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Shared parenting bill is best for families

This is a reprint of an article written by Linda Reutzel for the June 7, 2016 issue of the St Louis Post Distpatch. In a future blog post I will discuss how this new change to Missouri Law will actually work.  At its core, the shared parenting bill that overwhelmingly passed the Missouri Legislature and heads to Gov. Jay Nixon is common sense: Children need two parents, not just one, especially in instances of divorce. What's more, HB 1550 doesn't stop at common sense. It's based on a growing body of evidence showing that children desperately want and need shared parenting, not the current status quo of sole custody, when their parents divorce. Plus, this bill represents a solution for all. It doesn't favor women. It isn't partial to men. Instead, it's family-friendly and encourages judges to give children what they most want and need -- shared parenting. With shared parenting, the roles that mothers and fathers both play in their children's lives receive equal respect, and rightfully so.

HB 1550 is not the end-all to shared parenting, but it is a good start. It lays the ground work for our family courts to be on notice that Missouri's children of divorce deserve great relationships with both parents. I applaud the Missouri Senate for unanimously agreeing and the House for its 154-2 support of the bill. With the bill hitting Gov. Nixon's desk last month, it's time for our governor to also recognize the overwhelming positives of the bill by moving it into law as soon as possible. Without this bill, the children of Missouri will continue to suffer as a result of the broken, antiquated family court system. To put this into perspective, consider that, according to federal statistics, children raised by single parents are significantly at risk of dropping out of school, landing in prison, developing psychological issues and drug addiction, and committing suicide. Thankfully, the bill encourages judges to act on research and support shared parenting -- where children spend as close to equal time as possible with both parents after divorce. As just one example of the evidence in support of shared parenting, look to the 150,000-person study published last year in The Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health that showed shared parenting is in the best interest of children, particularly because of the arrangement's benefits to children's health, after divorce. When it comes to child custody after divorce, shared parenting is the one and only proven solution.

Additionally, the legislation stands to significantly reduce the animosity that can occur between divorcing parents, and all too often, the tension reaches the children and many others close to the family, creating a great deal of unnecessary pain. Under the state's current law, parents enter child custody discussions on unequal footing -- the sole custody model, pigeonholing one parent in the sole custody role and the other in the "visitor" position, persists. Fortunately, if enacted into law, this legislation would promote parental equality by starting, rather than ending, the conversation at shared parenting. And, of course, when parents are unfit, judges could -- and should -- move the outcome away from shared parenting. With shared parenting as the starting point, we know that bitter custody battles, as well as the never-ending legal fees that accompany them, wane, and the reduction in conflict and costs would allow children, parents and other family members to begin to heal from divorce as quickly as possible, rather than engage in an unnecessarily bitter and pricey battle that only stands to benefit a special interest group that historically opposes shared parenting: family law attorneys. While the status quo of contentious child custody battles financially benefits divorce attorneys, with shared parenting, parents can save for their children's future rather than line attorneys' pockets.

Today's child custody law is far from reflective of today's families. Both moms and dads desire to be hands-on parents as well as career-oriented. So why are our family courts still favoring the breadwinner/caregiver model by ordering unequitable child custody arrangements? Missouri families have suffered far too long in our broken family courts. Missouri has a historic opportunity to begin to reverse the trend, and with that in mind, I hope Gov. Nixon sides with state lawmakers and supports the common-sense and research-backed solution of shared parenting. Linda Reutzel, a Cape Girardeau mother and grandmother, is a member of National Parents Organization of Missouri.

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