Commentary: Sole parental custody not a benefit to children

A proposal in the state Legislature would encourage courts to seek plans that involve both parents.

By Jim Clark / For The Herald

Nationwide, the $50 billion dollar divorce industry is 25 times larger than the wedding industry with the average divorce costing $20,000 dollars. It is far less expensive to marry than to divorce.

According to the Washington state Department of Health, there are approximately 25,000 divorces each year statewide with approximately half of those divorces affecting 22,000 children. The most contentious and expensive divorces center on issues regarding child custody and child support, stemming from the sacred parent-child bond and multitude of constitutional rights implicated.

Current research by Linda Nielsen, a professor of adolescent and educational psychology at Wake Forest University, indicates that children who live with each parent at least 35 percent of the time in a shared-parenting joint custody plan had better outcomes than children in sole physical custody families. Children raised substantially by both parents have better academic achievement, emotional health and relationships with family while having less behavioral problems and fewer physical health and stress-related illnesses.

Nielsen’s research looked at factors including conflict between parents and concluded that the quality of the parent-child bond, with both the father and the mother, is the most important factor when looking at the long-term outcomes of children. Even among struggling families, children do better when supported physically, emotionally and financially by both parents.

Unfortunately, most joint physical custody plans are not agreed to voluntarily by both parents and in the majority of cases, one parent initially opposed the plan and compromised as a result of legal negotiations, mediation or court orders. Courts view parental conflict as a reason to avoid shared parenting and award primary custody to one parent while marginalizing, if not totally alienating, the other parent. In an effort to shield children from parental conflict, Washington courts actually amplify conflict, domestic violence and harm the children they seek to protect.

It is worth repeating that shared parenting actually decreases domestic violence.

Kentucky passed a partial shared parenting law in July 2017, and the nation’s first full version in June 2018 that was dubbed the state’s most popular law of the year and helps explain shared parenting’s nationwide momentum. The results since 2017 included 11 percent fewer family court cases filed with 248 fewer domestic violence claims in 2017 and 445 fewer claims in 2018. In a state with a growing population and a new 2016 domestic violence law that included dating and more stringent reporting criteria, the impact of shared parenting was to actually reduce domestic violence claims because parents had far fewer disagreements about parenting time.

By contrast, Washington has a winner-take-all child custody/support system in which parents are pitted against each other to legally determine who is the best parent with the court choosing the “least worst parent” as the winner. The parent that can levy the most damaging accusations against their soon-to-be ex is awarded primary custody and receives 100 percent of child support.

The Washington Legislature is currently considering House Bill 1050, which would prohibit a court from presuming that one parent, solely because of his or her gender, is more qualified than the other parent to engage in parenting functions or from providing more residential time with the child. Additionally, the court would be required to enter written findings stating its reasons, including the facts and evidence considered, supporting any finding that sole decision making is in the best interest of the child.

When family courts start with the presumption of equality in maintaining that most sacred parent-child bond, conflict is reduced and the best interests of children are promoted. Washington has no presumption of equal shared parenting, which is why the National Parents Organization graded the state with a “C” in its recently released 2019 Shared Parenting Report Card.

Please contact your Washington legislators and let them know that you support shared parenting and the passage of HB 1050.

Jim Clark is chairman of the Washington state chapter of the National Parents Organization.

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