While divorce and accompanying child custody issues are typically quite complex, experts say that parenting agreements following divorces often fail to properly account for the needs and interests of the Virginia children at the center of such cases.

This is largely due to the divergent nature of divorce and custody cases; a parenting arrangement that meets the needs of a young child will likely be inappropriate for an adolescent.

For instance, a teenage child may wish to spend time with his or her friends or take part in extracurricular activities on the weekend, but may be unable to due to a custody arrangement requiring the child to travel to another parent's home during that time. One expert believes that situations like this lead to children "suppressing their own needs to reduce conflict with, or between, their parents." In the rare cases where a child does voice his or her desires to a court, judges are rarely required to consider such petitions when making [child custody] decisions.

Some commentators argue that children are too unaware of their developmental needs to be given a say in custody court, also suggesting that a system in which a child's opinions are more strongly consider could prompt parents to manipulate them to achieve their own goals in court. However, others contend that this is not the case.

One family therapist with nearly 40 years of experience asserts that "children have a clear understanding of their own needs -- even if they are unable to articulate justifications or reasons for their wishes." She also holds that children are capable of recognizing when they are being manipulated.

To resolve this issue, some experts have proposed a mandatory review process, which would require legal authorities to evaluate the effectiveness of all child custody arrangements every two years. This would provide children the chance to voice their thoughts on their current situations, though children who wish not to participate would be free to decline. Both parents would also be interviewed to ensure that all parties' interests are fairly represented.

Source: New York Times, "In Whose Best Interests?" Ruth Bettelheim, May 19, 2012