States weigh changes to decades-old custody laws
BY JEN FIFIELD
WASHINGTON — As fathers become more vocal about what they see as inequities in custody cases — and as more research shows how important it is for fathers to be present in their children’s lives — states are considering changing their custody laws.
Five states — Colorado, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts and Missouri — are looking at proposals that would require judges to presume that it’s best for children to split their time as evenly as possible between their two parents. Utah enacted a similar law last year.
State laws have historically directed judges to determine custody based on what is in a child’s best interest, looking at factors such as which arrangement would disturb his or her life the least and be safest. The proposals would instead require judges to presume it’s best that both parents be awarded a substantial amount of parenting time — often at least a third of the time — and, if they don’t award substantial time to both parents, to explain why it wouldn’t be in the child’s best interest to do so.
Fathers’ rights groups, such as the National Parents Organization, are pushing the proposals, arguing that they will give fathers a better chance at a fair ruling and pointing to new research that shows how joint custody may be better than sole custody for children’s health.
Family dynamics change
But Ned Holstein, founder of the National Parents Organization, said none of the proposals forces judges to do anything. They would still be able to use discretion and decide what’s in the best interest of the child.
There haven’t been sweeping changes to state laws on custody arrangements since 1970, when the Uniform Marriage and Divorce Act set the “best interest” standard.
But the dynamics of American families have changed significantly since then. The share of children under 18 living with both parents fell, from 85.2 percent in 1970 to 69.2 percent in 2015. And more fathers are living away from their children, up from 11 percent in 1960 to 27 percent in 2010, a recent Pew study found; the shift is likely due to more children being born to unmarried parents. (Pew also funds Stateline.)
At the same time, the amount of time married fathers spend caring for their children has more than doubled, from 2.5 hours a week in 1965 to 7.3 hours in 2010, according to Pew findings.
And that may be a good thing. Research shows that children who spend more time with their fathers are more likely to succeed academically and less likely to be delinquent or have substance abuse issues.
Mental, physical benefits
They will also grow up to be healthier mentally and physically, said William Fabricius, an associate professor of developmental psychology at Arizona State University who has been studying fathers and divorce since 2000.
In a yet to be published 10-year study funded by the National Institutes of Health, he found that children who felt they mattered to their fathers were less likely to later have mental health problems such as depression or anxiety.
Some fathers, such as Troy Matson of Jacksonville push for shared custody, only to get worn down by the time, the cost and the acrimony of their court battles. Matson’s daughter was just a few weeks old when he and his wife started divorce proceedings. He asked to have her half the time.
After contentious court hearings, the couple settled; he now sees his 4-year-old daughter 30 percent of the time.
Matson, who now chairs Florida’s chapter of the National Parents Organization, helped push a Florida bill that would require judges to presume that approximately equal time-sharing is best.
The bill, which passed the Legislature, would also require judges, when they rule differently, to show that equal time-sharing is not the best solution. If Republican Gov. Rick Scott signs the bill, Florida would have one of the strongest shared parenting laws in the nation.
“I grew up without my father,” Matson said. “When I was a kid, I told myself if I’m ever blessed with children, I would do everything I could to be as involved in their lives as possible.”