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Study boosts case for presumption of equal shared parenting

The federal government should carefully reconsider its landmark family law reforms to take account of “game-changing” research on the value of equal shared parenting (ESP), Toronto family lawyer Gene C. Colman tells AdvocateDaily.com.

Colman, principal of Gene C. Colman Family Law Centre explains that the latest work is by William Fabricius, a professor at Arizona State University who was instrumental in the drafting of that state’s own shared parenting law.   

"This is the first time I’ve seen it established authoritatively that the more time a child spends with the father, up to 50 per cent, the better the results for the child, both in current and later life,” Colman says. “It’s not just the author’s opinion; it brings together the absolute cutting-edge research in the area, and it has huge ramifications for social and legal policy.

The research comes as Bill C-78, the federal government’s wide-ranging revamp of the family law system, heads before the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights following second reading in the House of Commons.

Originally introduced in the Commons in May, the bill marks the first major update to federal family laws in more than two decades, announcing the federal government’s intention to replace terms including "custody'' and "access,” in favour of more child-focused ones such as “parenting orders” and “parenting time.”

The new act also enumerates a non-exhaustive list of the factors that will go into a determination of what is in the best interest of the child, encourages parties to stay out of court, and enhances family support enforcement.

But Colman says the committee should use the opportunity to amend the law in a way that reflects the latest research, by inserting a presumption of ESP into the legislation, and is working with a colleague to prepare a submission for lawmakers in Ottawa.

“It’s clear from all the social science that we have seen, that ESP yields better results for kids,” he says. “Hopefully the committee will be convinced that this is a policy choice it should adopt.”

Public opinion polls, including a recent Nanos poll conducted for the Canadian Association for Equality, find that Canadians are in favour of enshrining a presumption of ESP in child custody cases in federal and provincial legislation.

However, a 2014 private member’s bill proposed by an MP in the then-governing Conservative party failed to attract official government backing and died on second reading in the Commons.

As a frequent commentator in the area of family rights and a founding member of Lawyers for Shared Parenting, Colman has received an advance copy of Fabricius’ paper: “Equal Parenting Time: The Case for a Legal Presumption,” which will appear in print next year as part of the Oxford Handbook of Children and the Law, edited by J.G. Dwyer.

Fabricius’ paper consists of a review of numerous studies on the subject of ESP, including test-case data from Arizona’s 2013 equal parenting law.  

“The overall pattern of evidence indicates that legal presumptions of equal parenting would help protect children’s emotional security with each of their divorced parents, and consequently would have a positive effect on public health in the form of reduced long-term stress-related mental and physical health problem among children of divorce,” Fabricius writes.  

The professor concluded that more father parenting time mitigates the harm of parental conflict to children, while another study identified by the author found children who had almost equal parenting time (40 to 50 per cent) scored better on behavioural and adjustment tests than those in sole physical custody, whereas those with between 30 and 35 per cent parenting time did not.

“Several lines of research suggest that reduced parenting time with fathers threatens emotional security by preventing children from having sufficient daily interactions to reassure them that they matter to their fathers,” Fabricius adds.

“The correlational findings of many studies show that more parenting time with fathers up to and including equal parenting time is associated with improved emotional security in the father-child relationship. None of these studies found that mother-child relationship security decreased with increasing parenting time with fathers. This means that the children of divorce with the best long-term relationships with both parents are those who had equal parenting time," he says.

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