North Dakota Shared Parenting Initiative Will Help Children of Divorce

By Michael McCormick and Glenn Sacks

A misguided collection of federal and state officials, divorce attorneys and women’s advocates have all united to oppose a simple proposition: children need both parents.

The North Dakota Shared Parenting Initiative is based on the belief that all parents have a fundamental liberty interest in the care and custody of their children, and that no fit parent can lawfully be denied custody of his or her children. Under the Initiative, when family law courts adjudicate a divorce, unless there is clear and convincing evidence that a mother or father is unfit, all parents will have joint legal and physical custody of their children.

That more needs to be done to protect children’s relationships with their parents after divorce cannot be reasonably denied. In a study published in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 40% of divorced mothers admitted that they had interfered with their ex-husband’s access or visitation, and that their motives were punitive in nature and not due to safety considerations. A study of adult children of divorce conducted by Glynnis Walker, author of Solomon’s Children: Exploding the Myths of Divorce,found that 42% of children who lived solely with their mothers reported that their mothers had tried to prevent them from seeing their fathers after the divorce.

Even feminist firebrand Martha Burk admits that our family law system "looks the other way when the father is denied time with the kids or the mother moves them far away, effectively ending contact." And in the small minority of cases where fathers win sole custody over fit mothers, moms often find similar barriers placed between them and their children.

Under current North Dakota law, joint custody is rare unless both parents agree to it, and mothers seeking sole custody usually get it. The North Dakota Concerned Citizens for Children’s Rights Committee, which was formed specifically to fight the NDSPI, claims the status quo is what’s best for kids. Yet according to a meta-analysis of 33 studies of children of divorce published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Family Psychology, children in shared custody settings have fewer behavior and emotional problems, higher self-esteem, better family relations, and better school performance than children in sole custody arrangements.

The CCCRC claims that the Initiative places the interests of parents over the interests of children. Yet when psychologist Joan Kelly examined children of divorce, she found that they "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. An Arizona State University study queried adult children of divorce, and found that more than two-thirds believed "living equal amounts of time with each parent is the best arrangement for children."

Government officials have publicly asserted that the NDSPI will cause the state to lose federal reimbursement funds for child support enforcement. However, former Federal Reserve Bank economist R. Mark Rogers, an influential policy analyst on child support, asserts that these claims are groundless.

Former lieutenant governor Lloyd Omdahl opposes the NDSPI and Shared Parenting because, he claims, "children fare better under the care of a mother than a father." Yet according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ new report Child Maltreatment 2004, when one parent is acting without the involvement of the other parent, mothers are almost three times as likely to kill their children as fathers are, and are more than twice as likely to maltreat them.

Omdahl also claims that "in the majority of divorces, it’s the men who want to get out of the marriage." Yet a study by economists Margaret Brinig and Douglas Allen found that most divorce petitions are filed by women, and that they do so in part because they know they can expect to obtain sole custody of their children. In only 6% of cases women claimed to be divorcing cruel or abusive husbands.

Under the NDSPI, courts will instruct divorcing parents to develop a joint parenting plan. If the parents cannot agree on a plan, the court will facilitate one which will protect and nurture the loving bonds children share with both parents. Does a child deserve anything less?

  • Grand Forks Herald