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When Sharon Prost surrendered her two sons to her former husband's custody 11 days ago, it was the climactic act in a cautionary tale of two-career couples in the '90s.

To Prost, 43, a counsel to Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, and the feminist legal groups rallying around her, the decision by a Washington judge to award custody to the father is chilling evidence of a judicial backlash against professional women.To her former husband, Kenneth Greene, 48, the assistant executive director of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, and his supporters, the decision is an overdue affirmation of fathers who have long been victims of bias in the courts themselves.

It is a tale unfolding under the klieg lights of professional Washington, with a high-powered cast of players and some unexpected alliances.

On one side are feminist legal groups whose outrage at the decision is matched only by that of Hatch, the Utah Republican many feminists loved to hate because of his combative questioning of Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas hearings.

And in Hatch's generally conservative home state, several women's organizations have been collecting money to contribute to Prost's legal costs.

On the other side are fathers who say most judges automatically, and unfairly, favor mothers and who are hailing the ruling, made by a judge who is herself a mother.

The decision comes as more mothers of young children are working, as more fathers are aggressively seeking custody, and after a well-publicized Michigan case in which a mother going to college lost custody of her daughter because the child had been placed in day care.

And it raises questions that men and women are still struggling to answer - how to balance motherhood and professional ambition, and how much fathers are willing to buck tradition and put their children before their careers.

"I've had women all over Capitol Hill say, `That could be us,' " said Hatch, who has persuaded the Senate Ethics Committee to allow him to establish a legal defense fund for Prost. She is appealing the decision, which also requires her to pay $23,010 a year in child support.

But David L. Levy, president of the Children's Rights Council, a Washington-based fathers' rights group, said the case showed that fathers were finally getting some credit as parents. "This was not a double standard," he said. "It's entirely consistent with who is perceived as doing more of the daily care of the child. It was all in favor of women before."

The battle lines were drawn after a July decision by Judge Harriett R. Taylor of the District of Columbia Superior Court. Prost, Greene and Taylor would not comment for publication on the case, but their stands are vividly presented in the legal documents.

In a sharply worded opinion that offers a glimpse into the lives of two Washington professionals who married in 1984 and separated eight years later, Taylor painted Prost as a driven workaholic who seldom arrived home before dinner and Greene as a doting father who put his children first.

In her opinion, Taylor quotes friends and relatives of Greene's, as well as a babysitter, who said Prost often ate dinner alone and very late at night, "while sitting on the kitchen floor, with her plate on the floor, talking on the telephone or writing while she was eating." Friends of Greene described Prost as working even during her children's birthday parties, of "barking orders" at them, and of being "very tightly wound."

By contrast, the judge said Greene was a playful, affectionate parent to his two sons - Matthew, 7, and Jeffrey, 4 - who insisted that his current job, which he obtained after a nearly two-year bout of unemployment, offers him flexible hours.

In granting Greene custody, Taylor said Prost was "more devoted to and absorbed by her work and her career than anything else in her life, including her health, her children and her family."

But Prost's supporters, including the Women's Legal Defense Fund, which filed a brief in the case, called that picture a distortion that reflected a common courtroom bias against working mothers.

"This is an injustice," Hatch said. "Here's a professional woman I have seen day in day out anguished over her children. This judge ignores the maximum effort that she made while rewarding the minimum effort that he made."

While Taylor praised Greene for attending the parent interview for his son's kindergarten, going on class trips and dropping by occasionally to read children a story, Prost's supporters argued, the judge ignored the testimony of the kindergarten teacher who said Prost was a "surrogate room mom."

Greene got credit for arriving home first, Prost's lawyers said, but Prost was not praised for getting up every morning at 5:30 a.m. and playing with her sons before she left for work at 8 a.m.

Moreover, Prost's supporters said, the judge ignored the testimony of a psychiatrist approved by both sides who said the children's primary attachment was to their mother, and failed to take into account that during the nearly two-year period when Greene was unemployed, he did not take care of the children full time.

Joan Entmacher, senior policy counsel of the Women's Legal Defense Fund, a Washington-based legal advocacy group, said Taylor betrayed having a higher standard for working mothers than working fathers through what she described as a selective use of the testimony.


Additional Information


For more information about divorce issues, contact these agencies and organizations:

- Divorce education information: 3rd District Court, 535-5115.

- Focus: Children and the Other Parent, a support group for non-custodial parents, meets monthly. Contact Bob Morris, 967-9055, or Conrad Lloyd, 539-8198.

- ACES (Association for Children for the Enforcement of Child Support): national hotline, 1-800-537-7072.