Cole Bockenfeld: Support single parents in Virginia

newspaperIn 1984, President Reagan issued a proclamation designating March 21 as National Single Parents Day, and in doing so, he stated, “Single parents can and do provide children with the financial, physical, emotional, and social support they need to take their places as productive and mature citizens.  With the active interest and support of friends, relatives and local communities, they can do even more to raise their children in the best environment possible.”

Today, evidence showing shared parenting – a flexible arrangement where children spend as close to equal time as possible with each parent – is in the best interest of children is overwhelming. Child development experts published by the American Psychological Association were clear in their 2014 consensus report: “Shared parenting should be the norm for parenting plans for children of all ages.”

To honor the intent of National Single Parents Day, government officials who value families must do more to support and protect relationships with both parents.

In the current law, Virginia’s court system does not presume shared and equitable custody or parenting time for both parents after separation. As a result, it incentivizes parents to enter into lengthy and expensive battles for sole or primary custody of their kids – creating winners and losers and decreasing the chances of success for resolution through mediation. More than 80 percent of cases result in sole or primary custody, and many parents see their kids just every other weekend.

This kind of arrangement limits children from building close and meaningful relationships with both parents. And unfortunately, children in this kind of living situation are statistically more vulnerable to a number of risks, including higher rates of crime, poverty, school dropout, teen pregnancy, and teen suicide.

But just as the current system creates incentives that lead to these tragic outcomes, simple fixes to Virginia’s family law can help facilitate children developing and maintaining supportive relationships with both their parents.

The solution for Virginia’s children is shared parenting, where both parents have equal standing after separation or divorce. Children are happier, do better in school, and are more productive members of society when both parents play a meaningful role in their lives. Of course, every family is different, and parents and judges can and should be able to deviate from a 50-50 split in the way that’s best for the kids. But with a 50-50 starting point for both parents in custody and visitation in the courtroom, more children would benefit from significant, meaningful and frequent interaction with both of their parents.

A number of states have already moved toward recognizing this equality. Alaska, Missouri, Oklahoma and Utah are among the states that have already passed legislation to clear the way for shared parenting, and legislation is being considered in Massachusetts, North Dakota, Texas, Washington state and West Virginia. It’s time for Virginia’s legislature to do the same, and honor both mothers and fathers by making shared parenting the norm. A bill introduced in this year’s session of Virginia’s General Assembly stated that a shared-parenting arrangement “best serves most children.”

This National Single Parents Day, honor the simple truth that parents – even those who are separated – love and value their relationships with their children equally and supporting those relationships is in the best interest of Virginia’s families and future.

Cole Bockenfeld is a member of National Parents Organization in Virginia

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