By Ned Holstein, MD
The Massachusetts Legislature’s sweeping reform of the criminal statutes does well to focus on the prevention of crime, but it lacks a simple measure proven to decrease crime: shared parenting, versus sole custody, after parents divorce.
In the spring of 2016, the Massachusetts House of Representatives passed a shared parenting bill written by a blue-ribbon Task Force appointed by former Governor Deval Patrick, but the Senate did not act on the bill before the Legislature adjourned. We can help solve our high crime rates with shared parenting. We have known this for years, but have not acted – so Massachusetts lawmakers should enact the Task Force’s bill now.
This may seem like a different matter altogether. But to understand the connection between divorce law and crime, first examine a straightforward fact – 85 percent of prisoners were raised in single-parent households without fathers. There is abundant evidence supporting the idea that fatherlessness is a potent cause of crime. People who have grown up in high crime neighborhoods know this well. Denzel Washington, for instance, just reminded us of the crisis of fatherlessness as the root cause of crime in his childhood neighborhoods.
Many assume that fatherlessness is caused by irresponsible men who simply abandon their children. But in fact, many studies show that they are instead pushed out of their children’s lives by family courts that give them so little parenting time they are unable to guide their children in the right paths. Here is an email I received just this week – it is typical for my inbox:
“I am in the military. When I separated, I shared 50/50 visitation of my son for nearly a year and a half until the custody hearing. At the custody hearing, the judge awarded primary custody of my 8-year-old son to my ex. I get every other weekend. The judge said that ‘a child needs to wake up to the same doors, windows, and walls everyday’ – which was strange because I live in the same house he grew up in!”
For those looking for new approaches to crime, shared parenting should provoke optimism. All we have to do is enact a simple change in family law, and crime should soon decrease. We need our laws to encourage shared parenting, as opposed to the alarming family court status quo, where sole custody outcomes prevail more than 80 percent of the time. If we want to decrease crime rates, we should allow fit fathers to be involved in their children’s lives. We have ignored this simple remedy, which comes without cost to taxpayers, for years.
For instance, over 10 years ago, Boston College researcher Rebekah Coley studied low income, inner city minority teens from single parent homes in three cities, including Boston, and concluded, “First, the results found that higher [non-custodial] father involvement prospectively predicted a relative decrease over time in adolescent delinquency.” [Bracketed words added.]
While shared parenting remains uncommon in the United States, it has been the norm in countries including Sweden, Belgium and Australia for years, and more than 20 states have proposed shared parenting laws this year. In just the last six months, Missouri and Kentucky enacted shared parenting bills.
The Massachusetts reform specifics – ranging from enhancing punishments for dealing dangerous drugs to eliminating some mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses – represent good efforts to reduce incarceration and crime. Still, I encourage our state lawmakers to support efforts to turn shared parenting after parental separation or divorce from the exception to the norm. Despite the often heroic efforts of single parents, shared parenting on average leads to better socialization of our children. It also gives frightened post-divorce children what they most want and need – as close to equal time as possible with both mom and dad.
Both the Massachusetts House and Senate passed H.4011, the state’s criminal justice reform legislation. A committee of House-Senate negotiators will now work out the differences before the proposal goes to Gov. Charlie Baker for his signature. It is not too late for the conference committee to add shared parenting to the other excellent crime prevention provisions in the bill.
Ned Holstein, MD, is Founder and Chair of the Board of National Parents Organization. He was appointed by former Governor Deval Patrick to the Massachusetts Working Group on Child-Centered Family Law, and he was previously appointed by a Massachusetts Chief Justice to a task force charged with reviewing and revising the state’s child support guidelines. A graduate of Harvard College, Holstein also earned a Master’s degree in psychology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His medical degree is from Mount Sinai School of Medicine, where he later served on the faculty as a teacher and researcher.