By Jennifer Dixon and Ariana E. Cha

For 14-year-old Jake Waldecker, who has spent most of his life being shuttled between his divorced parents, joint custody has its ups and downs. Sometimes he leaves homework and permission slips at one house and has to get a ride back to pick them up. But he likes having two adults to turn to for advice. It can get a little frustrating sometimes, but it works, he said Thursday. If I lived with one parent, I'd miss the other. This way, I've grown up with both a mom and a dad and I'm not missing out on anything.

Jake is one of thousands of children nationwide who divide their time between their parents. Now, Maranda Ireland-Smith, the focus of a celebrated custody battle, is about to join their ranks. Professionals who work closely with parents who share custody say it can work if there is good communication, mutual respect and the children come first. If the parents are miserable, the kids likely won't be happy. Maranda's parents, Jennifer Ireland and Steve Smith, who never married, agreed Wednesday to share custody equally and end a bitter fight over their 5-year-old daughter. She'll spend Tuesdays and Thursdays with her 22-year-old father. On weekends, they'll take turns caring for a little girl who drew national attention when a judge in 1994 awarded Smith custody in part because Maranda was in day care while Jennifer Ireland attended the University of Michigan.

The parents' fight made it way to the Michigan Supreme Court and back to Macomb County Circuit Court before they agreed to split custody 50-50. Fathers' rights advocates on Thursday hailed the settlement as the best possible arrangement for the child, but womens' rights advocates and other experts asked why Ireland should have to drop out of a prestigious university and give up full custody of her child. Legal and child development experts say Maranda's custody arrangement - and others like it - can succeed if her parents put aside their bitterness.

It's not an unusual custody arrangement, said Philadelphia lawyer Lynne Gold-Bikin, former chairwoman of the American Bar Association Family Law Section. "What's stunning," she said, "is that the couple would just sit down and divide up the kid after a long battle in the public spotlight. Why didn't they do it in the first place? "she asked. "Something happened that we don't know about. Why would a young woman, ostensibly doing so well, drop out of school, agree to a 50-50 custody and take no child no child support unless there's something we don't know about." Ireland, Smith and others related to the case are under a judge's order not to talk to the news media. They did not comment.

Under the agreement, there will be no child support. And Ireland will leave U-M and move to her mother's home in Harrison Township to be close to Smith, who lives with his parents in St. Clair Shores. Maranda, who has attended an Ann Arbor public school since last month, will transfer to Masonic Heights Elementary School in St. Clair Shores.

Gold-Bikin said anything parents can work out - down to sharing their child according to the day of the week - is good for the child as long as they don't use the child as a vessel for their anger. "If you start bad-mouthing a parent to a kid, you're making them take a loyalty oath and also denigrating half of their gene pool," she said. Leslie de Pietro, coordinator of Family Care Resources at U-M, who counseled Ireland when the case went to trial two years ago, said that it's not unusual for parents with joint custody to alternate days during the week. "It can work as long as the parents are not using the child as a pawn," she said. "The major concern for joint custody arrangements is that there needs to be a lot of good will between the parents and a lot of commitment to making it work."

Gary Marsh, a mediator and social worker at the Ann Arbor Mediation Center which helps set up joint custody arrangements, said research suggests that the main problem with joint custody is conflict with the parents. "If parents are happy, so is the kid," said Marsh. However, he recommends moving a child for two-week periods. For Jake's parents, there's no ideal solution. It's like trying to find the best way we have," he said. Jake's mother, Michelle Klein, says its tricky to work out a schedule for joint custody or visitation that's good for the kids and acceptable to the parents - especially because there are an infinite number of ways to schedule the child's time. "If the parents can get along and are willing to communicate and to work to keep bitterness out, then joint custody is as good as it's going to get for the kids. But if there's still anger, joint custody doesn't leave room for healing. It just puts kids in the middle," Klein said.

Farmington Hills psychologist Jacqueline Vincenti called joint custody the only answer. "Children aren't property and don't belong to their parents," she said. "Without joint custody, one parent is put in the role of a visitor and that's not good for the children." Fathers' rights groups agree. "Children want and need both parents," said Philip Holman, a Detroit attorney and vice president of the National Congress for Fathers and Children. "If you turn one parent into a visitor it has a horrendous and damaging impact on a child's healthy psychological development," he said.

Shared custody, however, may be more expensive because parents need two sets of everything, including toys and clothes. And it involves sacrifice; in Ireland's case, she's dropping out of school. Holman said the whole process has been so draining, that her decision to leave U-M is "probably inevitable." "I'd be shocked if she maintained an acceptable grade point," he said. But Judith Lichtman, president of the Womens Legal Defense Fund in Washington, a national advocacy group working on behalf of women and families, said if Ireland had no choice but to give up school to reach a custody agreement, "that is a very sad end, and no one should have to choose."

Reprinted with permission from the Detroit Free Press, Friday, October 18, 1996

Posted on Saturday, February 24, 2007 at 01:29PM by Registered CommenterSite Administrator in , | Comments Off

Share this Article:

del.icio.us | Digg | Google | Ma.gnolia | Reddit | Stumble Upon | Technorati

 Discuss this article at He Said... She Said

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend