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Putting the children first
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Every couple believes in “happily ever after” when they’re in love.  As they plan their future together, the thought of separation never enters their minds. But all too often, one or both partners will one day decide the best course of action is to go their separate ways.

In fact, about three people in every 1,000 in the population (or .68 percent) are divorced, according to the 2009 National Vital Statistics Reports. Those numbers don’t include Californians, because for some reason the state decided to stop keeping track of divorces. A fact that seems a little strange because in 1969 Governor Ronald Reagan signed the Family Law Act into law, making California the first no-fault divorce state in the nation.

While divorce and separation of non-married couples can be devastating to the adults involved, it is oftentimes even harder on children. A 2001 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report stated children living in one-parent households do worse than children living with two parents in terms of academic achievement, depression, and behavior problems such as drug and alcohol abuse, premarital sexual intercourse, and being arrested. The report also stated children raised in single-parent families are more likely to drop out of high school, have lower grades and attendance while in school, and are less likely to attend and graduate from college than children raised in two parent families.

The findings of this report are disturbing, however, they may not be an accurate picture of the situation in single-parent homes. A study done by Allen Li, associate director of the Population Research Center at the RAND Corporation, found divorce, in and of itself, is not the cause of the elevated behavior problems seen in children of divorce.

Instead, Li proffers that disengaged or unloving parents are detrimental for children's emotional well-being and behavior. The lack of love on the part of one or both parents may increase the chance that the parents will divorce, but it may also create behavior problems in children whether or not their parents divorce. The point is that "bad" marriages are more likely to harm children's well-being than good ones and more likely to lead to divorce, and a marriage can be "bad" in many unobserved ways.

I tend to agree with Li.

While I am not a proponent of divorce, I do not think couples in a dysfunctional relationship should stay together for the “sake of the children” or any other reason. I have seen many children from married, yet unhappy, parents suffer the effects of an unstable home life. I have also seen children of divorce flourish in an environment where each parent is happy and able to be a better provider of emotional and physical support.

However, couples who have children and then separate MUST put the needs of the children first. Many states require divorcing couples to go through parenting classes as a way to learn positive methods of co-parenting while not living together.

I think parents — married or not — seeking child custody agreements should have to attend parenting classes. I have to wonder what was going on in the mind of Ricardo Sanchez, Jr. when he took out a gun and shot his estranged girlfriend and then himself in front of their 8-year-old son on Valentine’s Day. Definitely not the best interests of his child.

It is impossible to legislate the feelings of the heart. But it is possible to make the welfare of children a priority in every situation.

In the wake of the tragic murder-suicide here in Turlock, the Journal would like to speak to people who have had custody disputes and what their experiences were like. We'd also like to hear from people who have found a way to resolve their custody disputes. Please contact reporter Sabra Stafford at sstafford@turlockjournal or 634-9141 ext. 2002.