Progress in Change: Bills/Laws to Promote Shared Custody of Children After Divorce/Separation

According to a report in The Washington Post more than 20 states in 2017 considered bills that would encourage shared parenting or make it a legal presumption, even if parents disagree. But change does not occur quickly and there is still much work to do. Dads’ Resource Center Executive Director Joel Steiner says that in Pennsylvania, organizations such as The Strong Families Commission and the Symposium Organizing Commission are leading efforts to remove barriers that impede greater father involvement with their children.

Historically, the American culture has viewed mothers as the natural caregivers, reinforced in courts which were guided by the tender years doctrine, frequently used during the 20th century. This legal principle in family law presumed that during a child’s “tender” years (generally regarded as the age of four and under), the mother should have custody of the child. Unfortunately, once custody is set, it is difficult to alter.

Tender years principles began to be gradually replaced toward the end of the century with state legislation recognizing the “best interests of the child” doctrine of custody. However, the stigma of mother is best remains prevalent and judges continue to use their discretion to award primary physical custody overwhelmingly to mothers while fathers remain alienated from their children.

More women joined the workforce during the 1960s and 1970s, and no-fault divorce laws ushered in a wave of divorces, drastically changing the traditional family structure. Even more change is occurring today as there is growth in the numbers of stay-at-home fathers, single fathers, and the evolution of freelancers and remote employees working from home, many of which are male, keep dads at home.

Fathers’ rights groups and other advocates have worked to bring change in legislation and to make any existing laws stronger. A presumption of shared parenting would replace the “winner takes all” approach currently embedded in the law and begin to communicate that despite separation or divorce, both parties remain parents, and both fathers and mothers matter to children and their happiness and well-being.

Increasing numbers of couples have been agreeing to parent after divorce as co-parents. Finally, lawmakers are acknowledging this trend toward co-parenting.

Here are some of the changes happening:

  • Kentucky passed a law to make joint physical custody and equal parenting time standard for temporary orders while a divorce is being finalized.
  • Florida’s legislature overwhelmingly approved a bill last year to presume equal time for child custody plans (unfortunately it was vetoed by the governor).
  • Michigan lawmakers are considering a bill that would make equal parenting time the starting point for custody decisions.
  • Statutes in the District of Columbia include a presumption that joint custody is in the best interest of a child, except in cases of abuse or neglect.
  • Maryland advocates promoted bills that would create a presumption of joint legal decision-making and equal parenting time.
  • Virginia law makers have introduced a bill requiring judges to communicate in writing the rationale for their custody decisions.

The legal push for custody arrangements follows years of lobbying by fathers’ rights advocates who say men feel alienated from their children. But for many fathers, a gradual approach to change when they separated from their children now is frustrating at best. A growing number of stay-at-home dads and younger dads are also pushing for family court changes because they are committed to caregiving and want to redefine gender roles.

In Pennsylvania, organizations such as The Strong Families Commission, the Symposium Organizing Committee and DRC are leading efforts to eliminate barriers that impede greater father involvement and their contributions to the well-being of children and families.

Support for Single/Divorced Pennsylvania Dads

Council for Relationships

PA Families’ and Children’s Equality (FACE)

Project D.A.D.’s (Developing Active Dads)

Focus on Fathers (FOF)

The Strong Families Commission

Dad’s Resource Center