January 11, 2018 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

Last time I commented on a bill before the Nebraska Legislature to gather and disseminate basic information about the custody and parenting time decisions made by family courts in the state. I mentioned that it’s based on a similar law in Washington State that’s been on the books since at least 2008. The Nebraska bill would gather somewhat more information and, most importantly, the data would be reported by judge. That way, Nebraskans could know how each judge in the state is ruling. That’s important because, as we saw in North Dakota, there’s no rhyme or reason to the rulings. In a remarkably homogeneous state, some judges order equal parenting fairly often while others never do.

So I thought it would be a good idea to examine some of the data that Washington collects. Now, despite the fact that the law requiring collection has been on the books for many years, the reporting agency, the Washington State Center for Court Research, has simply not produced any figures for 2011, 2012, 2015 and 2016. The reason for those lapses is anyone’s guess.

Whatever the case, what follows are some of the interesting data from the most recent year for which we have published figures, 2014.

First, the good news. The parenting time arrangement that tends to produce the salutary outcomes of shared parenting, i.e. at least 35% of the time for each parent, occurred in 28% of the cases reported. Compared to other states, that’s a pretty good showing. However…

Mothers receive the majority of the parenting time in about 60% of cases, while fathers do in only about 13%. So, while there’s a fair number of shared parenting cases, there are still far, far too few. And maternal bias on the part of judges still appears to be prevalent.

That’s made clearer by other data. For example, equal parenting orders all but invariably came about because the parents agreed with each other to arrange it that way. That’s the upside of that datum. The downside is that judges almost never ordered equal parenting. So parents agree on that arrangement despite the known proclivities of judges. And of course fathers often agree to less time in all likelihood for that very reason, i.e. that judges seldom grant equal time and almost never give fathers the lion’s share of the parenting time. We’ve seen that often before.

As I mentioned before, the Washington data aren’t broken down by judge, but they are broken down by county. Like North Dakota, the chances of receiving an equal parenting time order depend a great deal on which county the suit is filed in. So, for example, in Benton County, over 28% of cases result in 50/50 parenting time, but in Cowlitz County, only 7% do.

Again, that likely makes no sense. How is it that Benton County fathers are four times more deserving of time with their kids than are Cowlitz County dads? Unless there’s something in the water in Cowlitz County, they’re not. The difference between the two isn’t the parents, it’s the judges.

Finally, Washington keeps track of what it calls “risk factors,” i.e. factors that militate against a parent having custody or parenting time. In Washington, those are child abuse or neglect, chemical dependency, domestic violence, mental health problems and other risk factors. To be reported, a risk factor had to have been found by a court to exist or have occurred.

Only 13.7% of cases had any risk factor at all. About 4.3% had a finding of child abuse or neglect, 7.4% had chemical dependency, 5.1% had domestic violence, 1.8% had mental health problems and 4.5% had some other risk factor. Obviously, some cases had more than one risk factor.

In short, the fevered claims by many who oppose shared parenting have little-to-no basis in fact. I refer of course to domestic violence organizations that invariably claim that bills to equalize parenting would only give custody to abusers who, in their minds, are invariably fathers. The fact that, much like we saw in the study done four years ago of Nebraska courts, there’s little DV claimed or found in divorce matters gives the lie to the DV industry narrative. Courts are fully equipped to deny or limit custody to abusive parents of either sex, and of course that’s just what Washington courts do.

As in past years, when one parent had risk factors and the other did not, the vast majority of residential schedules involved children spending most or all of their residential time with the parent with no risk factors. For example, mothers with no risk factors obtained full custody 39.7% of the time when the father had one risk factor, 59.6% of the time when the father had two risk factors, and 73.1% of the time when the father had three risk factors; fathers with no risk factors obtained full custody 36.0%, 51.9%, and 50.0% of the time when the mother had one, two, or three risk factors, respectively (see Exhibit 5).

The type of risk factor had differing impacts on whether a parent received any residential time with a child and that impact also varied by the gender of the parent (see Exhibit 6). For example, abuse or neglect of a child was associated with a ruling of zero residential time for 73.5% of fathers and 54.1% of mothers with that risk factor. Gender-related differences in the likelihood of receiving zero residential time also occurred with mental health, domestic violence, chemical dependency, and “other” risk factors.

Note that, even when considering risk factors, mothers were favored over fathers. But the fact is that courts examine risk factors and reduce parenting time accordingly.

Knowledge is a good thing; we should have more of it. That’s what Senator Laura Ebke’s bill in Nebraska would provide. It would pull back the curtain from the murky doings in family courts. We can’t improve matters for kids if we don’t know what the status quo is.

 

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National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Along with Shared Parenting we advocate for fair Child Support and Alimony Legislation. Want to get involved?  Here’s how:

Together, we can drive home the family, child development, social and national benefits of shared parenting, and fair child support and alimony. Thank you for your activism.

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