Maryland family courtrooms could become a happier place for Maryland children – if state lawmakers act on an opportunity to reform child custody laws.
As a recent Washington Post editorial highlighted, Maryland lawmakers are considering recommendations from a special commission that studied child custody decisions. The news hits at a time when, according to a Post article, 25 states have considered laws supportive of shared parenting after divorce in the past year. Plus, a handful of states have passed such laws in the recent past, and several others have come very close to doing so.
This ferment is due to the little-known fact that the family courts in most states still create custody battles in which the victorious parent becomes the “custodial” parent, and the loser becomes the every-other-weekend parent. Even though most cases settle before trial, they mostly do so within this court-created expectation.
When our society first liberalized divorce laws many decades ago, we rationalized the exciting new options for adults with the soothing illusion that a divorce is difficult for the children but they soon adjust smoothly. While this is true for many children, research makes clear that millions of other children suffer deeply, mostly those who do not have shared parenting.
Take education for example. We have tried almost every imaginable cure for the alarmingly poor educational results of our children. In many big city school systems, we are paying $14,000 per child per year for education. Can we possibly claim that over $300,000 for a single classroom is not enough to educate children? While some of the educational reforms programs have produced modest improvements in small pilot programs, none has proven scalable to millions of children.
But we have not asked ourselves whether we can expect a deeply depressed, anxious or angry child to learn, one whose parents have divorced so that he rarely gets to see one of his beloved parents.
What evidence do we have that parenting arrangements might be critical for education?
First, federal statistics tell us that 71 percent of high school dropouts come from single-parent homes. And that children whose every-other-weekend non-custodial parents are involved in their education have markedly better grades. Also, that those who live at least 35 percent of the time with each parent do better on at least a dozen measures of well-being, including education, compared to children raised mainly in the home of one parent.
Additionally, in Sweden, where shared parenting after divorce has been routine for years, the children with this arrangement do almost as well as children of intact families, while those raised by a single parent do far worse – and this despite an extremely generous social safety net guaranteeing the children of single parents are not impoverished.
And finally, that children with shared parenting are simply happier, calmer kids. The benefits of shared parenting for education are mirrored by numerous other measures in almost 60 peer-reviewed studies from multiple countries.
By simply rewriting our custody laws so that the family court conversation favors shared parenting rather than sole custody, we can increase child support payments, improve education and mental and physical health and decrease substance abuse, truancy, gang involvement and trouble with the law, bullying and stress and anxiety.
Unlike most other suggested remedies for the multiple problems of our children, all of this can be accomplished with no cost to the taxpayer.
This should be considered a “hallelujah moment.” Instead, many respected commentators get hung up on details.
The Post’s editorial board, for instance, is concerned with legal technicalities of whether shared parenting legislation somehow alters the legal standard of “best interest of the child.” Of course not, since it is now demonstrated that shared parenting is precisely the arrangement that is in the best interest of most children.
The editorial board also is concerned that such legislation creates a “one-size-fits-all” straitjacket. Somehow, they have overlooked that what we have right now is such a straitjacket, with about 90 percent of cases resulting in sole custody to one parent.
And they’re overlooking that all reputable shared parenting bills preserve judicial discretion to reject shared parenting in those cases in which it would not serve the child well, such as in cases with an unfit parent or domestic violence.
It’s time that we put our children first by supporting shared parenting in Maryland.
Ned Holstein, M.D., is founder and chair of the board of National Parents Organization. He can be reached at [email protected].