Presidential candidates must focus on strengthening families after divorce
It started months ago: the positioning, the “talk,” the traveling around the country to small towns and big cities and everywhere in between, speaking at town hall meetings, through cellphone video sound bites, or via super-efficient 140-character tweets.
What presidential candidates actually are talking about and what they should be talking about are two very different things. Certainly, any polls would show that big issues are being missed by all candidates on both sides of the aisle. One of those largely overlooked key issues for not only Virginia families but also mothers, fathers and children throughout the nation is improving the well-being of our children when parents divorce or separate. Considering nearly 20 states this year proposed child custody law changes that support shared parenting, rather than sole custody, after divorce, it’s time Presidential candidates join the effort to bring family court reform to the forefront.
The urgency of the issue is in the data. As research continues to side with shared parenting, federal statistics continue to reveal the risks faced by children denied the active involvement of both parents. For instance, federal data show that children raised by single parents account for the great majority of high-school dropouts, illegal drug use, institutionalized juveniles and teen suicides, among many other negative impacts.
In this age of gender role convergence, people, including Presidential candidates, are often surprised to learn just how often courts currently favor one parent over the other. In fact, sole custody is awarded to one parent about 83 percent of the time, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, thus creating a confrontational dynamic of single parent vs. “the visitor.” Thrusting parents into a winner-take-all arena only funds bitter custody battles, which benefits the legal community while creating traumatic, corrosive and long-lasting effects on children, parents and families.
Last year, the National Parents Organization published a Shared Parenting Report Card that, for the first time, graded each state’s child custody statutes A through F, and the results were dismal. On a 4-point scale, the report found that the nation as a whole scored a 1.63 GPA, meaning most states performed poorly in encouraging shared parenting and parental equality in instances of divorce or separation. This is in direct opposition to current, peer-reviewed research that recently has been published by the American Psychological Association and the Association of Family & Conciliation Courts, among others..
The shared parenting conversation is gaining momentum. And it make sense that it does; decisions that family courts are making affect today’s and tomorrow’s children, those who will lead and carry our nation forward into the next several decades and century.
Back in June, presidential candidate Jeb Bush said that “it’s a huge challenge for single moms to raise children in the world that we’re in today and it hurts the prospects, it limits the possibilities of young people being able to live lives of purpose and meaning.” Looking at the most important part of the picture is to look at the way we as a society treat mothers and fathers. We need to strengthen the family. Our focus and emphasis should be on finding ways to support children and encourage more parental engagement from both parents, regardless of marital status and gender. And we need to do so with an actual legal framework that facilitates this kind of equality, rather than having one or the other parent have to fight to be the parent they already were before the courts got involved.
Now, obviously, in cases of verified abuse – be it physical, drug or alcohol – another arrangement may be best. Shared parenting reform efforts are supportive of allowing judges the leeway to account for these kinds of extreme scenarios, but for the majority of cases, shared parenting also allows each parent to continue to be in their child’s life, as they were before divorce or separation.
States including South Dakota, Utah and Minnesota have implemented new laws this year that are supportive of shared parenting, and now, all Presidential candidates need to encourage all state legislators to take action to raise each state’s shared parenting grade and, most importantly, better meet the needs of our children. For instance, in Virginia, a state that received a D- on the Shared Parenting Report Card, legislators can have a dramatic impact by simply addressing the fact that the state’s child custody statutes:
- Contain no preference for or presumption of shared parenting.
- Do not explicitly provide for shared parenting during temporary orders.
- Do not mandate that a court award shared parenting even in a case where the court finds that the submitted shared parenting plan is in the best interest of the children.
- Have not been significantly revised in some time.
We must advance policy and enact shared parenting legislation throughout the nation. Which presidential candidates will recognize the importance of this effort? The candidates who value the American family the most will. There is no reason why every candidate in the race cannot stand for children and their best interests. Who will step forward and champion children? That is who I want to vote for in 2016!
Kristen Paasch is a member of National Parents Organization of Virginia.