In the child's best interest? Meaning and practices for parents and legal professionals in child custody conflicts

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Richard Ratcliff


Parents, Best interest, Legal professionals, Child custody

Subject Categories

Family, Life Course, and Society | Law | Social and Behavioral Sciences | Sociology


A near epidemic divorce rate has contributed to a high demand for judicial intervention in child custody disputes. Courts dealing with custody conflicts face a number of problems in these cases, including applying a difficult and discretionary "best interest of the child standard," making nearly impossible decisions, and coping with limitations of time and resource. In addition, parents often expect careful attention to the facts of their situation, while courts, on the other hand, must restrict the time they can devote to cases in order to meet the efficiency needs of the system.

In this qualitative study, I examine the perspectives of judges, lawyers and child advocates who routinely negotiate and decide child custody conflicts. My findings suggest that they develop meanings and strategies for these disputes. Some of the strategies include urging parents to mediate, 'cooling out' parents so that they accept settlement offers, and forming judgments to avoid agonizing decision making. Deciding custody cases on an individual basis would require time and resources beyond their capabilities and bring the system to a grinding halt.

In child custody conflicts, the findings here suggest that bureaucratic pressures and an emphasis on parental rights tend to dominate attention to decisions in the best interest of the child. Relying on various strategies and personnel within the legal structure, decision making within a legal context involves avoiding figuring out what is in the best interest of a child when his or her parents divorce or separate.


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