A new survey of Maryland voters reveals overwhelming support for shared parenting following divorce.
Earlier this year, Public Policy Polling conducted a survey of 580 Old Line State voters regarding their attitudes toward shared parenting and Maryland law on child custody. A whopping 79 percent of respondents said they thought fathers and mothers should receive equal treatment by family courts in child custody decisions.
Additionally, 63 percent said they favored changing state law to “create a starting point whereby joint legal and physical custody — commonly referred to as shared parenting — for approximately equal periods of time is viewed as being in the best interests of the child.” Only 15 percent said they opposed such a change.
Not only that, but support for a change in the law crossed all boundaries of gender, race and political persuasion. Substantial majorities of men and women, Republicans and Democrats, whites, African-Americans and other races support reform of child custody laws. By any definition, that’s a landslide victory for shared parenting.
That’s right in line with similar surveys in Canada and the United Kingdom that consistently find 70 to 80 percent of respondents favoring shared parenting.
And why not? The science on children’s welfare tells us that when children maintain full relationships with both parents, they do better emotionally and psychologically than when they lose one parent to the divorce process. In 2014, that science culminated in a consensus paper authored by Professor Richard Warshak and endorsed by 112 experts worldwide. It concluded that, absent parental unfitness or child abuse, shared parenting best promotes children’s well-being.
The confluence of science and the wisdom of everyday people has resulted in wave after wave of shared parenting bills before state legislatures. This year alone, some 20 states considered — and three passed — shared parenting bills.
But despite the science backing shared parenting and its widespread popular support, Maryland law on child custody is among the worst in the nation. In 2014, when National Parents Organization, the country’s largest organization promoting the benefits of shared parenting, graded each state’s custody law, Maryland’s scored a dismal D-. Here’s NPO’s analysis of Maryland’s child custody law:
Maryland has no statutory preference for, or presumption of, shared parenting (joint legal custody and shared physical custody) for temporary or final orders.
Maryland statutes do not explicitly provide for shared parenting during temporary orders.
Maryland statutes do not require courts to consider “friendly parent” factors in awarding custody.
Maryland statute does not contain any policy statement or other language encouraging shared parenting.
That antipathy toward children maintaining real relationships with both parents post-divorce is reflected in actual child custody orders. When the Women’s Law Center of Maryland studied custody orders, it found that mothers received primary physical custody of children in 65 percent of cases, while fathers received it just 13 percent of the time. Joint physical custody was ordered in only 15 percent of cases.
In short, what science and the voters understand to be in children’s best interests is denied by family court judges applying existing Maryland law. For the sake of Maryland’s children, that law must be changed — after all, it’s what voters want.
So why is Maryland law stuck in the Dark Ages? As in other states, the narrowest of interest groups — mostly family lawyers — oppose any reform of child custody law. They do so out of naked self-interest. Shared parenting has been shown to reduce parental conflict during and after divorce. But divorce lawyers thrive on conflict between parents, so in state after state, they oppose shared parenting bills.
And so it was in Maryland when the General Assembly established the Maryland Commission on Child Custody Decision Making in 2013. Commission membership disproportionately represented entrenched family court interests. By more than a 2-to-1 margin, witnesses before the commission favored reforming state law to encourage shared parenting. But when the commission made its report, it categorically opposed reform. The financial interests of lawyers trumped the best interests of children and parents.
Legislators must honor the will of the people whom they represent. Divorce lawyers won’t like it when they do, but they’ll be doing what’s best for kids. n
Robert Franklin is a National Parents Organization board member.