Advocates push for shared parenting in divorce cases
March 26, 2015
By Christian M. Wade, Statehouse Reporter
BOSTON — It’s been more than two decades since Daniel Sabbatelli was locked in a contentious divorce that ended with him getting limited access to his three daughters. The emotional toll hasn’t diminished.
“The courts don’t treat both parents equal,” he said. “It’s winner-take-all.”
Sabbatelli, a Woburn electrical contractor, is one of dozens of advocates now arguing that parents should be entitled to equal custody of their children.
Groups like the Boston-based National Parents Organization, to which Sabbatelli belongs, have thrown support behind legislation that requires family court judges to consider “joint custody” in most divorce cases, unless a parent is deemed unfit, along with a raft of other proposed changes to custody laws.
The legislation is backed by more than 40 state lawmakers including Reps. Ted Speliotis, D-Danvers; Ann-Margaret Ferrante, D-Gloucester; Diane DiZoglio, D-Methuen; and Brad Hill, R-Ipswich.
But the changes have plenty of critics including divorce lawyers and domestic violence advocates, who say custody laws should be flexible, not one-size-fits all, in order to put the children first.
“Every case is different,” said Fern Frolin, a divorce attorney with the firm Mirick, O’Connell, DeMallie and Lougee. “And this isn’t a battlefield between moms and dads. It’s about what’s in the best interests of the children.”
With women comprising an estimated 80 percent of custodial parents, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, the debate over reforming child custody laws is often framed as a battle of the sexes.
Ned Holstein, founder of National Parents Organization, said courts traditionally grant custody to mothers, requiring little of fathers other than alimony and weekend visits.
But gender roles have shifted since most custody laws were put on the books in the 1950s, he said, with more men now acting as caretakers.
He said the law should reflect equality between parents heading into court to work out custodial arrangements — not a system where one gets custody instead of the other.
“The system encourages bitter custody battles,” Holstein said. “Whoever wins the battle gets sole custody of the kids, a boatload of child support and alimony payments. And that’s the worst possible thing for the kids.”
He said studies have shown that shared parenting reduces conflict and domestic violence and allows both parents to “pursue their careers and social lives without the burden of single-handedly raising a child.”
“That breakdown of gender roles has been very slow to come to family probate courts,” he said.