Thursday, April 27, 2006

Dobson and shared parenting

James Dobson's Focus On The Family has a position paper against shared parenting. It is very strange because it is undated, unsigned, not on the web site, and contrary to what one would expect from a pro-family conservative organization. I ran across a recent letter affirming that the paper is indeed current policy, and an addendum that responds to some criticisms of it. I previously criticized the position paper.

The Addendum and letter continue to exhibit four logical flaws as they argue against shared custody laws. Here they are, as I see them:

1. Wallerstein's research shows that divorce is more harmful that most people think, and she opposes shared custody laws.

If divorce is more harmful than people expect, as Wallerstein says, then a shared custody law might be harmful if it increases the divorce rate. However nobody believes that such a law would increase the divorce rate, and it is very unlikely to be true. Most divorce is initiated by women who intend to take the kids with them. If they knew that they would have to share the kids equally, then they'd be less likely to file for divorce. So this Wallerstein research actually tends to favor shared custody laws.

Wallerstein's research has been widely discredited as unscientific, and some of it is contrary to the findings of others. I wouldn't rely on her opinion for anything.

2. Shared custody requires the kids to move back and forth frequently, and frequent switching is harmful in a high-conflict family.

The common child custody alternatives are:
(A) Mom has sole custody;
(B) Mom has primary custody, and dad gets 2 weekends a month visitation, and maybe some Wednesday dinners;
(C) Mom and dad split joint custody.

Nobody advocates sole custody if there are two fit parents available. If custody is contested in court, the court will usually choose between options (B) and (C). It turns out that these options have about the same amount of switching. Some parents with shared custody switch on school days and don't even have to see each other. So whatever one thinks about frequent switching, it does not help distinguish between the common court alternatives.

3. Shared custody requires parental cooperation, and should never be ordered by the court. If the parents could cooperate, they might still be married.

The problem with this reasoning is that it gives the custodial parent (usually the mom) some very strong incentives to be uncooperative. It gives her veto power over shared custody.
Any mom who is not a criminal or a drug addict is not likely to lose primary custody to the dad. If the law says that shared custody will not be ordered, then she can create conflict and get primary custody. Such a law just exacerbates conflict and courtroom custody fights.

The reasoning is backwards. It is like saying that a bank can make car loans, but cannot use the courts or repossession to enforce payment, because car loans require cooperation. If cooperation is the goal, then the law should have incentives to cooperate, not incentives to fight.

4. A custody fight is hard on the kids, and court orders should only be used as a last resort.

The Addendum says:
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.
Yes, custody fights are harmful. Disagreeing parents will take their cases to court, and the court will have to order something. The way to reduce the chance of a custody fight in court is to increase the predictability of the outcome. A statutory presumption of shared custody does exactly that. So would presumptions of mother custody or father custody, but no one is advocating either of those possibilities. Giving family courts maximum discretion for making custody orders is a recipe for promoting court fights, not for making amicable agreements.

None of these Focus On The Family arguments really address what is better for the kids, parents, or society. They just make meaningless conclusory statements like, "legislation supportive of shared parenting could place children in emotionally damaging situations and, as such, is often not a beneficial option."

Sure, any policy has the possibility of not being beneficial in some cases. The existing laws are certainly not beneficial in a great many cases. I suspect that Dr. Dobson does not have the position paper on his web site because he knows that the arguments are embarrassingly lame, and because he has some other political or ideological reason for being against divorced fathers.

If these are the strongest arguments against shared parenting laws, then I predict that we will see more and more states considering a statutory presumption of shared custody. The evidence is overwhelming that it is best for the kids, more equitable for the parents, reduces conflict and litigation, and is even better according to the criteria used by its critics.

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