Easing Divorce's Impact On Kids

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Divorce is an inescapable fact of American life: census figures show 25 million men and women are divorced or separated. But that seriously understates the problem, reports CBS News Correspondent Jim Stewart, because it doesn't count the kids.

After 14 years of marriage, Marcia Heavner-Pittman finally has her divorce. She had always wanted -- and expected to get -- custody of the children.

"Their father and I have worked as hard as we can to try to make things as easy for them, and not put them in the middle," recounts Heavner-Pittman.

Marcia's husband, Brad, wanted the girls as well. But he's a realist.

"I'd love to have custody of my children," admits Brad Pittman. When asked what he thinks the chances are of actually getting custody, he said, "I don't think that they would be that good, because Marcia wants custody, too. And why get into a custody battle, and the children see us fighting over them?"

It is the most contentious issue in a divorce. Who gets the kids? In most states, in most cases, it's usually the woman. But in West Virginia, and in a handful of other states, a new approach is underway - and a curious thing has happened.

Now, the wife can no longer assume she gets the kids. Instead, in West Virginia it is now required that husband and wife - either through mutual agreement, like the Pittmans - or by court order, share childcare in a manner that reflects family life before the divorce. And that, says judges, can cause some wives to have second thoughts about filing in the first place.

"So if you think you're gonna go to court and lose your custodial responsibilities you're not in a hurry to bring it there," says Judge Patricia Keller.

In fact, divorce rates are actually declining in the few places now requiring that childcare be shared after a breakup. And, University of Iowa law professor Margaret Brinig says that's not all. "It also might mean that people would focus a little bit more carefully on the financial issues than they do, and try to be a little fairer and not be trading time with kids for money."

Furthermore, says Brinig, in states where dads are partners in parenting and not just visitors, her research shows fathers are less likely to renege on child support payments. So starting this year in West Virginia divorcing couples are not just encouraged, they're required to draw up a "parenting agreement."

But don't be fooled. It's not easy.

"That's my baby. I'm the one who was up bottle feeding him, you know, changing the diapers, bathing. He never was, " argues divorcing parent Lisa Stewart.

"You had the children together, you need to raise these children the rest of your life together," countered Debra Wilson, another divorcing parent.

It's a new legal experiment to solve one of the most wrenching social problems of our time" how to protect the most valuable thing left from a marriage when their parents ave called it quits?

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  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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