Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

In Colorado Divorces, an End to 'Custody'

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

In Colorado Divorces, an End to 'Custody'

Article excerpt

When parents divorce, everyday decisions about the children - from who will pick them up from soccer practice to what church they'll attend - can become a reason for another trip to see the judge. Now Colorado, in a move that is attracting the interest of states across the US, is trying to take the conflict out of custody issues. Indeed, state law now dispenses altogether with the term "custody," replacing it with the idea of "parental responsibility." Colorado's law, among the first of its kind in the US, is intended to provide a framework in which parenting after divorce can become more cooperative. Critics characterize it as a mere semantic shift, but supporters argue it can help change attitudes. "The real intent behind this is to get away from the idea that children are objects that can be won or lost, and put the needs of children first," says Joan McWilliams, a Denver lawyer and mediator who helped draft the law that takes effect Feb. 1. The law also aims to keep both parents involved in child-rearing, reflecting a growing awareness of the importance of children maintaining strong ties with each parent. Colorado's law is one of the most recent efforts by states to diminish conflict between divorcing parents. In Utah, divorce-education classes are mandatory for all separating couples. Texas divorce law encourages parents to enter a "joint managing conservatorship" of their children, rather than assign custody. In California, Pennsylvania, and Washington, family courts in certain counties require mediation for all divorcing parents. In Colorado, the power of words is taking center stage. "Clients tell me that words do make a difference," says Ms. McWilliams. "When you think about the language of divorce, it is language that supports conflict: Parents fight to win custody. The judge awards custody." State lawmakers first tinkered with the divorce statute in 1993, when they banished the term "visitation," replacing it with the words "parenting time." That change alone reduced tensions, says Michael DiManna, chairman of the legislative committee of the Colorado Bar Association's family law section. "The concept of 'visitation' was offensive to parents who didn't have residential custody," he says. "It's a lot more meaningful to call it 'parenting time.' " Experts ranging from psychologists to child- welfare advocates agree that words send a signal. "Using words like 'custody' and 'visitation' does not send the kind of message we want to when we're trying to do more for children," says David Levy, president of the Children's Rights Council in Washington. The philosophy of "parental responsibility" didn't originate in Colorado - nor even in America. Divorce laws in England have long relied on the concept. In the US, the term "parental responsibility" has been on the books in Washington since 1987. …

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