Study: Pennsylvania Judges Order Shared Parenting in Under 15% of Cases

March 15, 2019 by Robert Franklin, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

One of the common rejoinders from anti-shared parenting advocates to the call for equal parenting is that judges pretty much order shared parenting anyway, so there’s no reason to pass a law establishing a presumption of equality.  That would be a cheerful thought if it were true, but, whenever we see an analysis of actual custody outcomes, the claim is never borne out.

The Dads’ Resource Center, a non-profit in Pennsylvania devoted to ensuring the meaningful involvement of both parents in children’s lives, studied 700 cases in the Keystone State and, sadly but predictably, the results are much what we’d expect (WTAJ, 3/13/19).

Out of 700 cases that were looked at, the average custody time per week to the mother was 116 hours and 52 hours to the father. Mothers received full or primary custody in 496 cases while fathers had full or primary custody in 100 cases. There were 104 cases where the parents had joint custody…

Of the 700 cases that were determined. 343 of them were awarded 132 hours a week to one parent and 36 hours a week to the other. The mother received the primary custody in 291 cases and the father 52. This is roughly represents every other weekend and one night a week in custody time.

That’s an average of 69/31 parenting time, i.e. not enough for the benefits of shared parenting to be felt by the child.  That generally takes at least a 65/35 split of time with benefits rising as the split nears 50/50.

Now, it’s true that most of those cases weren’t decided by a judge.  As in all jurisdictions throughout the English-speaking world, the great majority of these were agreed to by the parents.  But, as I never tire of saying, that’s because both parents know, prior to the divorce that Mom is highly likely to get primary or sole custody.  That was demonstrated by what’s still the most authoritative study to date – Dividing the Child, by Maccoby and Mnookin.  Given that, why should Dad spend his hard-earned money in a fight he probably won’t win?  Dads sensibly tend to take what they think they can get when faced with the sometimes astonishingly high cost of custody cases.

There is no presumption in favor of joint custody in Pennsylvania. The Superior Court has maintained that a presumption-free law allows lower courts to engage in full, fair and comprehensive examinations of the best interests of the child, without burdening the custodial parent with defending the status quo.

It does indeed allow that.  The question though is whether lower courts do in fact “engage in full, fair and comprehensive examinations of the best interests of the child.”  We hear that claim whenever the subject of equal parenting comes up, but if that were true, how is it that the overwhelming weight of social science is on the side of equal parenting but the courts so seldom get around to ordering it?  Since 1993, the Census Bureau has kept records of child custody and they essentially haven’t changed in all that time.  In 1993, 84% of parents with custody were mothers; today it’s a little under 82%.  In the DRC study, 104 cases out of 700 resulted in shared custody.  That’s under 15%.

If states really wanted judges to act in the “best interests of children,” as they invariably say they do, every one of them would enact a presumption of equal parenting as Kentucky did last year.  Indeed, Pennsylvania will be considering a shared parenting bill this legislative session initiated and backed by our NPO affiliate there. The chances are good in other states this legislative season and the move toward shared parenting can’t come too soon.  Our children need it, our fathers need it, our mothers need it and so does society generally.

Thanks to the DRC for letting us know about the status quo in Pennsylvania.  It looks like another battlefield on which we’ll have to fight.

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