Massachusetts Legal Blog

Massachusetts May Lead the Way to an Overhaul of New Child Custody Laws

President Obama recently noted, “No matter how advanced we get, there will never be a substitute for the love and support and, most importantly, the presence of a parent in a child’s life.” Massachusetts once again has the opportunity to lead the country with progressive social legislation that advances Mr. Obama’s vision.

The stars have aligned for a complete overhaul of our obsolete child custody laws after divorce in a way that would fulfill the president’s vision of parental presence for children of divorce. A key provision of the proposed legislation encourages judges to assign no less than one-third of the parenting time to each parent, while preserving protections against unfit parents or domestic violence.

The ability of a parent to foster a positive relationship between the child and the other parent would be considered a positive factor in determining parenting time, while interference with the other parent’s access to the child or attempting to manipulate the child to take sides in parental disputes would be considered negative factors.

Rep. Anne M. Gobi, D-Spencer, has co-sponsored shared parenting legislation in the past, and Gov. Deval Patrick, who initiated the development of the proposed custody statute, has publicly stated he enthusiastically supports it.

However, the legislation requires the governor to do more. He must actively push his bill for this vision to become reality.

The legislation was developed over the past 21 months by Mr. Patrick’s Working Group on Child-Centered Family Law, on which I served. The 18-member group included the Chief Justice of the Probate and Family Court, the Child Advocate for the commonwealth, representatives of all the major bar associations including the Women’s Bar Association, minorities, domestic violence organizations, legal aid agencies that traditionally represent mostly mothers in family court, practicing attorneys, and nationally known child development experts.

Many people think that shared parenting after divorce is already a reality, but in truth, family courts order it in only about 15 percent of cases. Take the case of a suburban police officer and EMT I know. His child was given only six hours per week with his loving and blame-free dad. He is trusted to carry a gun, often teaches children in his town about safety and first aid, and helps children in times of crisis as a public servant.

Yet, as he said to me, “I am entrusted with the life of every child in the commonwealth except my own.”

This is out of tune with the beliefs of ordinary people. In a ballot question in 2004, 86 percent of 700,000 voters in Massachusetts voted for shared parenting as the usual outcome if both parents are fit and there has been no domestic violence. With 86 percent of the vote, who could even call this issue controversial?

Researchers also agree that shared parenting is the best arrangement for most children of divorce. Only a few months ago, the American Psychological Association published a paper by Richard Warshak that concluded, “A broad consensus of accomplished researchers and practitioners agree that, in normal circumstances, the evidence supports shared residential arrangements for children under 4 years of age whose parents live apart from each other.”

The paper was signed by 110 eminent authorities around the world.

Shared parenting gives children what they most want and need: the continued loving care of both parents. It decreases parental conflict and domestic violence while increasing child support and college payments.

It leads to better grades in school, happier children, less substance abuse, less delinquency, and even less teen pregnancy.

Mothers are freed up to pursue careers and interests — indeed, the pay gap cannot be closed without shared parenting as part of the solution — and fathers are able to remain in their children’s lives.

Also, this reform would work powerfully to prevent the tragic instances of “parental alienation.” Any parent who has been the target of such manipulation truly knows what heartbreak is. All this, and free to the taxpayers.

This bill is a win-win-win for mothers, fathers and children.

With the researchers, public opinion, key legislators, the bar associations, family court judges, and the diverse stakeholders who served on the Working Group lined up in support, Mr. Patrick must be urged to go to bat for the bill he commissioned and supports. With only a few months remaining in this legislative session, time is of the essence.

We encourage the governor to memorialize this proposed legislation as an official bill. This is his opportunity to claim an historic legacy of happy children achieving up to their potential with the support and love of both parents in their lives.

By Shapiro Law Group