Take Your Daughters and Sons to Work Day: Not so simple for many families
Column by Ryan Johnston
For well over half of American families this seemingly simple decision requires more planning than one might imagine – all because the divorce court status quo results in rigid, unequal parenting arrangements.
With America’s family courts consistently ordering “primary custody” arrangements, events like “Take Your Child to Work Day” do not often make the list of things thought out ahead of time. More than 80% of split families are ordered into primary custody arrangements – and only 30% of those have the father as primary custodian. More and more data supports the fact that shared parenting after divorce or separation benefits children the most, plus, in the past couple of years, states including South Dakota, Utah and Minnesota have joined the handful of states with laws supportive of shared parenting after divorce or separation – and numerous states have recently considered similar legislation. As a result, we must ask ourselves: What is taking the family courts in Virginia and most other states so long to catch up to modern research?
A slew of studies in 2014 and 2015 repeatedly show that the consistent, predictable and maximized presence of both parents in a child’s life will help that child’s intellectual and social development into a well-balanced adult. These children show better achievement in school with lower dropout rates, less aggression (particularly in boys), higher self-esteem (especially in girls), and better overall mental health for all children. These results are particularly and specifically supported when the father’s involvement is maximized and encouraged. So important is the presence of the child’s father that the U.S. government released a 127-page guide for case workers in 2006 on the importance of fathering. Since that time, study after study has replicated and substantiated those same results, yet our family courts continue to lag behind what is truly best for children. With studies that support shared parenting existing for not just the past decade but really the past 30 years, why would we not want our courts using shared parenting as the starting premise for split families? Do the best interests of the child not become the best interests of society?
It is the “best interests of the child” standard that can cause difficulties for our courts. The clause lacks a formal definition and essentially allows each court/judge to rule as they believe, except in cases of abuse. And while judges are required to take a certain number of hours of updates each year, those updates do not have to be related to family law itself. Therefore, our judges could routinely miss out on the latest research on what is truly best for children. In Virginia, judges are not elected (or appointed) on any regular basis and thus our courts have fallen into a rut, specifically the unwritten standard deal that statistically results in one parent being awarded every other weekend (less than 25% of the year) with their children. Does this sound like the best interest of any child?
Furthermore, some Virginia lawmakers and attorneys fear that a shared parenting starting premise would automatically cause some judges to order a 50/50 split no matter what, every single time. We would hope that our judges are more capable than that, and that our judges know they would still have the latitude to deviate from 50/50 wherever and whenever warranted. If we cannot assume that our judges have the wherewithal and capacity to deviate, as they can, from a 50/50 starting premise, then we have a problem with the judges we appoint, not the law itself.
Finally, these same Virginia lawmakers and attorneys will state that judges should not have to explain why they deviate from a 50/50 starting premise. Instead, they would prefer judges simply order whatever they feel is appropriate without any explanation whatsoever. In what American court is that acceptable? Certainly not in any reasonable, balanced court of law. Especially since family court judges’ orders affect our state’s children, judges should be expected and required to explain the reasoning behind their decisions. This is not a high standard to meet; rather, it should be the bare minimum when it comes to our children and their well-being.
The “best interests of the child” needs a clear and consistent definition, not simply a list of factors to consider and interpret. With all the helpful data we have at our disposal, the first part of that definition should be shared parenting as the starting premise for split families and require the courts to find a legally compelling reason to deviate, such as the verified presence of abuse.
If shared parenting was the starting premise for split families, events like Take Your Daughter and Sons to Work Day would be much easier to decide for the best interests of your child.
Ryan Johnston is a member of National Parents Organization of Virginia.