WA State Sen. Kastama Battles for Shared Parenting

Washington State Senator Jim Kastama has always staunchly supported shared parenting.  In fact, every year since 1996, he’s filed a bill to establish shared parenting as the presumption in custody cases.  As such, he’s well aware not only of the value of shared parenting, but of the obstacles faced by any legislator who tries to make it the law.

This excellent video is an interview with Kastama by our friend Matt Allen.  Kastama says a lot in a short time.  He’s obviously a man who knows the issue of shared parenting and its reception in political circles all too well.

Kastama’s bills define shared parenting as each parent having at least 1/3 parenting time post-divorce.  That would be about 122 days per year or a little over 10 days per month, or two days per week plus two extra days per month.  In short, his bills would, at the very least, significantly increase parenting time for fathers.

The roadblocks to passage of such modest legislation are many.  Kastama lists five.  First, there are legislators who sincerely believe that the stability of the child’s environment require visitation of at most every other weekend.  But Kastama points out that what’s far more important to children than the physical stability of spending most of their time in one place, is the emotional stability of keeping real contact with both parents.

As sociologist Susan Stewart has found, every-other-weekend dads (or moms) quickly become “Disneyland” parents, i.e. mere entertainers of children.  So on the non-custodial parent’s weekend, it’s buy a pizza, rent a movie and have an outing on Saturday or Sunday.  That’s not real parenting; it’s being a place-holder until the “real” parent, i.e. the custodial parent, takes over again on Sunday night.  Not surprisingly, children get the message and stop relying on the Disneyland parent for the type of real emotional/psychological support and guidance they need.

Second, Kastama said that he battles traditional stereotypes when he tries to pass shared parenting legislation.  Legislators often see fathers as breadwinners only and mothers as nurturers.  I’ve often remarked on the unwillingness of so many people to see breadwinning as nurturing.  Face it, children need a roof over their head, food on the table and clothes on their back.  Providing that is a loving act.  That it’s often ignored as such by those who seek to marginalize fathers in the lives of children is one of the many problems faced by advocates of shared parenting.

One sidelight is that historically, fathers have only been leaving their homes to go to work to earn the family’s daily bread since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, some 500 years ago at most.  Prior to that, for all of human history, fathers were around the house, working the family’s plot of ground, tending animals and building, repairing or maintaining agricultural implements.  Into the bargain, he may have been an artisan of some sort, making goods for sale or use at home.

But whatever the case, he was close to home except for military duty or to discharge feudal obligations.  That meant he cared for children at least part of the time and they knew him and never lost their relationship with him until death took it from them.

So our current view of fathers as mere breadwinners, unconnected to their children is, to the extent it’s accurate at all, historically aberrant.

A third obstacle to shared parenting legislation comes from the left of the political spectrum that views custody through the lens of gender.  That should be seen as odd, not to say hypocritical.  After all, the left has been shouting about gender equality for many decades now, and yet when it comes to custody, leftists suddenly pivot toward inequality, discrimination and unfairness based on sex.  They then double-down by resisting increased paternal care of children that would promote greater success for women in the workplace, a goal about which the left has always claimed to care. Kastama’s too nice a guy – and too politic – to say so, but it’s hypocrisy plain and simple.

On the right, legislators are more likely to see men as breadwinners and mothers as nurturers.  That “traditional” arrangement appeals to the sensibilities of conservatives, but the problem comes from the fact that we don’t live in that world any longer.  Almost half of all marriages end in divorce.  That’s a fact – perhaps an unfortunate one – and it raises the issue of how to deal with custody after the divorce is final.  The closest thing we can get to the intact family is for both parents to be as present and available as possible in their children’s lives.  That means shared parenting.

Kastama also says that fathers who go through divorce and lose their children in the process often feel so abused by the experience that they don’t want to prolong the agony by engaging in activism to reform family courts.  So he hasn’t felt enough push from those who have been through the system to get his bills passed.

Finally, the courts themselves stand in the way of fathers getting their fair share of parenting time.  That old demon money is the culprit.

Lawyers tell Kastama that, for a man to fight for equal parenting costs $50,000 if he’s lucky.  Even then there’s no certainty that he’ll prevail, and the process will be brutal.  Most dads don’t have that kind of money and more still don’t want the heartache of such a battle.  So they agree to the de facto presumption of seemingly every family court in the land – every other weekend plus Wednesday night.

Data on custody show that over 90% of cases – in Washington it’s as high as 98% – are agreed to by the parties.  That means dads read the writing on the wall, don’t have the money to fight the battle and acquiesce to what’s become the standard visitation order.

Kastama recently made a speech to an audience of young people who were present for a music concert.  He was astonished at the positive response he received for his message of shared parenting.  He figures the reason is that many of those kids have grown up without a father and that they’re enraged at the behavior of family courts that did so much to ensure their fatherlessness.  So it may be that, in true dialectical fashion, the very practice of family courts’ taking children from fathers, is now creating the conditions for its own demise.  I hope so.

Kastama has been on the front lines of this war since he was first elected in 1996.  His knowledge is of inestimable value and his perspective is necessary if we’re to carry the fight forward for children’s rights to a real relationship with both their parents post-divorce.

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