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Post-divorce Parenting From Afar

The day a moving van pulled away from a large tan Colonial in Hingham, Mass., and headed for California, Bob Cadigan experienced what he describes as "a great sadness." His son and daughter were moving to Los Angeles with their mother. Instead of living 10 miles apart, as they had since he and his wife divorced, Mr. Cadigan and his children would now be separated by 3,000 miles and three time zones.

"I wondered, will I be able to father from a distance and keep it alive?" Cadigan recalls. "I said several extra prayers that day for my children's happiness."

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That 1996 move marked the end of his year-long legal effort to keep his daughter and son in Massachusetts. Despite recommendations by two court-appointed family counselors that the children would be better off staying, a judge gave Cadigan's former wife permission to move.

That pattern is becoming increasingly common as more custodial parents - most often mothers - follow jobs or new spouses to other states. Reflecting the realities of an age marked by easy mobility and high divorce, more states are liberalizing so-called "move-away" laws. Last month the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that a mother and her 10-year-old son could move out of state with her second husband. That follows similar high-court decisions in 1996 in California and New York.

Yet when families divided emotionally by divorce become further separated by geographic distance, challenges arise for absent parents and the children cut off from regular visits. Courts face difficult questions: Are the parent's reasons for wanting to move valid or vindictive? And are the children's interests best served by moving or staying?

No right answer for children

"From a judge's perspective, this is about the hardest case we have," says Superior Court Judge Fred Newton in Flagstaff, Ariz. "Usually in relocation you have two good parents who care, and who don't want their time with their children cut back."

Some states require the parent moving out of state to show that it is in the child's best interest to move. Others place the burden of proof on the parent who is staying.

"In the majority of cases, there is no right answer," says Gregg Herman, president of the Milwaukee Bar Association. "Psychologists, lawyers, and the courts are faced with alternatives, all of which are bad. The term 'best interest of the children,' in my opinion, does not apply in a removal. Nothing is 'best.' We're dealing with trying to select the least detrimental alternative, because it's all detrimental."

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In Wisconsin, courts can prohibit a move if the same educational and employment opportunities are available within the state, and no remarriage or other circumstance makes the move necessary. When the move is necessary, Mr. Herman says, the law allows the child to relocate.

But "necessary" can be a subjective term, according to some fathers' advocates, who claim that men often get shortchanged in legal decisions. In some courts, says Ned Holstein, president of Fathers and Families in Boston, "Simply an assertion that the mother can earn 75 cents per hour more than she is currently earning will be judged to be in the best interest of the child. There's a bizarre notion that a dollar more for Mom is better than a dad."

Although some parents win relocation cases, most do not, says Jeffrey Leving, a Chicago attorney specializing in custody. "Many courts feel that fathers really aren't important in the nurturing and caretaking of children," he says. "Both parents are important. Geographically separating a child from either parent, mother or father, to the point where there can be no more contact, is emotionally devastating to the child."

For one custodial mother, relocation conflicts with her former husband prevented her from moving from the Midwest to Texas when her second husband began a new job in March. She and her daughter and son had to wait until mid-July to join him. She believes "move-away" laws only complicate divorce.

"It's incredible to me what I had to go through just to get to move with my husband," says Elizabeth Ochoa, who does not want her city used. "Had there not been a law, we would have had to work it out ourselves. Instead, I have all these memories of an ugly deposition. It only added fuel to the fire. Not to mention the money we spent on legal fees."

Cadigan calculates that efforts to block his children's move cost nearly $25,000 in legal and professional fees beyond the expense of the divorce. He adds, "To appeal is another $10,000 to $15,000. You have to say, 'This is enough. Let's see if we can make this work.' "

For him, making it work involves three trips to California a year for a long weekend with his children. While there, he meets with their principal and teachers. His son and daughter spend six weeks in Boston during the summer, plus time at Christmas and Easter.

"I think they're as happy as they can be in these situations," Cadigan says. "But it doesn't just happen automatically. It's a conscious effort to send letters frequently, to bake brownies for them, to send pictures of me and their cat, and to talk to them on the phone." He set up an 800-number to make it easy for his children to call him.

Even so, Cadigan wonders: "Should I relocate out there? Or should I maintain stability here?"

Brian Cameron of Westwood, Mass., whose two sons, 16 and 12, moved to Arizona with their mother three years ago, gets similar questions from friends. "I've been asked, 'Why don't you pick up and relocate to Arizona?'" he says. "But how many times can you start over?"

Airfare for his children's visits ranges from $700 to $1,000 per visit. He and his former wife split the bill.

Noncustodial parents incur other costs as well. In California, child support is based on a parent's income and the time spent with the child. After a move, the absentee parent must pay more support because he or she spends less time with the child. "It's really quite a double whammy," says Lorie Nachlis, a San Francisco attorney specializing in family law.

"There are clearly some cases when it's in the child's best interest to relocate with one parent," she adds. "But there are certainly situations where that child needs both parents around on a regular basis. The child's needs should be first."

Parental obligations

David Levy, president of the Children's Rights Council in Washington, wants parents to consider this proposition: "You brought a child into the world and you have certain obligations. You may want to X your ex out of your life. But half the child comes from that other parent. When you look at your child's face, see the other parent in that child's face, and ask yourself if you should really be moving six states away."

For now, some faraway parents take a pragmatic view. "There's always one redeeming thought I have," Cameron says. "I'm missing a lot of my children's childhood, but my children will be adults longer than they will be children. I may have to wait until then to be physically near them."

Cadigan, too, is philosophical. "I'm not happy about what happened," he says. "But it did happen, and rather than moan about it, I'm trying to make it work. I want my kids to say, 'I'm happy where I am, Dad, and I'm happy when I'm with you in the summer,' because that's what is. They know they are very much loved by me."

He adds, "You never quite know for sure if you're doing the right thing, but on the outside it appears to be working."

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