and found a class on my own. It was very helpful to learn what my kids were going through."
In contrast, other parents were critical of parenting classes, and felt that they did not need the information. Some parents saw the requirement to attend a class as an imposition, as an implied criticism of their parenting, and as an additional hurdle and expense in the divorce process.
"I really resented it. It was like one more thing I had to do. And my ex refused so they let him off."
"I mostly knew all the stuff anyway. And I'm a good parent. I resent the idea that suddenly I need a class."
"It was not useful. It was mostly aimed at blue-collar wife-beaters--Joe and Jane six-pack. My wife and I are professionals. We were both laughing by the end."
ii. Domestic Violence and Abuse
Like other court imposed requirements, mandatory parenting classes can be used by abusive parents to increase the time it takes for a marital dissolution and parenting plan to be finalized, and in this way to harass their ex-spouses. This is particularly likely where there is a significant waiting time to attend a parenting class, and where there is a time lag before the court either attempts to enforce the requirement or waives it. Domestic violence survivors were most likely to report that they had been harassed in this way. But parents who did not report that they had previously been victims of domestic violence and abuse also reported that their ex-spouses had attempted to frustrate them and delay the dissolution process by refusing to attend classes.
Mandatory parenting classes may also pose a threat to the safety of parents fleeing violent marriages. In theory, husbands and wives are not supposed to attend the same sessions of parenting classes. In practice, however, this occasionally happens. For domestic violence victims, encountering their abuser at a mandatory class can be a terrifying ordeal and can raise concerns that their abuser will follow them home or attack them outside the class site.
"It was a nightmare--no that doesn't describe it. My ex was there. I was terrified horrified. It was the worst three hours of the whole ordeal."
Parents' opinions about parenting classes and seminar were mixed. Some parents found them useful and enjoyable. Others did not find them useful, and some parents were strongly opposed to parenting classes. Domestic violence victims expressed concerns that required classes could put them in unsafe situations or enable their abuser to continue to harass them.
i. Following the Plan
The parents in the focus groups used their parenting plans in a wide variety of ways. In general, parents can be divided into four groups: flexible followers, close followers, strict followers, and resisters.
ii. Enforcement and Monitoring
For parents whose ex-spouse was resisting and undermining the parenting plan, enforcement of the plan was the single most important issue. Parents whose ex-spouse refuses to follow the plan feel they have nowhere to turn.
[Participant 1]: "Oh sure. I could go down there with my copy of the plan and the police and they'd make her give me the kids. But my kids are 8 and 11. I can't let them see that. I can't do that."
Some parents' plans specify that their ex-spouses must meet certain conditions in order to have residential time with the children. For example, some plans specify that parents may not drink alcohol or use drugs within 24 hours of the residential time. Other plans specify that parents must have a valid driver's license, insurance, and car seats before collecting their child.
Some parents saw these provisions as token--and said that even though they believed their ex-spouse was drinking and using drugs they had to leave their children with the ex-spouse. These parents felt that monitoring and enforcement of these provisions was inadequate.
A few parents had refused to leave their children with an ex-spouse who appeared drunk or did not have a car seat but were reluctant to deny the residential time for fear of "getting into trouble." However, a few parents routinely denied visitation for this reason, and some parents who had been denied their residential time felt that their ex-spouses abused these parenting plan provisions to prevent them from seeing their children.
iii. Lifestyle Issues
Most of the parents who participated in the focus groups were critical of some aspect of their ex-spouse's lifestyle. These disagreements between ex-spouses often had repercussions for parenting.
The biggest lifestyle issue was the presence of a new partner or spouse. Most parents in the focus groups were not comfortable with the new partner or spouse. Sometimes these concerns were very serious, involving allegations of substance abuse or child abuse.
"This guy he's got a record like you wouldn't believe. He can't even get a driver's license he's been caught driving drunk so often. And I'm supposed to let my son go with him? I don't think so."
For other parents the concerns were less dramatic.
"He wants to send her to pick our son up from daycare because he doesn't get out of work on time. Well, I'm not sending him with a stranger." [Researcher: How long has he been remarried?] Oh he remarried right away after the divorce. They were carrying on--you know. So four years now. [Researcher: And your son has been spending time with them for all that time?] "Yes--but she's still a stranger."
Often parents' concerns about new spouses focused on differences in discipline or parenting styles. Some parents took great exception to their children calling stepparents mom or dad, and most parents resented stepparents' involvement in decision-making, even though the stepparent was likely to be affected by any decision.
Some parents were critical of other aspects of their ex-spouse's lifestyle--sex and housekeeping were common themes.
"Don't get me wrong--she's a good mother. But I don't feel that she sets a good example. Every time I go over there, there's a different fellow there. Oh they're nice enough, don't get me wrong. And it's all very pleasant--she always introduces me, we chat. But a different one every week. I don't care who they are and what they're like, I don't think that's a good example for a young black girl to see."
"We married very young, and I've grown up but he hasn't. I've got a house and a car, and it's a nice place for children. But he's still living like a college student--in an apartment with a bunch of guys. I know they have women there. It's just not a good place for children."
"We really think my husband's children from his first marriage should come and live with us. After all--she hasn't even got a washing machine. I've called Child Protective Services--but they don't do anything"
These differences represent some of the most intractable differences between parents. Many parents felt that the courts or some other public agency, such as Child Protective Services, should intervene. Others felt that the court should include an assessment of a parent's morals and values in developing the parenting plan.
"He was the one that cheated--not me. So he should have to pay for that." [Researcher: How?] "By not having the children. He's not a good moral influence."
One of the most common problems recounted by parents at the focus groups had to do with transporting the children and exchanging the children. As discussed elsewhere (see Chapter 2, What Providers Say, and Chapter 3, What the Records Show), exchanges are often flash points for conflict between the parents and many plans include provisions aimed at reducing contact between parents at exchanges. For parents, however, the transportation itself is the main problem. Parents resent having to drive their children to their ex-spouse's home even if the distance involved is quite short. If the distance is substantial, for example if one parent has moved, transportation is a source of considerable anger and frustration.
"She moved to Seattle [from Redmond]. So now, every other Friday, I sit on the bridge [SR 520] in rush hour traffic. So sometimes I'm late. I can't help it--but she gets pissed. She keeps threatening not to wait for me. Of course, she drives on Sunday evening when the bridge is deserted."
"She moved the kids to Walla Walla. They're happy there and my daughter wants to finish high school there. I wouldn't make them move again. But now I have to drive to Walla Walla every other weekend."
"We spend all our time together in the car, it seems like. Oh we talk and stuff. There are some good things about it. But it's not real. It's not living with your kids--driving around with them."
v. Child Support
Child support was a frequent topic of conversation at the focus groups. Indeed, it would have been easy for the parents to talk only about child support, and many of the parents participated in the focus groups because they wanted to air their concerns about child support.
Generally, nonprimary residential fathers felt that child support awards were excessively high.
"You're not telling me it takes $500 a month to raise a kid--that's ridiculous."
Some men reported that they had nothing to live on after paying their child support; some reported working two jobs. Fathers who had fallen into arrears had lost vehicles and property. These fathers were angry that the courts were unsympathetic to their financial circumstances and felt that child support enforcement was punitive and overly aggressive. Fathers said that they were treated as "guilty until proven innocent" and were made to feel like criminals. Several different fathers compared the Child Support Enforcement Agency to the Nazis, and likened their own treatment to that of Jews by the Nazis.
Fathers felt that the emphasis on child support enforcement demeaned their non-monetary parenting.
"When they look at a man all they see is money. That's all they care about. That's their idea of a dad--a machine spitting out money. I'm not a father--I'm a cash machine."
Fathers also reported that making high child support payments prevented them from spending time with their children--either because they had to work extra hours, or because they could not afford to travel and pay for activities with their children.
"I pay so much child support that now I can't afford to go and see them. I haven't seen them since [four months]."
Many fathers resented paying child support because they did not believe that their ex-wives spent the money on the children. These fathers said they thought that parents who receive child support should have to provide a yearly accounting of how they spent the money.
"For that money those kids should have only the best--Nordstroms all the way. But when I pick them up they're in rags. She's spending it on her new boyfriend's motorbike payments."
"We're always buying the kids clothes--she never does. I bet she'd take the clothes back to get the money if she could."
"Attorney's fees--that's what she spends it on."
"I should have the option of putting it into a savings account for my son--for college or braces or whatever. At least it would be there then. Now it just disappears."
Generally, mothers at the focus groups did not mention child support until fathers raised the topic. Most of the mothers reported that their child support was adequate and that their ex-husbands paid regularly. However, some of the mothers had only very low child support awards, and some had experienced difficulties enforcing their awards.
"Well I'm fascinated hearing about these $500 and $800 awards. I'm supposed to get $25. He doesn't work. Of course he does--it's all under the table."
"I'm supposed to get $700 a month. But I never see it and there's nothing I can do. I'm not on welfare so there's no one to help me. I have an OK job. But I can't afford an attorney."
Women who were survivors of domestic violence were particularly likely to have experienced problems collecting child support, but most were reluctant to try to pursue the matter.
"He never pays. But I just let it go. I don't want to go to court again. I don't want to get into another battle with him."
vi. Changing the Plan
Although, as noted above (3.f.i. Following the plan), many of the parents who participated in the focus groups informally varied their parenting arrangements. However, only a handful had legally modified their parenting plan.
Most of the parents in the focus groups perceived the modification process, which requires them to re-enter the civil justice system, as too expensive, too difficult, and too risky.
"Nothing would ever get me back [into the civil justice system]. Anyhow, I wouldn't waste any more money on it."
"It's too painful. You get emotionally caught up in it. And even if you win you're a wreck afterwards. It's not worth it."
Parents' reluctance to re-enter the civil justice system posed a dilemma for many parents who had informally adjusted their parenting plan, but feared that their ex-spouse might someday want to revert to the plan as written.
"Well the parenting plan says every other weekend. But we're closer to 50/50. But if he changed his mind he could insist on every other weekend. I don't know what I'd do then."
"Right now things are good. But she could get pissy any time. I wish there were some simple way to keep the plan in line with what you're really doing."
With respect to one particular change--relocation--parents felt that modifying the plan should be difficult. Many of the nonprimary residential parents in the focus groups were scared that their ex-spouse might move far away and that their residential time with their children would be severely curtailed as a result. This had actually happened to a few parents all of whom were extremely hurt and angered by this outcome.
"My daughters are in Colorado. I see them a couple times a year. They're growing up not knowing me. They know her new husband."
[Participant 1]: "She moved to Florida. I was supposed to go see him there. Then just before I go, a letter comes back--returned to sender. I never did get her next address. That was six years ago. My son was seven then. I haven't seen him since. [He begins to cry.] Do you know who I should call? How I can get help?"
Interestingly, most primary residential parents also felt that modifying a parenting plan for relocation should be difficult.
"Sometimes you have to move--for work or something. But you shouldn't just be able to up and take the kids. That's not right. So the courts should look at it. And you better have a good reason."
For the majority of parents the Parenting Act works well. They are able to develop a plan that is acceptable, and reach a stable, sometimes flexible, working relationship with their ex-spouses. They may not like their ex-spouses and may be very critical of aspects of their lifestyle, but they manage an effective coparenting arrangement.
But for a minority of parents the Parenting Act does not work. Some parents are overly rigid, leaving their ex-spouses frustrated and angry. Some parents deliberately seek to undermine the parenting plan, often causing great pain and anguish to their ex-spouse and children in the process.
All parents express the concern that there is no enforcing agency for parenting plans. Nearly all parents are very reluctant to re-enter the civil justice system, with the result that they feel they have nowhere to turn if and when problems arise.
At the beginning of this report, the research questions were outlined. This section summarizes the answers to those questions and offers some interpretations of these findings. The material is organized to map onto the research questions presented in section 1. PURPOSE AND GOALS.
A parent seeking a dissolution of marriage obtains a packet of forms from a community center, courthouse, or from the Office of the Administrator for Courts' website. The parent then fills out these forms, often with scant information and little advice. The parent may find the forms hard to follow or misunderstand the purpose of parts of the forms. Some of the information and advice a parent receives, from friends and acquaintances or various publications, may be inaccurate or misguided. Once the parent has completed the forms he or she may take them to the courthouse where a facilitator checks them over for completeness.7 If a question arises, the parent asks, "What should I do? What do most people do?" The overburdened facilitator provides the best help he or she can, but is limited by time constraints and the fact that facilitators are not supposed to provide legal advice. Depending on the circumstances and the county, a parent may be asked to attend a parenting seminar or embark on mediation. He or she must wait for these services and will be expected to bear some of the costs. Most likely he or she will have to take time off work. If things go smoothly, any disagreements between our parent and his or her spouse will be worked out and after about a year they will be divorced with a final, court-approved plan in place. Most likely their children will live with one of them most of the time, and will spend every other weekend and a midweek evening with the other parent.
A minority of parents seeking a dissolution of marriage begin the process by seeking the help of an attorney. The attorney will guide them through the process providing information, help, and advice. The attorney may have some creative suggestions for resolving disputes and arranging the residential schedule. Or the attorney may steer the parent toward "what most people do." Either way, at the end of the process our parent will have spent at least $1000 on legal help (somewhat less in the East of the state), and maybe much more.
But what if things do not go smoothly, as the scenario earlier assumes? What if the parents can't agree about where the child should live and for how much of the time? What if one or both parents have a history of substance abuse or mental health difficulties? What if domestic violence or abuse brought about the divorce? What if one partner uses legal stratagems to harass the other? In these cases the process of formulating a parenting plan may be very lengthy and very costly. A host of legal and psychological professionals may be involved, there may be several temporary parenting plans, parenting evaluations, a guardian ad litem, protection orders, drug and alcohol testing, and so on. The case may drag on for two years, or longer. Eventually, there may be a trial to finally resolve the parenting issues. For parents without legal representation there will be many opportunities along the way for mistakes and missed deadlines. Parents with legal representation will face mounting bills, they may have to sell property, and may eventually be forced to settle.
Thus, given the circumstances under which most parents develop their parenting plans, it is hardly surprising that they find the process arduous, burdensome, and complex. It is also not surprising that so many parents seek what seems like the simplest solution and try to do "What most people do."
For survivors of domestic violence, parenting seminars can be dangerous. Abusers may use the parenting seminar as an opportunity to attempt to contact their victim. Abusers may use stalling tactics to avoid attending mandatory parenting seminars and so to stall the dissolution. These stalling tactics, and other legal ploys, may constitute harassment of domestic violence survivors by their abusers.
Despite this widespread and increasing use of mediation, parents have little information about the purpose, goals, and methods of mediation. Some parents are hostile to mediation, regarding it as inferior to litigation, or as an unnecessary extra step in the process of getting a parenting plan. Most parents are skeptical about the benefits of mediation--they do not believe it can work and feel it is too easily sabotaged by a hostile ex-spouse.
The domestic violence survivors who participated in this research were strongly opposed to mediation. They felt it was unsafe and gave too much authority and power to their abusers who could too easily exploit the process to harass them.
Primary residential parents, mainly mothers, usually view this arrangement as acceptable, if not ideal. These parents emphasize the practicality of an every-other-weekend residential schedule.
Many nonprimary residential parents, mainly fathers, view the every-other-weekend schedule as unacceptable--they want to spend more time with their children. They emphasize that an every-other-weekend schedule limits their opportunities to be involved in their children's lives.
For many parents, perhaps the majority, the tension between mothers wanting a practical schedule and fathers wanting more time is resolved.8 These parents adopt a flexible working relationship and vary the residential schedule to suit their own and their children's changing needs. However, even when parents manage an amicable, mutually acceptable arrangement, the parent with less time written in the parenting plan is always left wondering what would happen if his ex-wife ceased to cooperate.
For parents who can not achieve an amicable working relationship the dilemmas are more complex. Some parents have become so frustrated with the every-other-weekend schedule that they favor scrapping the parenting plan in favor of a presumption of 50/50. But most parents regard these arrangements as unworkable or as for the short-term only--even parents who want more time with their children. Many parents are seeking creative solutions that provide for greater paternal involvement than every other weekend, do not involve the parents in extensive contact and negotiation with each other, and also provide their children with stability, continuity, and flexibility. Some parents manage this by themselves. Those who do not are looking to the civil justice system for help.
Parents' relationships after a dissolution of marriage are often very difficult. Most parents manage to maintain a working relationship, often while being extremely critical of their ex-spouse. Issues such as lifestyle choices, remarriage, transportation for the children, major decisions about their children's lives, the possibility of relocation, and finances provide continuing sources of friction between ex-spouses. Some parents resist and seek to undermine the parenting plan in an effort to harass their ex-spouse. All divorced parents operate in an environment of uncertainty and anxiety about parenting.
A Final Note from the Researcher
Throughout this report I have tried as much as possible to separate the "news" from the "editorial," to allow the parents who participated in the study to speak for themselves in their own words. As much as possible, I have avoided reinterpreting the parents' words. I believe that, for the most part, the meanings and the implications of the parents' words are clear. However, I would like to offer some final comments on how this research should be construed.
The research presents a picture of parents' frustrations and difficulties with the civil justice system and with the Parenting Act. Should we scrap the whole thing and start again? I think not.
To begin with, research like this is better at finding what is wrong with a situation than it is at finding what's right with a situation. Focus groups are not a tool for identifying representative or common patterns. Rather, focus groups identify the issues that most concern people--what are people so bothered by that they will come out, for little or no reward, perhaps even at some expense to themselves, to talk to a stranger about. In short, we need to remember that, by their nature, focus groups show us the problems, and that the people with the most serious problems are most likely to participate in focus groups.
For most people, including many of the parents in the focus groups, the Parenting Act works well. Parents make it through the system with a parenting plan they can live with, and many are able to achieve a good working relationship with their ex-spouse. These parents benefit from the flexibility of the parenting plan, as well as from the plan's detail.
The parents who have difficulties generally have problems that go beyond the Parenting Act. These difficulties have to do with negotiating the civil justice system with little legal help and inadequate information at a time of great personal stress and emotional pain. The difficulties also have to do with the reality of post-divorce parenting. Parents must sustain a relationship with their child's other parent--a person they no longer love, they may no longer like, who they may wish would disappear from the face of the earth, whose lifestyle choices they may not approve of, whose new partner they may dislike. For some parents the challenge is even greater--they must manage their child's relationship with a person who is bent on harassing them and undermining the parenting plan, or with a person with substance abuse problems or other issues. Some parents, rightly or wrongly, must manage their child's relationship with a person who abused and assaulted them.
These problems are greater than the Parenting Act and would persist even if the law changed. No legislation would ensure that all parents always acted in the most responsible fashion, always putting their child ahead of their own needs, and always behaving in a civil and respectful fashion toward their ex-spouse. No legislation could suddenly alter the complex mix of social changes, particularly changes in the roles of men and women as workers and parents, that have made parenting so much harder to define over the past three decades. Under other legal frameworks, many parents would lack information and help as they worked through the civil justice system, and many parents would find attorney's fees prohibitively high.
But just because the problems parents face are often greater than the Parenting Act does not mean that they are unfixable, or that we should not try to develop solutions. This research clearly points toward some immediate needs:
1 Three individuals who participated in the focus groups did not have a current Washington State parenting plan. In one case, the participant had a parenting plan for several years, before his youngest child reached age 18 shortly before the focus group. In the second case, the participant was involved in an international custody dispute and was appealing a court ruling that Washington State did not have jurisdiction over the children. In the third case, a woman had dropped out of the civil justice system and fled her violent husband because she could not afford the costs associated with divorcing and getting a parenting plan.
2 Initially we hoped to further limit participation to parents with a recent parenting plan. This proved impossible because the date of the most recent parenting plan was not available on the database used to generate the list of parents who were invited to participate in focus groups.
3 Initially we hoped to conduct single-gender focus groups because some other family researchers have suggested that single-gender settings are more conducive to conversations about family issues. However, it was not possible to recruit sufficient participants to hold single-gender groups within the time line and budgetary constraints of the present study.
4 It was not practical to attempt to recruit participants by race/ethnicity minority status. Nor did the researcher solicit information about race/ethnicity minority status or economic background. However, many focus groups participants volunteered information about their race/ethnicity or economic background and highlighted ways in which their background shaped their expectations for and experiences with the Parenting Act.
5 Three women who were recruited through the OCS list identified themselves as domestic violence survivors. One of these women attended a focus group; the other two elected to talk with the researcher by telephone. Two of the women explicitly mentioned their fear of encountering their ex-husbands at a focus group in conversation with the researcher. In fact, as noted above no ex-husband-ex-wife pairs were included in the individuals contacted through the OCS mailing list.
6 One focus group participant, who had not previously requested childcare, so none was available, brought her 2-year-old daughter to a focus group. After consulting with the participant and with the other focus group participants the conversation continued with the child present.
7 Nineteen of the thirty-one Washington State superior court judicial districts have courthouse facilitators. There are facilitators in each of the counties where focus groups were held.
8 The use of gendered terminology here reflects the differences between the mothers and fathers that were observed during the focus group discussions.
The following Washington State parents generously gave of their time and participated in the Parenting Plan Study focus groups:
State of Washington
Dear Washington State Parent:
The Gender and Justice Commission of Washington State is conducting a study of the Washington State Parenting Act. As you probably know, this is the law that deals with parenting arrangements after dissolution of marriage. The law requires that parents obtaining a marriage dissolution must have a parenting plan.
As part of the Parenting Act study, the Gender and Justice Commission wants to hear directly from parents who currently have a court approved parenting plan. We want to know how well your plan works for your family, what problems you have faced and how have you solved them, how well you have been served by the court system, and how you think the law and the system could be improved.
To learn about your experiences with the Parenting Act, the Gender and Justice Commission has organized a series of focus groups. We invite you to participate in one of the upcoming focus groups.
Focus groups are taking place at a variety of locations around Washington State on several different dates. A focus group meeting lasts approximately 90 minutes and is conducted by a trained researcher. Childcare and refreshments will be available.
Participation in the focus group is entirely voluntary. Your remarks will be kept anonymous and will never be connected in any way with you, nor will any records be kept by the court system. If you prefer to participate anonymously, you do not need to tell the researcher your name.
Your participation in the Parenting Act study is important. The findings from the focus groups will be shared with judges, attorneys, and other professionals working in the civil justice system throughout Washington State. The information will also be shared with the State Legislature, and with legislators and activists in other states that are
If you decide to participate in this important project, please complete and mail the enclosed reply card. A researcher from the Gender and Justice Commission will contact you with information about the dates and times of focus groups in your area. If you have questions about the study, please call the Commission at (360) 705-5290 and leave a message. A researcher will return your call.
We hope you will decide to participate in the Parenting Act study. It is your chance to have your voice heard and to help us better serve the families of Washington.
Very truly yours,
Barbara A. Madsen, Chair
Washington State Gender and Justice Commission
Washington State Parenting Plan Study
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