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The Rhetoric of Rights and Needs: Moral Discourse in the Reform of Child Custody and Child Support Laws

Scott Coltrane, Neal Hickman
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/3097018 400-420 First published online: 1 November 1992


Laws regulating the postdivorce custody and support of minor children underwent major changes during the 1980s. This paper uses the social constructionist approach to analyze the claims making of fathers' rights groups promoting state joint custody preference statutes and mothers' groups promoting strict federal child support enforcement. Although directly opposed to each others' reforms, both groups used rhetorical strategies that included horror stories, numeric estimates, and an implied societal consensus. Interviews with leading activists indicate that private troubles were transformed into public issues via personal initiative and symbolic representation. Child custody and support reforms were likely to be adopted if they were incremental, attracted little media attention, and were consistent with professional concerns and prevailing ideologies.

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