By Ned Holstein, M.D.
Twenty-one years ago this month, President Ronald Reagan proclaimed August as National Child Support Enforcement Month, but in doing so, he focused attention on a symptom of the greater problem. The real concern at play is a family court system that discourages shared parenting and gender equality in instances of divorce or separation.
As an increasing amount of research on parental roles has emerged in recent years, it has become clear in hindsight that family courts should focus instead on what most benefits children, and that's equal time with both their parents – even in instances of divorce or separation. By doing so, they would resolve not only delinquencies associated with the term "child support" in the financial sense, but also resolve problems tied to gender inequality and, most importantly, the court's continued practice of depriving children from the countless benefits associated with constant love and care from both parents.
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Still, our family courts rely on precedent set in the 1950s and look past research demonstrating that shared parenting benefits the entire modern family. In the latest example, for instance, the American Psychological Association published a University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center paper by Richard Warshak earlier this year, titled "Social Science and Parenting Plans for Young Children: A Consensus Report," that concluded "a broad consensus of accomplished researchers and practitioners agree that, in normal circumstances, the evidence supports shared residential arrangements for children under 4 years of age whose parents live apart from each other." The paper was endorsed by an international group of 110 top experts in early child development.
As it relates specifically to Reagan's concern regarding financial child support, by protecting a child's right to equal time with both parents, shared parenting also encourages parents to uphold their equal financial commitments to their children. Consider two key statistics:
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- Fathers who have little or no contact with their children following a divorce pay about one-third of their child support, while fathers who regularly spend time with their children pay at least 85 percent of their child support, according to "Child-Custody Adjudication: Judicial Functions in the Face of Indeterminacy" by Harvard Law School professor Robert H. Mnookin.
- About 30 percent of parents with sole custody report a one-year absence of child support payments, yet when shared parenting exists, a year without payments is non-existent, according to "Supporting children after divorce: The influence of custody on support levels and payments" by Center for Policy Research's Jessica Pearson and Nancy Thoennes.
The benefits of shared parenting cure more than the single symptom relating to child support. Shared parenting also brings equality in our family courts – a place that may serve as one of our society's last gender inequality hideouts. By continuing its behavior of ordering custody to one parent and visitation to the other, our family courts foster gender role expectations where mom raises the children and dad serves as breadwinner. Our daughters and sons deserve to learn from a society that sets a better example and reinforces the fact that parents have equal potential to succeed in both the workplace and the family. These roles are simply not representative of our society's values, and this continued precedent by our courts should not be tolerated.
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What's more, gender inequality and delinquent child support payments are still not the worst of the damage caused by our broken family court system. Our children pay the greatest price. As a growing number of U.S. children of divorced parents live with their mothers, the Centers for Disease Control, the Department of Justice and the Bureau of the Census report that these same children account for a majority of teen suicides, high school dropouts, children with substance abuse problems, youths in prison, teen pregnancies, and homeless and runaway children.
Clearly, if shared parenting and parental equality were the norm in our nation's family courts, we'd easily resolve Reagan's concern with child support while also tackling the root problem by embracing family structures that allow children to lead happy, healthy lives.
While advocates and many lawmakers remain committed to passing law reform that would make shared parenting and parental equality more commonplace in our family courts, unfortunately, by and large, our nation's state laws prevent separated and divorced parents from truly sharing the responsibilities of raising their children. Our family court judges should also take note of the impact on children when they choose to take issue with delinquencies in child support while also depriving children of spending equal time with both parents.
Ned Holstein, M.D., is founder and chairman of the board of the National Parents Organization. In addition, Dr. Holstein was appointed by the governor of Massachusetts to the Massachusetts Working Group on Child Friendly Family Law, and he was appointed by a Massachusetts chief justice to a task force charged with reviewing and revising the state's child support guidelines. A graduate of Harvard College, Holstein also earned a Master's degree in psychology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His medical degree is from Mount Sinai School of Medicine, where he later served on the faculty as a teacher and researcher.