Research shows shared parenting ‘best option’ for children

By Staff

The best situation for children following a marital breakdown is a shared parenting plan, Toronto family lawyer Gene C. Colman tells

A private member’s bill attempted to formally introduce the concept to Canadians but failed during Stephen Harper’s tenure as prime minister. The intervening years have resulted in a series of studies which unequivocally show that a child who has equal access to both parents has superior outcomes in most situations, says Colman, principal of Gene C. Colman Family Law Centre.

“The bulk of the literature tells us that when children have significant time with both parents, they’re better adjusted socially, psychologically and at school — even in high-conflict families,” he says. “The social science research also points to the fact that daughters, when effectively deprived of their fathers, have worse outcomes than boys.”

Without legislative support, it is unlikely to take significant traction, says Colman who believes the time has come to revive the discussion.

“We don’t currently have a presumption that time/decision-making should be shared equally,” he says.

That approach supplants conventional wisdom that kids are generally better off with one parent, often translating into maternal sole custody. So the issue is repeatedly argued, resulting in considerable legal expense as well as anguish for those going through a divorce, Colman says.

He points to recent research highlighting that children benefit from having both parents maintain and strengthen their relationship with them. Re-examining the Research on Parental Conflict, Coparenting, and Custody Arrangements, by Linda Nielsen, Wake Forest University professor of education and adolescent psychology, finds that limited time with just one parent through sole parental custody is not correlated with better outcomes while joint custody is associated with better outcomes — even when the parents don’t agree with the parenting plan.

“I came to the realization that it makes common sense, it’s good for kids,” Colman says. “If we’re going to make lives better for children, we need some legislation.”

Colman had success early on with the concept in 1986 when he represented a dad who won joint custody.

But few other judges have followed suit. Justice Roger Salany was one who did, determining that the Divorce Act creates a presumption in favour of joint custody.

Colman says he’s not familiar with any others who have adopted the same interpretation.

But the studies have increasingly signalled that shared parenting is the best approach, including a body of evidence that’s developed since the private member’s bill failed, Colman says.

"The Divorce Act provides legislative authority to joint custody through s.16(4), while s. 16(10) sets out that maximum contact by each parent with the child to the extent that such contact is consistent with the child’s best interests is a desirable objective,” he says.

Despite that, no provinces or territories have a presumption in favour of equal parenting, although Colman believes there are pockets of the country where judges have a tendency to favour such arrangements.

"Just as the government brought in child support guidelines, there is room now to re-examine the question as follows: Should there be a rebuttable presumption in favour of equal shared parenting,” says Colman, a founding member of Lawyers for Shared Parenting, formed prior to the last election.

“We’ve got a distance to go, but the state of social science research now is much more defining. I suggest now is the time to try again.”

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