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Push for shared parenting reform in Massachusetts

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Author: Andrei Radulescu-Banu

The Boston Globe reports on the recent hearings on shared parenting reform:

“The State House hearing room seemed an unlikely place for grown men to bare their souls.

“But as father after father took a seat in a committee room, urging lawmakers to support proposed legislation to revamp Massachusetts’ child-custody statute, they laid out the particulars of their divorces and personal lives in blunt detail.

“The scene could soon repeat itself inside state houses across the country. About 20 states are considering measures that move toward more equal custody arrangements for parents following divorce or separation, according to Ned Holstein of the National Parents Organization, a Boston-based group that has been a driving force behind the push for shared parenting. A handful of states have already enacted similar legislation, while several others have formed task forces to examine family-law issues.”

The courts or the DCF have no mandate to maintain statistics of custody arrangements. About the totality of the cases in probate and family courts around the state, there is much known anecdotally, but little hard data. A 1993 study of 501 consecutive divorce outcomes in Middlesex County shows that “shared parenting (joint physical custody) was the outcome in only 6.4% of cases. Fathers received sole physical custody in 8.8% of cases, and mothers received sole physical custody in 83.2% of cases.” And a May 2011 look at 144 divorce cases involving minors also in Middlesex had only 7.5% of children end up in shared custody. “Mothers won sole physical custody of the child(ren) in 84% of cases, and fathers won sole physical custody in 8.5% of cases.”

These numbers are culled from a Jan, 2015 report of a working group set up by the previous Governor, Deval Patrick, to study child-centered family law in the state. The report was “described by its facilitator as a “compromise” but later denounced by some of the organizations represented on the committee”, we’re told by the Globe.

A bill proposed by the report, and advanced to the legislature, encourages (but does not mandate) shared parent responsibility of minor children in wake of a divorce. This has engender an array of reactions: from full throated support to entrenched opposition, for example from domestic violence organizations and some bar associations, who “have expressed concern over blanket statutes guaranteeing parents a certain amount of visitation time… Instead, they argue, custody disputes should be handled on a case-by-case basis, always with a child’s best interests in mind.”

Yet the plain language of the proposed bill makes it clear that it preserves undiminished judicial discretion, and holds the best interest of the child as the judicial standard. The bill defines shared parenting as an arrangement whereby the child spends at least one third of time with each parent, but does not mandate, and instead it merely encourages shared parenting. All existing statutory and case law protection against domestic violence are preserved.

We know, also anecdotally, that there is popular support for this measure. In 2005, 20% of Massachusetts was presented with a non-binding ballot question in favor of shared parenting rights – with an 85% yes vote. And the Globe has editorialized on the related topic of parents defaulting on child support – perhaps prompted by the murder of Walter Scott in South Carolina.

Will the shared parenting bill be wheeled forward? Here’s to hoping that it will, and that some balance is restored to the system – for the benefit of children who need both parents around, even after parent separation.


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