Analysis: S.D. among the best in nation for shared parenting
November 13, 2014
South Dakota is one of the best states in the nation for promoting shared parenting for children of divorcing or separated parents, according to an analysis released today, but all states continue to fall short.
South Dakota was one of eight states that received a B-grade from the National Parents Organization, a group that promotes shared parenting laws. Under shared parenting, both parents split custody and 50-50 visitation as opposed to the traditional practice in family law of awarding one parent – typically mothers – with custodial rights.
South Dakota’s grade was boosted by the fact that state lawmakers earlier this year passed a law directing judges to consider shared parenting when making custody decisions. While the law fell short of what supporters want – a presumption that custody decisions should start at shared parenting – supporters say it was a step in the right direction. Shared parenting would not be considered in cases where a parent was accused of abuse, substance abuse or other problems.
The law went into effect July 1.
Casey Wilson, one of the leaders of the South Dakota Shared Parenting group, said judges have all the power. Some are willing to consider shared parenting while others won’t. The judge-by-judge authority in family law cases means that there isn’t consistency in custody proceedings.
Wilson said non-custodial parents continue to have little power, and some are effective shut out of the system and alienated from their children. Custodial parents are often refusing to allow children to visit their non-custodial parent on days awarded to the non-custodial parent.
“The only recourse they have is to get an attorney and spend $3,500 to enforce a court order that’s already in place,” Wilson said. “A lot of those guys can’t afford that.”
Nationally, no state received an A in the National Parents Organization analysis. Nearly half the states received a D, while New York and Rhode Island received Fs, despite efforts by shared parenting advocates to change laws in states across the country.
“It’s been a hard slog, and there’s not a lot to show for those efforts,” said Dr. Ned Holstein, the founder of the National Parents Organization, a group fighting for shared parenting laws.
Holstein said judges across the country still rely on decades-old research rooted in Freudian psychoanalysis about what’s best for children. More recent studies have discredited theories that children should only be with their mothers, he said.
Linda Nielsen, a professor of adolescent and educational psychology at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, agrees. Nielsen has reviewed dozens of studies comparing children who had a custodial parent versus children in shared parenting situations. Children in shared parenting situations had less levels of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, truancy and other negative behaviors than children who lived primarily with a custodial parent.
Nielsen said that judges, lawyers, psychologists, mediators and others who work in family law are often unaware of the research supporting shared parenting.
“We’ve done a very poor job of getting the data to those people,” she said. “That’s the fault of social scientists.”
Despite research showing otherwise, many people believe that mothers are better parents than fathers, Nielsen said.
“It’s almost one of those issues where people don’t want to look at the research because they have those gut feelings,” she said.
But Linda Scher, a family mediator in Portland, Ore., said judges need flexibility to determine custody issues on a case-by-case basis. She notes that within family law, there is an ongoing battle between those promoting parental rights versus children’s needs.
Shared parenting works well in the right situations, she said. But not necessarily for children who are very young, or for those who need consistency.
“You have to look at a menu of factors,” said Scher, who serves as the chair of the Parental Involvement Work Group of the Oregon State Family Law Advisory Committee.
Ultimately, she added, the law in Oregon doesn’t weigh in on whether shared parenting is a good or bad idea.
“The parents are in the best position to make that call,” she said.