As a mother and grandmother, I ask our governor to waste no time in standing up for Missouri children whose parents are divorced or separated by signing the shared parenting bill that overwhelmingly passed the Missouri legislature and arrived on his desk May 25.
I feel so strongly about this legislation, House Bill 1550, because I’ve felt the pain Missouri’s broken family court system inflicts on families. Children are hurting. Parents are hurting. Aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents — everyone’s hurting.
This unfortunate reality occurs because our courts continue rubber-stamping the outdated primary residential custody parenting model after divorce or separation, despite an overwhelming amount of research showing children need and want equal access to both parents.
Thankfully, the Missouri legislature passed legislation that aligns with research and stands to turn families’ pain into joy. The bill, which unanimously passed the Missouri Senate and then passed the House 154-2, encourages our state’s courts to award shared parenting — a flexible arrangement where children spend as close to equal time as possible with each parent — when both parents are fit and there has been no domestic violence.
While shared parenting is still unusual post-divorce, Missouri is one of 20 states across the nation that have at least considered bills supporting shared parenting within the past year. While a handful of states have supported shared parenting for a while, at least three states — Utah, South Dakota and Minnesota — have enacted laws supportive of shared parenting within the past two years.
This national movement toward parental equality is rooted in research. As a recent example, the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health published a 150,000-person study last year that concluded shared parenting after divorce or separation is in the best interest of children.
In addition, federal statistics consistently show the devastating impact of single parenting. For example, children raised by single parents are significantly more at risk of dropping out of school, landing in prison, developing mental disorders and committing suicide when compared to children raised by both parents.
Not only does Missouri’s bill align with what data tells us is best for kids, it also aims to make child custody cases much less adversarial. When the conversation begins, rather than ends, with shared parenting, the following conflicts and often never-ending legal costs drop.
What's more, instead of one parent "winning" and another parent "losing," the entire family can heal with shared parenting in place.
Shared parenting is a common sense solution that addresses the concerns of all involved, from judges to parents.
To be clear, judges would still have the right to act when parents are unfit. The proposal simply seeks to make shared parenting the starting point of the judicial process, rather than an afterthought, as it is now.
That said, in the overwhelming majority of cases where a child has two equally loving and fit parents, this legislation encourages the court to provide that child as much time as possible with both mom and dad so that they can benefit from all that each parent has to offer.
What’s particularly troubling about the current winner-takes-all family court tradition is that the practice routinely forces one of two wonderful parents, typically the father, into the loser position — a role that more resembles a visitor than a parent. In day-to-day life, this means a perfectly fit and willing parent goes from actively involved in his or her child’s life to spending time with a child just every other weekend and maybe once during the week. It’s heartbreaking.
Shared parenting is the solution for 21st century families. At a time when modern parents, regardless of gender, want to be as actively involved in their children's lives as ever while also balancing professional ambitions and responsibilities, shared parenting allows both to be successful contributors at work and at home.
Thank you, state lawmakers, for reacting to these pleas for change. The family court status quo must stop. Our children deserve better, and with Gov. Jay Nixon’s signature on HB 1550, we can start to give our children what they deserve.
Linda Reutzel is a Missouri mother, grandmother and member of National Parents Organization.