Unique Child Custody Law Requires Shared Parenting

By Paul Bush
American News Service

When Washington state's parenting plan act was passed nearly a decade ago, its backers had great hopes. For one, they expected it to reduce the bitter fighting that often erupts over child custody.

Now, research performed by one of the law's authors suggests that those original hopes have not been fulfilled. The findings may call into question Washington's unique attempt to deal with child custody problems.

However, many professionals who are involved in implementing the law day to day -- and even the author of the critical research -- say the parenting plan should not be scrapped. Among its benefits: a big drop in the number of custody battles fought out in court.

Traditionally, divorce in the United States results in one parent being awarded primary custody and decision making for a child. Some states award joint custody in which the judge simply divides the child's time between the parents.

Washington's law -- the only one of its kind in the nation -- is based on the premise that children do best when both parents take part in raising them. The law requires the mother and father to share parenting and to plan how they'll do that until the child leaves home.

Parents must work out a lengthy schedule detailing exactly where children will be during the year. Besides weekends and vacations, every major holiday is listed, along with Mother's Day, Father's Day and various birthdays.

The 10-page document also outlines how decisions will be made about education, religious upbringing and other issues. There is even a line for listing how much each parent will pay if resolving future disputes requires counseling, mediation or arbitration.

Lisa Carbonell, who just completed a parenting plan for her 5-year-old son, believes it was worthwhile. "It was difficult, but much needed," she said. "I got some of what I wanted and had to give up some, but I didn't have someone deciding it for me."

A similar law has been adopted in Britain, and Canada is considering adoption of a parenting plan statute. Legislators in Utah, Nevada and Montana have also expressed interest in the law, say its Washington backers.

However, research just compiled by one of the bill's original authors and made available to The American News Service suggests the law hasn't done all its sponsors expected.

John Dunne, a Seattle psychiatrist, said he thought that fathers who are not the primary care givers would become more involved in their children's lives. The result he expected was improved financial and emotional support of children.

Very little of that happened, he now finds. "We struck out," Dunne said.

A questionnaire completed by 200 parents suggests that stress and conflict were worse: Parents suffered higher levels of anxiety and depression and had more problems at work. As for children, Dunne said, "They were unaffected. They were virtually identical with kids under the old law."

The only area of improvement was an increase in fathers who reported they were the primary care givers. Under the old law, only 10 percent of fathers had their children at home most of the time. Under the parenting plan act, 35 percent did.

Dunne cannot explain the shift, but attributes it to the parenting plan. "We don't have anything else to account for it," he said.

There was only a slight increase, however, in the involvement of fathers who are not their children's primary care givers.

Despite his research, Dunne agrees the Washington experiment should continue. He cautions that his work can only be considered a pilot study, since it targeted parents who had divorced in the first year after the law's passage. He is seeking funds for an in-depth follow-up study.

A state senator who spearheaded passage of the bill a decade ago rejects Dunne's findings. "His research isn't in any way good enough to be an evaluative tool," said Marlon Applewick. "His findings are totally at odds with what practitioners report is going on."

Whatever its flaws, the parenting plan has had valuable results, say a number of lawyers, mediators and child advocates. They point out that fewer custody cases end up in court. In Seattle, said David Hodges, supervisor of Family Court Services, "Conservatively, 50 percent of the cases don't go to litigation."

This is because parents resolve scheduling and decision-making issues before they become problems, the law's advocates say. The plan also encourages parents to use techniques like mediation rather than the courts to resolve disputes.

Caroline Davis, a family law attorney, said, "I used to go down to court a week before Christmas and argue a bunch of cases about who's going to get custody over Christmas. Now that by and large is gone."

Carbonell and Craig Weiss had not been married and had not been required to file a parenting plan when they broke up. However, their informal agreement concerning their son's custody was proving unworkable. They decided to prepare a plan, with the help of the Dispute Resolution Center in Everett, Wash., which trains volunteers to act as impartial mediators.

Both Carbonell and Weiss were pleased with the mediation and the parenting plan. "I didn't have to spend $5,000 to get a court order I didn't want to live with," Weiss said.

Carbonell also says their son has benefited. With fewer fights between his parents and a consistent schedule, he is happier, she says.

Contradicting the study, professionals believe this is one of the most important results of the act. "The law says up front the children are best served when both parents are involved in their lives," Applewick said.

"The plan leads to greater long-term stability," he said.
Posted June 5, 1997

Copyright ©1997 American News Service

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