Keep Custody Options Open
Prioritize the best interests of children
By Jason Aulicino
It’s time for the Oregon Legislature to have the taboo discussion about child custody. In the interim session there should be preliminary research and significant discussion about how fathers can be more connected to their children in post-divorce circumstances.
About 85 percent of fathers do not have full custody of their children, and the every-other-weekend parenting plan is still a common judicial award.
Often a father must willingly forfeit custody and agree to a minimal-contact parenting plan through an out-of-court settlement, even when he believes it is not in the best interest of his children, in order to avoid a worse ruling by the court. This happens to loving, able, and willing fathers who would otherwise spend time with their children.
Currently, because joint custody cannot be awarded in Oregon, unless both parties agree to joint custody, children have minimal contact with their fathers. When fathers lose their custodial rights, parenting time commonly decreases and child support payments increase. This loss of relationship promotes altogether the wrong message to children.
Child support is not a substitute for parent involvement. Current research shows when fathers have more contact with their children, a higher percentage of child support is paid. That is, when a father has meaningful access to his children, he becomes more invested, sees the need for economic support, and adequately provides for them.
The every-other-weekend parenting plan in its most basic form only offers 14 percent contact time with the non-custodial parent and 12 days between each contact. If each parent wants a relationship with the child and is considered fit to do so, then parenting plan awards should be determined by a presumption of equal parenting time. The parent who opposes shared-parenting should therefore bear the burden of proof to promote otherwise.
If the “best interests of the child” are to be honored, then two statutory changes must occur.
First, it is necessary to develop statutes that promote researched-based parenting plans. The legitimacy of the every-other-weekend parenting plan for a majority of divorce cases needs to be reviewed and scrutinized as to whether it is beneficial for children whose parents want to be significantly involved in their lives.
And second, it is necessary to have all custody options on the table if we can truly say the court is able to make decisions that are in accord with a child’s best interests. If the court finds joint-custody would be in the best interests of the child, then awarding custody to one parent over the other because they are statutorily obligated is something other than acting in the child’s best interests.
Before more children lose relationships with either parent, the responsibility lies on the shoulders of the Legislature to create or revise statutes to ensure children will have more significant contact with both parents. This issue has come before the Legislature through House and Senate bills more than 20 times in the past 10 years from fathers who love their children. Next year will likely be no different.
Jason Aulicino, father and advocate for divorced children's rights, is a graduate student in Conflict and Dispute Resolution at the UO School of Law. Email him at: DivorcedChildrensRights@gmail.com