This article is a guest submission by Mathew Hickok, Chairman of the FUAN Custodial Reform Committee (CRC)
[DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed in guest posts, are the personal opinions of the author.
They may or may not reflect the opinions of Families United Action Network (FUAN) or its individual members. Note that submissions are edited for clarity if needed.]
Debunking the Myths of Shared Parenting
Iowa Legislative session is upon us once again, and a rebuttable presumption of shared parenting will no doubt be at the forefront again in 2018. There are many myths, fallacies, and half-truths surrounding shared parenting.
Before addressing these, we must first understand what exactly is shared parenting? And what is a rebuttable presumption?
Shared parenting, or joint physical care, is a custody arrangement that allows for both parents to have an equal or near equal amount of parenting time with their children. A rebuttable presumption is something that is assumed until shown to be incorrect by way of clear and convincing evidence.
A rebuttable presumption of shared parenting would state that shared parenting is assumed to be in the best interest of the child in all custody cases until and unless clear and convincing evidence of abuse, neglect, or any other circumstance that would put the child in immediate danger is presented.
As the argument over the merits of shared parenting has heated up, many myths have surfaced in opposition to shared parenting, and many fallacious arguments have emerged as well. Let us put some of these statements to the test.
Claim: Fathers only want shared parenting to get out of paying child support.
Truth: This claim holds no water. First of all, fathers are not the only ones that would benefit from a rebuttable presumption of shared parenting. Second, were a parent to receive increased time with their child(ren), it is true that they would pay less in court-ordered child support to the other parent.
However, it is also true that they would spend more directly on the child when the child is in their care. The actual change in expenses would be minimal and may even increase slightly.
Claim: We can’t have a “one size fits all” presumption.
Truth: We already do. Whether stated explicitly or not, a study done by the Iowa Fathers organization in 2011 shows that the law has consistently favored one parent over the other. It can be predicted with extraordinary accuracy that one parent will be relegated to every other weekend, a weekday visit, and a couple of weeks during the summer.
With shared parenting as the starting point, each arrangement can be tailored to the specific situation of the divorcing couple and needs of the children versus the “one size fits all” arrangement we currently have.
Claim: Kids need the stability of one home.
Truth: Nothing destabilizes a child more than the loss or marginalization of a parent that had previously been a significant part of their life. Shared parenting allows BOTH parent-child relationships to remain intact with a minimal amount of extra shuffling between homes.
Furthermore, in primary custody situations, the primary parent will often juggle work, child care, and extracurricular activities and will turn to a third-party (daycare, friends, or extended family) to meet all of the child’s obligations, creating even more shuffling than would otherwise be present with shared parenting.
Claim: Kids should not be living out of a suitcase.
Truth: This is precisely what happens when time with one parent is minimized. Children “live out of a suitcase” when they are with the non-custodial parent. In a shared parenting situation, the child would have a space to call his/her own at each parent’s residence, thus increasing their feeling of safety and stability.
Claim: The majority of custody cases are settled out of court.
Truth: This is true, but with a major caveat. In 2011, Iowa Fathers commissioned a study of the results of contested custody cases in 3 of Iowa’s larger counties (Polk, Greene, Clinton). The study found that the results of contested custody cases were decided as follows: mothers were awarded primary care 73% of the time, fathers were awarded primary care 8% of the time, and joint physical care was awarded 19% of the time.
These numbers are very much aligned with the national statistics. Given the high cost of litigation and the low probability of a favorable outcome (fathers were awarded primary or joint physical care just 27% of the time), fathers have little leverage in mediation and will often settle for less.
Claim: We already have shared parenting in the law.
Truth: This is nothing but a slight of hand. Iowa law generally favors and awards joint legal custody. Joint legal custody simply means that both parents have a right to be involved in all major decisions involving their children and that no parent shall have more of a say than the other.
Joint legal custody has nothing to do with the amount of time each parent will spend with the child.
Claim: A presumption would tie the judge’s hands and make it difficult to remove or marginalize an abusive parent.
Truth: A rebuttable presumption of shared parenting does make it more difficult to remove one parent from the equation, and that is exactly the intent. A parent being removed or marginalized in the life of their child is one of the most traumatic events a child and parent can experience in a lifetime. It should be difficult to legally sever that relationship.
The key lies in the word ‘rebuttable.’ This allows a judge to remove one parent when the evidence proves conclusively that one parent is abusive, neglectful, a drug addict, or something else that presents a significant threat to the well-being of the child.
Claim: Joint physical care only works when the parents can get along.
Truth: The primary source of conflict between the parents is most often a direct result of the imbalance in parental responsibility. When both parents know that they cannot receive an order of primary custody unless they can prove the other parent is dangerous to the child, there is no longer any incentive to fight, and thus, the amount of conflict decreases dramatically.
Even where there is animosity, the child still fares far better in a “parallel parenting” arrangement than they do in an arrangement that marginalizes or removes one parent.
Claim: A presumption of shared parenting takes the focus away from the “best interest of the child” and shifts it to the “best interest of the parent”.
Truth: This is a false dichotomy of the highest order that presumes that only one of the two can be true. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the “best interest of the child” and “best interest of the parent” are actually one and the same, rather than two competing ideals.
This argument is often presented to discredit the marginalized parent that would seek to have a relationship with the child that is equal to that of the other parent.
Claim: There is nothing in the law that favors one parent over the other.
Truth: While it is true that there is no explicit bias in Iowa’s custody laws, there is an implicit bias in the application of the law as shown by the study done by Iowa Fathers in 2011. Each case is currently subject to an individual judge’s personal bias. Furthermore, there is nothing currently in any state law that 100% guarantees a fit parent that they will not be removed or marginalized in their child’s life.
A rebuttable presumption would remove any explicit and implicit bias that currently exists in the law and protect the rights of parents for whom there is no justifiable reason to separate from their child.
Claim: The quality of time spent with the child matters more than the quantity.
Truth: In a parent-child relationship, one cannot have quality without also having quantity. The parent relegated to every other weekend often becomes the ‘fun’ parent because they don’t get to participate in the day-to-day routine of raising their child. Quality time includes dropping off and picking up their child from school, helping their child with their homework, eating dinner with their child, tucking their child in bed at night, and reading them a bedtime story.
It is these activities that allow the child to develop a deeper trust and respect for their parents. It is also important to note that when one parent is marginalized, it isn’t just the child’s relationship with the parent that suffers. They also lose contact with the grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins on that parent’s side of the family.
All recent, credible, and peer-reviewed studies point to the advantages and positive outcomes associated with shared parenting. In Iowa, we are fighting old standards, outdated research, and old wive’s tales in the quest to enact shared parenting as the gold standard in family law. It is important to dispel these myths as we hear them.
It is also equally important that we educate and inform others about the merits and advantages of shared parenting.
Let us make 2018 the year that we finally achieve parental equality in Iowa for the sake of all our children!
Written by Matthew Hickok, Chairman of the FUAN Custodial Reform Committee (CRC).