Joint custody should be the rule, not the exception [Commentary]

A little-noticed research revolution confirms that our family courts are damaging the health of our children on a daily basis.

In 2014, three separate and independent groups of experts reviewed decades of child development research. They found that after parents separate or divorce, children do much better with shared parenting — joint custody — on multiple measures of wellbeing than with single parenting. Yet in more than eight out of 10 custody cases today, one parent (usually the mother) is awarded sole guardianship.

The negative impact on our children is dramatic. For instance, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Census Bureau, children raised by single parents account for:

•63 percent of teen suicides,

•70 percent of juveniles in state-operated institutions,

•71 percent of high school dropouts,

•75 percent of children in chemical abuse centers,

•85 percent of those in prison,

•85 percent of children who exhibit behavioral disorders

•And 90 percent of homeless and runaway children.

Last year's formation of Gov. O'Malley's Commission on Child Custody Decision Making is a promising start to tackling the problem. However, much work remains to ensure that more children experience the benefits of shared parenting, which include fewer behavioral and emotional problems, higher self-esteem, better family relations and better school performance than children in sole custody arrangements, according to 2002 Maryland research. Psychologist Robert Bauserman, then of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, conducted a meta-analysis of 33 studies between 1982 to 1999 that examined 1,846 sole-custody and 814 joint-custody children and found that children in joint custody arrangements were as well adjusted as intact family children on the same measures.

As the International Council on Shared Parenting put it in July, "shared parenting is a viable post-divorce parenting arrangement that is optimal to child development and well-being, including for children of high conflict parents." This represented the consensus of nearly 100 experts from over 20 countries. Similar sentiments were recently expressed by the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts ("Children's best interests are furthered by parenting plans that provide for continuing and shared parenting relationships "), and by 110 experts around the world who endorsed a consensus statement published in February the journal of the American Psychological Association ("shared parenting should be the norm").

Shared parenting is also better for parents. The claim is often made that joint custody exposes children to ongoing parental conflict. In fact, the studies in Mr. Bauserman's review found lower levels of conflict with shared parenting, possibly by disposing of the winner-loser feelings that come with a sole custody decision. Shared parenting also gives each parent a break from continuous child care responsibilities.

Towson dad Mark Cyzyk reports that, "12 years out" his teen-aged daughter is thriving. She recently brought home straight A's, has a good group of friends and appears well adjusted. "For as far back as she can remember," Mr. Cyzyk said, "she's had two homes, two extended families, and now with remarriages that's four extended families, all of whom care for her deeply. I couldn't be more proud of her and am lucky to have been awarded shared physical custody years ago. But I should not have had to rely on luck — nor should she."

And neither should the other Maryland children whose parents separate or divorce. The alternative to reform in Maryland is a continuation of the one-size-fits-all tradition of giving sole custody to one parent. This is the outcome in more than 80 percent of cases, so that 35 percent of American children are being raised by only one parent, according to the U.S Census Bureau. In some cases, one parent has walked away from the children. But in most cases, the family courts have created a sole custody arrangement even though both parents are fit and both wish to remain closely involved with their children.

Governor O'Malley's commission holds out hope that family structure after separation or divorce will become part of Maryland's dialogue about children's health, emotional balance, educational difficulties, substance abuse problems, bullying and violence. Family court reforms that return both parents to 35 percent of our children where possible would help them in all these realms at no cost to the taxpayer, while bringing children what they most want: two loving parents actively involved in their lives.

Dr. Ned Holstein is founder and chair of National Parents Organization, which has an affiliate in Maryland. His email is nedholstein@nationalparentsorganization.org.

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