By Christian Paasch
Paasch is Chair of National Parents Organization of Virginia. He lives in Alexandria.
Last year, Virginia took its first step in modernizing its child custody laws in a safe, responsible manner. This year, lawmakers have an opportunity to build on that success by clarifying what was passed last year.
We know children benefit most, in the vast majority of circumstances, from having both parents in their lives as much as possible, after divorce or separation. Virginia would do well to possibly emulate other states’ innovative approaches that have succeeded and are viewed positively by legal and psychological experts.
Critics of shared parenting legislation often try to assert that judicial discretion is limited by a “cookie-cutter” approach to family court outcomes. Ironically, this “cookie-cutter” approach is exactly what we have had in place for decades and is what shared parenting helps fix.
Shared parenting is actually a flexible option that gives judges wide latitude in ordering parenting time arrangements, while still allowing judges to protect victims of abuse, when required. Shared parenting is the modern, responsible solution today’s families and children need from the family court system,
Generally, legal arguments revolve around doing what is in the best interest of children.
In 2013, Arizona followed that logic and became the first state to ask that, “… the court shall adopt a parenting plan that maximizes [both parents’] respective parenting time.” Five years since implementation, a 2018 study of this law shows that the majority of Arizona’s family law professionals have a positive view of the state’s shared parenting law. Significantly, the individuals polled in this study for the Journal of Divorce & Remarriage include family court staff, judges, mental health providers, and family law attorneys.
The consensus was clear.
Children have seen an increase in time with both parents, and there has been no noticeable increase in legal conflict leading up to family court decisions. The law has been seen to have a positive impact on children’s wellbeing — reinforcing what studies have continually shown: In the vast majority of situations, children benefit from maximized time with both parents to maintain those important familial bonds. The problem today is that this does not happen, as a matter of course, in at least 80 percent of situations.
Arizona can now definitively say its 2013 family court law serves as a shining example to the rest of the country.
Judges can take the direction to maximize children’s time with both parents and still interpret the meaning of that directive. Specifically, Arizona’s courts have continued to exercise judicial oversight while also maximizing each parent’s involvement in the lives of their child or children.
And, we now know that this is not only best for children, but it’s also viewed as a good thing by a variety of practitioners.
Survey questions for the study were formatted using a 1- to 5-point Likert scale with a neutral midpoint 3 and 5 being the most positive. Ratings were averaged across the four professions to obtain a comprehensive perspective that gave equal weight to each profession. The perception of the law and effect on the child’s best interest were both viewed favorably, even when considering the predictably mixed feelings among family attorneys.
The important takeaway here is that Arizonans spent a significant amount of time educating lawmakers, legal professionals and psychological experts on the benefits of shared parenting and what “maximized time” actually looks like. This means Virginia has an opportunity (and responsibility) to provide the same education via appropriate venues like Continuing Legal Education seminars.
Some family law professionals may have specific motivations as to why they object to shared parenting, but what can’t be denied is that shared parenting and the ability to maximize time with both parents is the best outcome for children in the vast majority of circumstances. We must keep that at the forefront of the discussion as other states seek to make their child custody laws better for children and families.
National Parents Organization applauds the progress in Arizona to do what’s best for children and families. The results of this survey should allow leaders in other states, like Virginia, to feel comfortable pushing for similar change.