The future of fatherhood: North Dakota’s equal parenting initiative

North Dakota’s November 4, 2014, ballot includes an equal parenting initiative statute for fathers’ rights in custody cases. Interestingly, all 25 members of the sponsoring committee for the petition are women. The statute, if approved, will add the following to North Dakota law:

  • The North Dakota state policy will be that “no requesting biological or adoptive parent shall be denied equal parental rights and responsibilities, parenting time, primary residential responsibility and decision-making responsibility of a child in a custody case”;
  • A legal presumption that each parent in a child custody case is fit to parent, unless “clear and convincing evidence” demonstrates otherwise;
  • A legal presumption that as both parents are presumed fit, an award of equal parental rights and responsibilities, parenting time, primary residential responsibility, and decision-making responsibility of a child is in the best interest of the child;
  • The requirement that the presumption of fitness may only be rebutted by clear and convincing evidence;
  • The requirement that the court shall support departures from equal parenting time with written findings of fact and conclusions of law.

The wording of the statute requires the court to consider many other factors affecting the best interests of the child. This provides the court with a guideline that can affect a judge’s decision regarding what type of arrangement will most benefit the child, including factors such as each parent’s ability to provide for the child’s needs, each parent’s relationship with the child, the living environment with which each parent will provide the child, and any impact a change of living arrangement may have on the child.

According to The Washington Post, opponents of the statute claim it would force an equal parenting arrangement on children of parents who live in different cities or even different states. However, according to the text of the bill, judges hearing custody cases must consider “the home, school, and community records of the child and the potential effect of any change” to be factors impacting the best interest of the child.

Arguments listed on Ballotpedia in opposition to the statue are basically claims that the measure is about parents’ wishes rather than the best interest of the children. This argument rests on the presumption that separating a child from one parent at the behest of the other is so harmless that it can be considered secondary to the presumed benefit of simplifying the custodial parent’s life, and therefore the child’s life.

The reality is that cutting fathers out of their children’s lives can have significant negative impact on the child. Data from the 2010 census indicates that custodial single mothers are more likely than custodial single fathers to fail to earn enough of a living to provide for their children, relying instead on a combination of welfare and child support.

A study by Mary Corcoran and Roger Gordon of the University of Michigan shows that receipt of welfare income has negative effects on the long-term employment and earnings capacity of young boys. That study also found that both boys and girls were twice as likely to become unwed teen parents if raised in a fatherless home.

Research by Sara McLanahan at Princeton University suggests that boys are significantly more likely to end up in jail or prison by the time they turn 30 if they are raised by a single mother.

Bruce Ellis of the University of Arizona found that about one-third of girls whose fathers left the home before they turned six ended up pregnant as teenagers, compared with just 5% of girls whose fathers were there throughout their childhood.

This indicates that, barring factors such as abuse or neglect that would change the impact of the relationship, a child’s relationship with his or her father is as vital to his or her welfare and well-being as the relationship with his or her mother. In other words, maintaining consistent contact and close relationships with both parents is in the best interest of the child.

  • Existing information on the behavior of custodial mothers following divorce cases does not indicate that they’re giving children that opportunity but instead are denying them time with their fathers.
  • 40% of mothers reported that they had interfered with the non-custodial father’s visitation on at least one occasion, to punish their ex-spouse.
  • Between 25% and 33% of mothers denied visits.
  • 90% of the violence and kidnapping we have seen are in sole custody situations in which the sole custodial parent fears losing his or her custody status, or the parentectomized parent kidnaps the child away from the sole custody parent, who possessively blocks the visiting parent from access.

    —”Frequency of Visitation by Divorced Fathers: Differences in Reports by Fathers and Mothers,” Sanford H. Braver, Ph.D., Sharlene A. Wolchik, Ph.D., Irwin M. Sandler, Ph.D., Bruce S. Fogas, Ph.D., and Daria Zvetina, M.Ed.

  • Unilateral abuse of parental custodial power is more common in court-ordered sole custody situations.

    —”Child Custody and Parental Cooperation,” Frank Williams, M.D., Dir. Psychiatry

  • Overall, approximately 50% of mothers see no value in the father’s continued contact with his children.

    Surviving the Breakup, Joan B. Kelly and Judith S. Wallerstein

  •  The former spouse [mother] was the greatest obstacle to having more frequent contact with the children.

    —”Increasing Our Understanding of Fathers Who Have Infrequent Contact With Their Children,” James R. Dudley, Professor, University North Carolina

  • 70% of fathers felt they had too little time with their children.
  • Very few of the children were satisfied with the amount of contact with their fathers after divorce.
  • Few men can afford to legally contest every infringement of the visitation agreement.

    —”Visitation and the Noncustodial Father,” Mary Ann P. Koch and Carol R. Lowery (Journal of Divorce, Vol. 8, No. 2, Winter 1984)

This means that not only does the current mode of handling custody deny the child sufficient time with the non-custodial parent, at least in cases of custodial mothers it also puts the child at risk for being denied most or all paternal contact, a behavior that, as some of the above information has shown, is not in the best interest of the child.

It is clear that the best way to protect children from becoming pawns or accessories in their parents’ post-divorce emotional conflicts is to ensure that neither parent has the state-enforced power to arbitrarily interfere with the other’s interaction with the child. A law that mandates the equal presumption that each is a fit parent, and the court’s reasonable enforcement of equal parenting rights, is exactly what is needed.

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