Gender equality: Work still left to do in family courts

lgbtSince 1987, we have celebrated Women’s History Month in March. Described in Wikipedia, “Women‘s History Month is an annual declared month that highlights the contributions of women to events in history and contemporary society.” Women have fought against traditional roles that society imposed upon them and fought for rights granted to men. As we honor women’s success in the march towards gender equality, it is important to highlight that areas of inequality remain in our society. Specifically, and perhaps shockingly to those not familiar with divorce and child custody, much remains to be done in reforming Virginia Family Courts, which sadly remain a bastion of outmoded and biased thinking. This leads to destructive outcomes not only for parents, but also, more devastatingly, for children.

The National Parents Organization is a 501 (c)(3) organization focused on promoting shared parenting, where both parents have equal standing in raising children after separation or divorce. Many people do not even realize there is an issue with child custody after divorce or most just presume that children should go with their mother most of the time.  Analogous to women being “incapable of doing a man’s job” in days past, many in Virginia’s family courts still hold these views regarding custody – keeping women primarily at home and men primarily at work.

The problem with this is that it is clearly not in children’s best interest, which we now know from a wealth of peer-reviewed research over the last 30 years to definitively be this: barring the verified presence of abuse, children are better off when both parents play a significant and meaningful role in their lives through equitable custody and visitation. Such arrangements are ardently desired by children, make children happier, improve their school performance and decrease delinquency.  The experts agree:

  • 32 family law experts in the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (2014): “Children’s best interests are furthered by parenting plans that provide for continuing & shared parenting relationships…”
  • 110 child development experts in the American Psychological Association Consensus Report (2014): “…shared parenting should be the norm for parenting plans for children of all ages…”
  • The Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health (2015) found that shared parenting after divorce or separation is in children’s best interest & children with shared parenting were significantly less stressed.

The problem is acute. Nearly half of all marriages end in divorce. One-third of all children in the United States are affected by divorce. But despite overwhelming evidence of its destructive effects, more than 80% of children whose parents are divorced live with one parent, by court order. Talk about not changing with the times…

And if that weren’t enough, the rates of teen suicide, delinquency, imprisonment, substance abuse, and high school dropouts, are far higher for children raised in single parent homes.

So we know children need both parents.  They want both parents.  The only thing that remains is for Virginia family courts to leave the 1950s behind and catch up with the times by making shared custody the norm.  This is not hard – and in fact, many states like Oklahoma, Utah, Alaska, Arizona and Missouri, have all led the way in this national movement.  It is time Virginia joined the ranks of those truly doing what is in the best interest of children.

By Chris Nelson, M.D., National Parents Organization in Virginia 

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