Divorce is difficult for children. It disrupts their lives in ways they are often ill-equipped to handle. It can have life-long adverse effects.
The good news is that the long term harms of divorce on children can be largely avoided if adults properly handle post-divorce parenting. And a compelling and growing body of scientific research tells us how to deal with parental separation to minimize the damage done to children.
The bad news is that a great many of America’s domestic relations courts seem completely unaware of this research and, as a result, are persisting in applying guidelines for post-separation parenting that exacerbate the damage divorce does to children. That’s true, at least, if Ohio is as representative of America as it is alleged to be.
National Parents Organization has just completed a ground-breaking study—the first of its kind—of the local default parenting time guidelines of all 88 of Ohio’s county courts of common pleas. These guidelines, required by state law, indicate default parenting time schedules and significantly shape the actual parenting patterns of divorced parents.
The results are illuminating, and depressing!
The best research on the well-being of children when parents live apart shows that children typically do best when they enjoy substantially equal time in the care of each of their parents. And this is true for infants and toddlers as well as for older children; and it’s true even when the parents have a high level of (non-violent) conflict. On all measures of child well-being, children raised in shared physical custody score about as well as children raised in an intact family; and they do much better than children raised in sole-custody situations. (Some of this research is listed on the NPO website.)
The Ohio parenting time guidelines of most counties are not only sadly behind the times, they lead to results that are capricious and bizarre.
One would think, then, that court rules, which are supposed to be guided by a “best interest of the child” principle, would be encouraging shared physical custody. Unfortunately, most of them are not; instead, steeped in a 1950s mindset, they are imposing rules that harm children.
Of Ohio’s 88 counties, 64 have parenting time guidelines that allow children to spend only two overnights and 60 hours or fewer in a two-week period with one of their fit parents. Some of these have schedules that prevent the children from being in the care of one of their parents for 12 consecutive days during that two-week period.
None of these counties have parenting guidelines that allow the children to be in the care of their non-residential parent on a school night. What that means is that this parent, now demoted to a second-class status, is never charged with ensuring that the children do their homework, get ready for school, and so forth. This takes one fit parent out of a true parent-child role at a time when it is more important than ever for children to be reassured that both parents are fully engaged in their lives—that both parents are doing the hands-on, day-to-day tasks of raising them.
There were bright spots, too, but only a few. Just three Ohio counties have adopted guidelines that provide children with equal, or almost equal, time with each of their fit parents.
The Ohio parenting time guidelines of most counties are not only sadly behind the times, they lead to results that are capricious and bizarre. For example, children whose parents divorce in Sandyville, Ohio (Tuscarawas County) will presumptively be in the care of each of their parents for seven overnights and 168 hours in a two-week period. Identical children in an identical family, just 4 miles away in Magnolia, Ohio (Carroll County), will presumptively be in the care of one of their parents for just 2 overnights and 48 hours in the same period—and those children will go 12 days straight without seeing that parent.
NPO has published the results of its study of Ohio parenting time guidelines as well as an interactive map showing county-by-county results. We believe that Ohio is, unfortunately, typical of the approach that many courts across the country are taking toward parenting time guidelines: behind the times and ungrounded in research. We encourage those who are concerned about the effects of divorce on children to call for changes that will truly promote the best interest of children.
Sadly, many courts are failing our children. Our children deserve better.