The Louisiana House of Representatives will soon consider a misguided family law bill which will make it more difficult for children of divorce to preserve the loving bonds they share with both parents. Whereas most states are moving towards shared parenting, House Bill 315 takes Louisiana in the opposite direction, to the detriment of some of the state’s most vulnerable children.
Current Louisiana law states "To the extent it is feasible and in the best interest of the child, physical custody of the children should be shared equally." This is reasonable—it presumes that as long as both parents are fit and there are no extenuating circumstances, they should both share in parenting their children. HB 315 weakens the law’s wise preference for two parents instead of one. Under the bill all that children receive is a vaguely defined "as frequent and continuing contact as is feasible with each parent." However, research establishes that shared custody is what’s best for kids.
According to psychologist Robert Bauserman’s meta-analysis of 33 studies of children of divorce, which was published in the American Psychological Association‘s Journal of Family Psychology, children in shared custody settings had fewer behavior and emotional problems, higher self-esteem, better family relations, and better school performance than children in sole custody arrangements.
A Harvard University study of 517 families conducted across a four-and-a-half year period measured depression, deviance, school effort, and school grades in children ranging in age from 10 to 18. The researchers found that the children in shared custody settings fared better in these areas than those in sole custody.
A study by psychologist Joan Kelly published in the Family and Conciliation Courts Review found that children of divorce "express higher levels of satisfaction with joint physical custody than with sole custody arrangements," and cite the "benefit of remaining close to both parents" as an important factor.
When Arizona State University psychology professor William Fabricius conducted a study of college students who had experienced their parents’ divorces while they were children, he found that over two-thirds believed that "living equal amounts of time with each parent is the best arrangement for children."
Unfortunately, rather than putting the need to preserve children’s relationships with both parents at the center of the discussion, advocates of HB 315 are instead focusing on child support. In Louisiana, like most states, how much time each parent spends with his or her children helps determine how much child support is ordered. Rep. Shirley Bowler (R-River Ridge), who authored the bill, asserts that dads seek shared custody as a way to decrease their child support obligations. She promotes HB 315 as a way to "remove this angle" in the current law, which she claims divorced dads are exploiting.
While it is true that there are fathers who put their pocketbooks above their children’s best interests, Bowler and the bill’s supporters ignore the obvious converse. If a dad may seek 50% physical time with his children simply to lower his child support obligation, doesn’t it also hold that a mother may seek 85% physical time in order to increase it?
Similarly, critics charge that the child support provisions of current law amount to paying men to spend time with their children. In reality, the provisions simply acknowledge that both moms and dads have child-related expenses.
HB 315 also provides that a court may require a six-month trial period before ordering shared custody. While this may sound reasonable, it opens the door for mischief. When there is discord between divorced parents and joint custody appears unworkable, sole custody is the alternative. One of the grave problems in our family court system is that this dynamic gives the parent positioned to gain sole custody—usually the mother—an incentive to create conflict.
Shared parenting is advocated by a growing consensus of mental health and family law professionals, and current Louisiana law has led to an increase in shared custody awards. This greatly benefits the state’s children, who preserve their bonds with the two people who love them the most. HB 315 would reverse this progress by reinstating an atavistic, win/lose system which often reduces loving parents to being mere occasional visitors in their children’s lives.
- Alexandria Town Talk5/11/06
- Shreveport Times5/20/06