Massachusetts is considering a bill that would assume equal parenting time for divorcing couples with kids. My fellow Strollerderby blogger Carolyn weighed in against this yesterday, with a smart, heartfelt post about the problems equal parenting would cause for families like hers.
But I think she’s missing some of the pieces of this puzzle. I live in Massachusetts, and I’ve seen several families go through long, messy divorces that would have been made simpler by a presumption of shared physical custody.
That’s what this bill is asking: that the courts assume a 50/50 custody split for the parents, and alter that only in the face of compelling arguments to the contrary. Carolyn’s case would be obviously one in need of alteration: she and her ex live several hours away from each other.
As the system stands, dads who live within walking distance of their ex-wives sometimes have to fight for years to get any stable visitation schedule at all. The family courts here move incredibly slowly, and there’s no baseline at all for what kind of physical custody arrangements should be made for children.
We do have a presumption of shared legal custody, meaning both parents must agree to major life decisions for the kids: medical care, schooling, religion, relocation, things of that nature. But without a presumption of joint physical custody, it’s easy for a bitter spouse to essentially hold children hostage, disrupting their relationships with the other parent out of spite.
Most of the divorced families I know do have roughly equal custody between the parents, but for a few of them it was a long, hard, messy fight. For others, the lack of a roadmap simply meant they had to spend more hours than they would have liked painfully deciding with their ex how to tear their family apart.
Simply put: the lack of guidance on this issue does no one any good.
I find I’m uncomfortably opposed to groups I like and respect on this issue. Women’s rights and children’s rights group unanimously oppose this bill, saying that the current system isn’t broken and a change would open kids up to more acrimony and prolonged custody battles.
I just don’t see it. As it stands, if parents don’t immediately agree about custody, they both have to file for full physical custody of the kids and fight it out in court. That’s a process that takes years. In most cases, it ends up as close to joint custody as the court can make it given the logistics of the parents’ living situations. Why not start there?
Photo: Drew and Merissa