A dear friend of many decades, a well-known journalist, was the second man in the state of New York to get joint custody of his children upon his divorce. This was in the mid 1970’s. My friend and his attorney attempted discussion and negotiations, but ultimately this outcome depended on a folder stuffed with xerox copies of prescriptions for pills to which the ex-wife was addicted.
My friend was, and still is, fiercely devoted to his children. He’s not a perfect person of constant and unceasing virtue, a saintly modern day Francis. What he is is a loving and connected father who insisted on the right to remain a continuous, essential presence in his children’s lives at a time when courts seldom recognized that right.
Despite advances in recognizing fathers’ fundamental rights to be equally involved in their children’s lives, the problem of not implementing that right continues within the legal system. At the same time, there’s a growing awareness that relegating one parent, whether father or mother, to second-class citizen parent status is not in the best interests of the child, when neither parent is actually abusive. There is a growing understanding that, post-separation, children need both parents to be fully present in their lives for optimal wholeness.
I sat down with Dr. Ned Holstein, the founder and chairman of the board of the National Parents Organization, at the International Conference on Shared Parenting in Boston. The National Parents Organization has a mission to preserve the bond between parents and children. To that end, at this conference, the world’s most renowned child development experts in the area of post-divorce parenting have gathered to share their research results. How do children fare with and without shared parenting post-divorce?
“There are two big disconnects going on,” Dr. Holstein said. “One is that the general public overwhelmingly believes that shared parenting should be the usual outcome if both parents are fit and there’s been no domestic violence. In fact, this very question went before 700,000 voters in Massachusetts and 86% voted in favor of shared parenting. However, shared parenting is happening in less than 10% of the cases.
“To define the term: shared parenting means that each parent receives at least 35% of the parenting time. This is flexible. There’s no straight-jacket here, but at least there’s a definition.”
It seemed to me that with this kind of common support for shared parenting, the courts would take note and promote it.
“There are statutes that, for example, say ‘frequent and continuing contact,’ but then courts will interpret that to mean something like one or two days per month,” Dr. Holstein noted.
“The second big disconnect is between what researchers have demonstrated is in the best interests of most children, not every child, and what the courts are doing and what the statutes say. Statutes in most states permit but don’t encourage shared parenting.”
These two disconnects led Dr. Holstein to put together this International Conference on Shared Parenting. “This is a watershed moment,” Dr. Holstein noted. “Researchers from all over world, the leading people, are saying and endorsing the assertion that the research has reached a critical mass, and it shows that shared parenting is best for most children.”
Some of the researchers include Dr. Linda Neilsen of Wake Forest University, who analyzed 54 well-designed studies. All but one supported shared parenting as being best for children. Dr. Richard Warshak, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, did a careful review of the literature and analyzed some 40 studies showing shared parenting was best for most children. One hundred ten experts around the world signed on to his conclusion.
I was told that Swedish speakers came into the conference with 16 more Swedish studies showing the same thing.
Experts from around the world are presenting their research at this conference. Germany, Sweden, France, Denmark, Israel, Bermuda, Canada, Greece, Spain, and Bermuda, among other countries, sent representatives. I sat in on a talk given by Dr. Michael Lamb, Professor of Psychology at the University of Cambridge in the UK. He stated, “Risks of maladjustment in children are higher when parents have separated. Maintaining relationships with both parents minimizes those affects.”
“Court practices haven't kept up with the growing research evidence on the benefits of shared parenting, so our intention was to gather all the world experts in one place at one time to compile the evidence that needs to be recognized as a basis for changing what our current practices are in the courts,” Dr. Holstein told me. “Based on the work of world experts at our conference today, ‘Best Interests of the Child’ means shared parenting for most children.”