Divorce was less common before 1970 than it was by the end of the twentieth century, but children whose parents divorced were likely to be placed in the custody of one parent. The other parent might get visitation rights, but these were usually limited. For children whose parents are both loving and responsible but no longer married to each other, this can be emotionally devastating.
The concept of joint custody was developed in the early 1970s to redress this imbalance. In 1973, Indiana passed the first state joint custody statute in the United States. As of 2002, all states have a joint custody statute on the books. There are two types of joint custody. In Joint legal custody both parents share decision-making responsibility. In Joint physical custody children spend almost an equal amount of time with each parent. Unfortunately, joint custody is still not particularly common. In some cases, of course, there are mitigating circumstances. One parent may have abandoned the family or may have verbally, physically, or even sexually abused the children in question. But for the average parent, who wants what is best for the child but is no longer able to see the child except for brief visits, the issue is one of fairness to that parent as well as the child. The majority of non-custodial parents are fathers.
According to statistics released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 1999, children who do not live with both parents are twice as likely to drop out of school, twice as likely to end up in jail, and four times as likely to need help for behavioral or emotional problems. Organizations such as the Children’s Rights Council (CRC) raised the level of awareness on this issue to the point that joint custody, both legal and physical, became more common.