"It is the policy of this state that the courts shall award joint legal and physical custody in divorces and separations, when requested by either parent, if neither parent is found unfit or a danger to the children by clear and convincing evidence. The definition of joint physical custody (equal physical custody) shall be a rebuttable presumption of equal time with the children; or any written time-sharing agreement agreed upon by the parents."--The North Dakota Shared Parenting Initiative, 2007 version The American Coalition for Fathers and Children's North Dakota affiliate has brought back the North Dakota Shared Parenting Initiative. The highly controversial Initiative qualified for the November 2006 ballot but was defeated 57-43. The NDSPI has been refined and a major flaw has been removed, and it is getting good press coverage in North Dakota. The NDSPI's goal is to have the Initiative on the November 2008 ballot. There was a substantial backlash against the Initiative last year. In my co-authored column North Dakota Shared Parenting Initiative Will Help Children of Divorce (Grand Forks Herald, 7/18/06), ACFC Executive Director Mike McCormick and I explained: "A misguided collection of federal and state officials, divorce attorneys and women's advocates have all united to oppose a simple proposition: children need both parents. "The North Dakota Shared Parenting Initiative is based on the belief that all parents have a fundamental liberty interest in the care and custody of their children, and that no fit parent can lawfully be denied custody of his or her children. Under the Initiative, when family law courts adjudicate a divorce, unless there is clear and convincing evidence that a mother or father is unfit, all parents will have joint legal and physical custody of their children... "Under current North Dakota law, joint custody is rare unless both parents agree to it, and mothers seeking sole custody usually get it. The North Dakota Concerned Citizens for Children's Rights Committee, which was formed specifically to fight the NDSPI, claims the status quo is what's best for kids. Yet according to a meta-analysis of 33 studies of children of divorce published in the American Psychological Association's Journal of Family Psychology, children in shared custody settings have fewer behavior and emotional problems, higher self-esteem, better family relations, and better school performance than children in sole custody arrangements. "The CCCRC claims that the Initiative places the interests of parents over the interests of children. Yet when psychologist Joan Kelly examined children of divorce, she found that they "express higher levels of satisfaction with joint physical custody than with sole custody arrangements," and cite the "benefit of remaining close to both parents" as an important factor. An Arizona State University study queried adult children of divorce, and found that more than two-thirds believed "living equal amounts of time with each parent is the best arrangement for children." "Government officials have publicly asserted that the NDSPI will cause the state to lose federal reimbursement funds for child support enforcement. However, former Federal Reserve Bank economist R. Mark Rogers, an influential policy analyst on child support, asserts that these claims are groundless. "Former lieutenant governor Lloyd Omdahl opposes the NDSPI and Shared Parenting because, he claims, 'children fare better under the care of a mother than a father.' Yet according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' new report Child Maltreatment 2004, when one parent is acting without the involvement of the other parent, mothers are almost three times as likely to kill their children as fathers are, and are more than twice as likely to maltreat them. "Omdahl also claims that 'in the majority of divorces, it's the men who want to get out of the marriage.' Yet a study by economists Margaret Brinig and Douglas Allen found that most divorce petitions are filed by women, and that they do so in part because they know they can expect to obtain sole custody of their children. In only 6% of cases women claimed to be divorcing cruel or abusive husbands. "Under the NDSPI, courts will instruct divorcing parents to develop a joint parenting plan. If the parents cannot agree on a plan, the court will facilitate one which will protect and nurture the loving bonds children share with both parents. Does a child deserve anything less?" The recent Associated Press article about the Initiative is Another go at joint custody initiative (8/7/07). To donate to support the Initiative, click here. To contact the NDSPI, write to email@example.com or call 701-331-0410.
Glenn Sacks, MA for Fathers & Families