ADDENDUM TO THE POSITION PAPER
SHARED PARENTING JOINT PHYSICAL CUSTODY
In response to our position on shared parenting, we have received a large number of letters from individuals expressing various concerns. Given the sensitive, complex nature of this issue, we felt it was appropriate to offer a response that will hopefully provide additional clarification.
To begin, we want to emphasize that it was with a great deal of sympathy and caution that we entered into this important discussion surrounding joint physical custody. Our decision to resist legislative efforts seeking support for shared parenting was not a "spur of the moment” one. The break‑up of a family is usually a complicated and difficult process for everyone involved. When two people decide to end a marriage, it is often painful circumstances that have led them to that conclusion. And this means that many individuals impacted by divorce have faced situations rife with conflict, disappointment, and hurt. We are deeply moved and troubled by these circumstances and their impact on our society, and we sympathize with those walking this path.
In no way do we intend to communicate that the requisite arrangements necessitated by divorce have an obvious or quick solution. Far from it! Divorce creates dilemmas that are often extremely challenging, particularly when children are involved. There are no easy or perfect answers, and no plan or legislative action is going to be able to "fix” the ramifications of a broken family. However, we do feel that there are some options which are potentially more problematic when it comes to protecting the physical, emotional, and spiritual health and well‑being of children in the midst of potentially tumultuous changes.
As our position paper on shared parenting expresses, our concern stems from "two important family qualities critical to healthy child development: the significance of the parents' marriage in the life of the child, and the child's need for routine and stability." The research that we have studied indicates that joint physical custody -‑ especially in a high‑conflict setting ‑- can actually continue and even increase a child's sense of insecurity about the stability of his or her life and family relationships. The Journal of Marriage and the Family reports that "Frequent contact [between divorced parents) also provides opportunities for parents to quarrel. Because conflict is harmful to children, conflict between parents may cancel, even reverse, any benefits associated with frequent visitation." And, as noted in our initial position statement, Dr. Wallerstein concludes in The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25 Year Landmark Study (Hyperion, 2000) that "Joint custody arrangements that involve a child going back and forth at frequent intervals are particularly harmful to children in a high‑conflict family..." In our view, shared parenting fosters an environment that is often detrimental to the child.
With these ideas as our foundation, we'd now like to specifically address some of the common questions we have received in response to our statement.
Does Focus on the Family believe that primary custody of children should be given to mothers?
No. A close look at our position statement will quickly verify that we make no mention of children being better off with mom or dad. Our view of shared physical custody is based upon what we feel is in the best interest of the child. Each situation is unique, and we would be oversimplifying the issue to make a blanket statement about mothers or fathers. In some cases, it may be best for children to live with their mother and in others, it may be more appropriate for them to reside with their father.
Does your view on shared parenting mean that the non‑custodial parent should refrain from being involved in his or her child's life?
Absolutely not! As we said at the beginning of our position paper, "Focus on the Family strongly believes and is established on the ideal that children do best when both mother and father are actively and lovingly involved in the life of their chld." Whenever possible, we encourage both parents to maintain contact and interaction with their children. Mothers and fathers each have an essential role in the healthy development of their girls and boys. Our concern about joint physical custody is not intended to discourage parents from trying to deepen their relationship with their children. When the unity and stability of a marriage crumbles, the security of the individual relationship that the child enjoys with each parent becomes even more important. Parents (no matter their current family situation) have the responsibility to continue pursuing interaction with their children that will contribute to their well‑being.
How, then do you respond to the scenario in which the ex‑spouse who has custody refuses to let his or her spouse see their children?
If that is the case, the parent is facing a tough set of circumstances. We've emphasized that both parents should be involved if possible. So what happens when the non‑custodial mother or father tries everything possible to spend time with their children and they are thwarted at every turn by an angry ex‑spouse? In those instances, taking some form of legal action to secure the right to see their child may be appropriate, particularly if the spouse with custody is illegally blocking visitation rights. We feel, though, that legal intervention should be attempted only after other avenues of maintaining contact have been pursued and careful consideration given to how such proceedings may affect the children involved. And we do not believe that a court forcing a child to split their time between two homes is the answer.
In Dr. Dobson's book, Bringing Up Boys (as well as on numerous other occasions), Dr. Dobson stresses the importance of fathers being present in their children's lives. The court system often favors mothers in custody cases, making it more difficult for fathers to be involved. How do you reconcile the message in Bringinq Up Boys with your view of joint custody?
In our opinion, these ideas are not mutually exclusive, Fathers are important and children do need their active participation. That does not change in the event of a divorce. We recognize that there is an inclination in the court system to award custody to mothers, and situations do exist when such a ruling is unfair. Our intent is not to imply that either a mother or father's role is more important or valuable. Although we can understand many fathers' frustrations over these judicial decisions, we are not trying to take sides in a mother/father custodial debate. Our resistance to shared parenting legislation was developed apart from the current trends in the court system and is primarily based upon our concern for children caught in divorce and our desire to protect them from unnecessary harm.
Even though finding a "perfect" solution is unlikely, discussion of these issues is crucial as the number of individuals facing custody decisions is increasing. With this in mind, our investigation into the research available on joint physical custody has led us to conclude that legislation supportive of shared parenting could place children in emotionally damaging situations and, as such, is often not a beneficial option.
One final thought. From our perspective, it's important to acknowledge that divorce is not the original blueprint intended for human relationships. Therefore, there will unfortunately be resulting circumstances that are "less than best” for every family member. That is why Focus on the Family is deeply committed to channeling much of our energy into preserving and defending traditional marriage whenever possible.