by Gloria Woods,
President, Michigan NOW
"Shared Parental Responsibility." In our work as women's advocates, how often have we heard custodial moms wish that their children's father would share the parental responsibility? Unfortunately, "shared parental responsibility" is the new doublespeak for joint physical custody by so-called "father's rights" groups.
For example, in Michigan proposed legislation supported by these groups would impose joint custody on parents who are in conflict over custody. Most studies report that joint custody works best when both parents want it and agree to work together.
The Michigan legislation states that in a custody dispute the judge must presume that joint custody is in the "best interests of the child" and "should be ordered." To make any other decision, a judge must make findings why joint custody is not in the children's "best interest." This is a high legal standard that makes it very difficult for judges to award any other custody arrangement. It is also a departure from the generally accepted standards determining what's in the best interest of the child.
Michigan NOW opposes forced joint custody for many reasons: it is unworkable for uncooperative parents; it is dangerous for women and their children who are trying to leave or have left violent husbands/fathers; it ignores the diverse, complicated needs of divorced families; and it is likely to have serious, unintended consequences on child support.
Forced joint custody is also a top legislative priority of fringe fathers' rights groups nationwide. These groups argue that courts are biased and sole custody awards to mothers deny fathers their right to parent. They allege that, in most cases, mothers are awarded sole custody, with fathers granted visitation rights. The men cite this as proof of bias against fathers.
The truth is that in 90 percent of custody decisions it is mutually agreed that the mother would be sole custodian. According to several studies, when there is a custody dispute, fathers win custody in the majority of disputed cases.
The legislature's determination to impose joint custody on parents in conflict is a frightening proposition for many women and places them and their children in harm's way.
There is documented proof that forced joint custody hurts children. "In the majority of cases in which there's no desire to cooperate, joint custody creates a battleground on which to carry on the fight," one researcher reported in the legal magazine, The Los Angeles Daily Journal (December 1988).
In "Ongoing Postdivorce Conflict: Effects on Children of Joint Custody and Frequent Access," Janet Johnson and her colleagues compared children in court-ordered joint custody with children in sole-custody homes. In both situations, the parents were in "entrenched conflict." This study showed that under these circumstances frequent shuttling between both parents in joint custody "is linked to more troubled emotional problems" in children than the sole-custody arrangement.
Imposed joint custody is particularly dangerous to battered women and their children. As the director of the Michigan Domestic Violence and Treatment Board said in her testimony opposing this bill, "...the exchange of children during visitation can be the most dangerous time for the [domestic violence survivor] and her children."
"My experience with presumptive joint custody as a domestic relations lawyer in Louisiana was almost uniformly negative," said NOW Executive Vice President Kim Gandy. "It creates an unparalleled opportunity for belligerent former spouses to carry on their personal agendas or vendettas through the children -- and with the blessing of the courts.
"Attorneys often referred to it jokingly as the `lawyer protection act' because repeated trips to court over minor issues kept the fees rolling in, and the mothers were more likely to suffer," Gandy said.
Joining Michigan NOW in opposing this legislation are: antiviolence/ women's shelter groups, the bar association, child psychologists, social workers, family law experts, judges, lawyers, and even the Family Forum (a right-wing, "traditional family values" group).
You can check out the supporters of this bill and become familiar with the groups' real agenda by logging on to the Internet using any search engine such as Yahoo to search for "fathers' rights," or connect to: http://www.speakeasy.org/fathersrights/ or http://web2.airmail.net/fathers4 to learn more about their activities.
Further information on forced joint custody, including a list of studies and reports on its dangers, is available from the NOW Foundation at 202-331-0066.
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