Every domestic relations court will insist that their primary objective is to promote the best interest of children whose parents are separating. Judges Jeannine Pratt and Stacy Wall and the Domestic Relations Court of Miami County are to be congratulated for taking concrete steps to help to ensure that children are not deprived of a full parent/child relationship just because their parents have chosen to live apart. In doing so, they have joined a movement in Ohio and across the country to change the way we deal with separated parenting.
For decades, we have known that the thing that troubles children most about parental separation is the damage to their relationship with one of their parents. We have known, too, that children raised by single parents are at higher risk of a broad range of harms. This is not to denigrate the hard work that single parents do. It is merely to recognize that child rearing is difficult and children benefit from the active involvement of two loving parents.
There is now overwhelming scientific evidence that, in most cases, children of separated parents do best when the parenting responsibilities, including parenting time, are divided roughly equally between the parents. Robust research in the United States as well as in countries like Sweden, where equal parenting is the norm, have demonstrated this. And, surprisingly to some, research has shown that equal shared parenting is usually best for children even when one parent initially opposes it.
National Parents Organization (NPO) is working hard to make equal shared parenting the norm for parents living apart. Last year, NPO conducted a study of the standard parenting time guidelines that each Ohio domestic relations court is required to establish. We wanted to see which courts were promoting equal shared parenting. What NPO found was depressing: despite all the talk of promoting children’s best interest, the vast majority of Ohio courts — 64 of the 88 — were still locked into a 1950s parenting time model where the children were able to be in the care of one of their parents only on weekends through the school year.
This model of separated parenting — a relic from the Madmen days — is unsupported by research; there was never good evidence that it was in children’s best interest to have one of their parents placed in a secondary role. And, at this point in time, it is certainly obsolete and not reflective of contemporary parenting.
When the study was completed, Miami County’s Domestic Relations Court was among those receiving from NPO a barely-passing grade, ‘D’. However, as of May, 2019, families in Miami County are subject to a new parenting time guideline rule. The Court has chosen to follow several other Ohio courts that do not present parents with a single default parenting time rule but instead provide multiple models of post-separation parenting. One of the four model schedules is the old “every-other-weekend-and-one-evening-a-week-schedule”. But the other three are significantly better, two of them providing (in different ways) children with the opportunity for equal time with each of their parents.
The NPO Ohio Parenting Time Report declined to grade counties that provided multiple schedules. It’s not clear in these cases if the courts are using one of the schedules as a default, to be ordered in the absence of parental agreement or some other relevant factor. NPO has removed the grade of ‘D’ it had given to Miami County for its old rule to reflect the fact that, by providing multiple schedules, including ones that protect children’s full relationship with each of their parents, the Miami County Domestic Relations Court has taken a significant step forward.
We congratulate Judges Pratt and Wall on walking the walk and not merely talking the talk — on making children’s best interest more than a slogan.
Donald C. Hubin, Ph.D. is a member of the National Board of National Parents Organization and the Chair of the Ohio NPO. He is a professor emeritus in the Philosophy Department and Founding Director of the Center for Ethics and Human Values at the Ohio State University.