CONTESTED CHILD CUSTODY CASES: AN EXAMINATION OF CUSTOM AND FAMILY LAW IN AN AMERICAN COURT
The problem addressed in this research can be stated in the following two questions: (1) What is the relationship between legal and extralegal categories in contested child custody cases which arise out of divorce proceedings in the United States? (2) In what ways does the interrelationship of the legal and extralegal categories invoked in such proceedings express an ideology of the family and formulate a code for conduct for family members? Legal categories include concepts and rules which derive from procedural and substantive law and which serve to structure the process and limit the information admissible in court. Extralegal categories refer to the norms and symbols about family and sex roles which are expressed in these cases. The research involved the analysis of contested child custody cases between mothers and fathers, using an ethnosemantic approach and situational analysis. The fieldwork took place in a circuit court and family court in the United States. The data from the hearings were supplemented by information from public records, by interviews with judges, and by attendance at meetings of a fathers' advocacy group. From the interrelationship between the legal and extralegal criteria a code for conduct is extracted, which consists of a set of norms as to how children should be raised and how parents should act. Derived from this code are certain ideas and meanings about family, motherhood, fatherhood, love and duty. These form an organized set of symbols which can be understood apart from the norms and which constitutes an ideology of the family. Within this ideology motherhood and fatherhood are defined differently. Parents and their attorneys manipulate these symbols and elements of the code for conduct to win favorable decisions. In litigating custody parents relinquish their decision making power to the state. Judges are placed in the position of making decisions affecting the internal functioning of the family. They scrutinize the moral as well as jural aspects of the parent-child relationship to ascertain what is in the "best interests of the child.".