Fabricius: Courts’ ‘practice of equal parenting lags consensus about its value’

The good news in Dr. William Fabricius’ paper entitled “The Bad News about Divorce and Children Is Worse than We Thought, but the Good News Is Better than We Thought” is that the public supports equal parenting. 

If you read my previous post on the paper, delivered to the Canadian Senate’s Roundtable on Family Dynamics, you’ll recall that the bad news is the epidemic of fatherlessness and the serious problems fatherless children are prone to having.  Fabricius reprised some of the social science on the physical and mental health deficits children without fathers or with poor paternal relationships exhibit.

So the good news is that the general public doesn’t want it to be that way.

There is now a strong consensus among the general public that equal parenting time is best for the child. Large majorities favor it in all the locales and among all the demographic
groups in the United States and Canada in which this question has been asked, and across several variations in question format.

For example, in a nationwide poll done at the insistence of the Canadian Parliament, 78% of those asked said they “strongly preferred” or “somewhat preferred” a presumption of equal parenting post-divorce.  In Massachusetts in 2004, 85% of voters in a non-binding referendum voted in favor of a presumption of equally shared parenting in custody cases.

Those have been followed up by recent studies done by Fabricius and Dr. Sanford Braver.  In 2010, Fabricius asked a cohort of people waiting to serve on juries in Tucson the same question that Bay State residents were asked in the non-binding referendum.  Some 87% of Arizonans asked  favored the presumption of equally shared parenting.

This year, Braver, Fabricius, et al went further and designed a study that confronted respondents with various hypothetical fact situations and asked them to, in effect, be the judge, i.e. to “issue a custody order” in each hypothetical case.

When parents in the cases were said to have done about equal amounts of childcare during the marriage, 69% of respondents said they should have equal parenting time post-divorce.  When childcare was radically unequal, almost half of respondents still awarded equal parenting time.

When parents were equally responsible for marital conflict, respondents awarded equal parenting time in about two-thirds of cases.  The only thing that steered respondents away from equal parenting after divorce was when one or the other spouse was solely or largely responsible for the marital conflict.  When one person instigated conflict and the other attempted to dampen or deflect it, the instigator paid a price in parenting time.

Interestingly, fathers were more likely to be punished for instigating conflict than were mothers.  Only 4% of respondents awarded equal parenting time to instigating fathers while 21% gave equal time to mothers responsible for conflict.

This public consensus about equal parenting time revealed in all these surveys is probably best characterized as a cultural value rather than mere opinion, given both its connection to the long-term historical trend toward gender equality, and the evidence for its universality and robustness. Regarding norms of practice, there appears to be a slow trend toward greater amounts of parenting time with fathers, especially equal parenting time. In our data collected in 2005-06 in which the students” parents had divorced on average 10 years earlier,
about 9% of students reported equal PT (50%). In Wisconsin the percentage of divorced parents with equal PT increased from 15% in 1996-99 to 24% in 2003-04 (Brown & Cancian, 2007). In Washington, the percentage of divorced parents with equal PT was approximately 20% in 2008-09 (George, 2009). In Arizona the percentage of case files specifying equal PT tripled from 5% in 2002 (Venohr & Griffith, 2003) to 15% in 2007 (Venohr & Kaunelis, 2008).

Then, in a classic example of academic understatement, Fabricius notes:

The above makes it clear that the practice of equal parenting time lags the consensus about its value.

That’s putting it mildly.  In other words, what the people prefer, judges and legislators do not.

I’ve kvetched about that very thing a lot and doubtless will again.  Apparently it’s not enough that the social science overwhelmingly favors greater father involvement in children’s lives post-divorce; nor is it enough that people seem to like the idea of equally shared parenting; nor is it enough that the political concept of gender equality itself argues plainly in favor of equal parenting time.  Judges and legislators aren’t having it, as the data Fabricius presents strongly suggest.

But that’s not the conclusion Fabricius draws.

Thus the reason that the practice of equal parenting time lags the consensus about its value, despite much evidence that fathers desire more parenting time (see Fabricius et al., 2010), appears to be that fathers do not bargain harder because of the guidance they receive from attorneys, and their own widespread belief, that the system has a maternal bias.

And it’s there that I part ways with Dr. Fabricius.  I’ll say more about that in a future post.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *