Soon after coming to office in 2003, Australian Prime Minister John Howard gave a Parliamentary committee six months to consider a presumption that children will spend equal time with each parent. The committee released its report December 29
Among its 26 recommendations are,a clear presumption . . . in favour of equal shared parental responsibility, mandatory mediation, contact with grandparents and extended families, and spending on public education and family support.
This sounds like a break-through. Yet Geoffrey Greene, Director of the Shared Parenting Council of Australia, which represents most of Australias parenting groups pushing for reform, says, A majority of our Affiliate Organisations feel bitterly disappointed.Around the world, parent groups express similar feelings.
It seems theres no satisfying these people. Unless you know the history.
The key recommendations, from what we can see, aren't that much different from what is currently in family law now, says Kathleen Swinbourne of Sole Parents Union, which firmly supports equal parenting. For three decades, the laws of jurisdictions such as Pennsylvania, California, Australia, and the UK have supported, if not equality, active involvement from both parents in the raising of their children. But to this day, all experience as high a rate of father elimination as less family-friendly jurisdictions such as Canada.
Some say this confirms that most men are cads who shirk their responsibilities, so its good that we protect children by keeping their fathers away and give women the special treatment they deserve.
But a look at court records reveals a different story. While the laws of Pennsylvania, for instance, have required a minimum of 30% of a childs time with the non-custodial parent, an average of 15% is actually awarded. The intent of Australias original Family Law Act of 1975 was to implement shared parenting, yet in 2001, it was ordered in only 2.5% of cases with the rest averaging 80:20 time with the children. The same story plays out in California, the UK, and most American states.
Australia even passed amendments in 1995 to strengthen the provisions for shared parenting, only to have researchers find three years later that, most (judges) said their approach to making residence orders had not changed as a result of the reforms.
How can the courts blatantly subvert the stated intention of legislation? Because every one of these laws also declares best interests of the child as the ultimate criteria for divorce arrangements. That phrase has no definition so means whatever the one evoking it wants. It joins in the name of the Lord, and national security, as covers for any behavior, so allows courts to do as they please. The legal establishment clearly sees mothers as the only parent, thus entrench it as the case.
The legal establishment could not do this alone. Had there been public pressure for equal parenting, as had been building in the 1970s, the courts would have to comply. But from the 1970s on, feminism overshadowed all social issues causing all others to be ignored. In fact, though early feminists also advocated equality in the family, todays feminists champion womens rights, not equality.
There is a clear need for legislated operationally defined equal parenting. For better or worse, 50:50 residence, or custody, became the target. It would be hard to circumvent that and hide the fact you had, so is what many parent groups seek. This is why they are bitterly disappointed,at getting the same old soft words and good intentions which have proved meaningless for decades.
There is one possible ray of hope in the Australian custody report which could turn out more significant than 50:50 residence, or, admittedly, as meaningless as everything that falls short of it or worse than anything ever done. A Family Tribunal is recommended as the principle administrator, not the courts. On it, only one lawyer is to play a purely subordinate role.
At least the Parliamentary committee acknowledges that the legal establishment is the wrong instrument for dealing with families. On the other hand, this new agency will be just as free as the courts to impose its own values instead of protect the integrity of the childs family. And it will be just as subject to bullying from the latest political fashion. This tribunal could turn out worse than the courts if it makes itself an even deeper intrusion into families by trying to dictate how people run still more aspects of their lives.
The struggle for parental equality continues across all continents.
©2007 KC Wilson
To nourish children and raise them against odds is in any time, any place, more valuable than to fix bolts in cars or design nuclear weapons. - Marilyn French