Courts are overwhelmed with couples who are splitting up and disputing custody of their children. If parents cannot agree on their children's fates, a judge will decide who gets custody, and increasingly, psychologists are becoming involved as expert evaluators during legal wranglings. But do any of these professionals have proof that the bases for their life-determining decisions are empirically sound? It seems not, and it is the boys and girls who suffer.
Parents often think that judges possess some special wisdom that will allow them to determine a custody arrangement that is somehow better than what parents can devise themselves. They don't. Although the details vary, every state's law indicates that custody decisions are to be made according to the "best interests of the child." That rule of thumb sounds laudable, but it is so vague that the outcome of every case is unpredictable. The possibility of "winning" in court, paired with the emotional dynamics of divorce, encourages parents to enter into custody disputes, which only increases conflict between them--and conflict is a major cause of lasting psychological damage to children of separating spouses.