SHARED PARENTING

The primary goal of Arkansas Advocates for Parental Equality is to advance shared parenting and joint custody, where each parent is given equal time and access to his or her child. For a long time in Arkansas and around the nation, shared parenting and joint custody were the exception rather than the rule. In 2013, Act 1156 of the Arkansas legislature made joint custody and equal parenting time "favored" in Arkansas. Although this was a significant change, our courts interpreted it to mean that joint custody is now "allowed" but not preferred.  This is unfortunate since the evidence supporting joint custody is indisputable. These benefits extend first and foremost to the child, but also to the parents, courts, and society. It is time for public policy to follow the evidence.

Numerous studies over the last 20 years have shown the benefits of shared parenting. These compared children living in dual residence situations (typically defined as over 35% of the time with each parent) to those living primarily with one parent. As a whole, children in dual residence situations fared better in every measured category, including academic, psychological, emotional, behavioral, and physical health. They also showed better relationships with both their mothers and fathers. Overnight stays with the father were especially notable for their positive effect on the children, greater father satisfaction, and less parental hostility. Children notably prefer joint custody to sole custody. Dr. Linda Nielsen out of Wake Forest University has published several reviews on the topic that summarize the data over the last 30 years (Nielsen 2011Nielsen 2014Nielsen 2018). Additionally, a consensus report from over 100 leading researchers and practitioners in the field (Warshak 2014) was published to support the practice of joint custody, including for infants and young children. 

A meta-analysis - a statistical review pooling data from prior studies rather than a written summary - was done in 2002 that looked at joint versus sole custody and its effect on children (Bauserman 2002). The study underwent extensive peer review prior to publication by the American Psychological Association, the largest and most prestigious organization representing psychology in the United States. The data strongly supported the outcome that children of joint custody were better adjusted than children of sole custody. Specific areas examined were general adjustment, family relationships, self-esteem, and behavioral and emotional adjustment. They also noted that joint custody parents reported less current and past conflict that sole custody parents, helping to dispel the myth that joint custody leads to greater conflict between the parents. 

A 2003 study from Arizona State University (Fabricius 2003) looked at the student's perspective on custody, visitation, and relationships with their parents. They found that 70% of the students felt the best arrangement was equal time with both parents. This is despite most of the students of divorced families reporting having lived with their mothers the majority of the time. The more time they spent with their fathers, the better their relationship was with their fathers - but there was no decrease in the relationship with their mothers, meaning a win-win outcome. The students reported that the primary reason for not having more time with their fathers was because their mothers ‘‘just wanted me with her.’’ The students also recognized undermining behaviors of one parent toward the other and were more likely to hold a negative view of the offending parent.

Other studies have compared the degree of relitigation (going back to court) in joint custody versus sole custody situations. Several studies on this topic are reviewed in Bauserman 2012. Overall, relitigation was either the same or less in the joint custody groups. These findings were reinforced by a published survey of legal professionals in Arizona, which has a presumption of joint custody. This found that their presumption of equal custody had no effect on relitigation and family conflict.

One misconception is that shared parenting only works if both parents get along or they agree to it. The positive data noted above generally excludes the couples considered "high conflict," which includes those who are extremely aggressive, physically threatening, violent, or abusive. It does, however, include those who argue, disagree, can't get along, rarely communicate, or simply don't like each other. In fact, studies have shown that levels of conflict and cooperation are no better or worse between those in shared residential custody versus those in single residence custody. In many situations, the parents in these studies did not initially want or agree to shared custody. Of note, a parent who wants sole custody often improperly characterize their relationship as "high conflict" to avoid shared custody. Reviews and citations of the studies on conflict and custody are provided in the BausermanNielsen, and Warshak publications noted above.


We would like to take a moment to distinguish between joint legal custody and joint physical custody. Courts will often award joint legal custody but still give one party primary physical custody. The idea is that this gives the noncustodial parent rights when it comes to major decisions for the child, such as health care, religion, or education. Studies have shown that this does increase involvement of the noncustodial parent with the child and leads to better outcomes than sole legal custody. However, the reality is that joint legal custody does not mean equal rights. If the two parents disagree, the custodial parent will be the one making the ultimate decision. If the noncustodial parent can afford the thousands of dollars to bring the issue to court, then he or she should expect the judge to give the custodial parent's voice greater weight. Such decisions include anything from where the child goes to school to moving the child across the country. Only when parents are given equal time with their children will they have equal legal rights as well.

The above studies and many more have made it so that the burden of proof should now be on those who oppose joint custody - not those who support it. The superiority of joint custody is the dominant belief in psychology. In addition to the scientific evidence, equal parental rights with equal standing under the law is simply the right moral and ethical path. It is not by chance that the move for parental equality is spreading and creating change throughout the nation - it is because the evidence is there and it is time for it to be put into practice.