By popular request, I’m working my way through the ballot measures explaining each one and how I’m voting. I’m going in order, Measures 1-8. You can see my previous posts here.
In 2006 a group of citizens (many of them the same people pushing Measure 6 today) got together and put a shared parenting measure on the statewide ballot.
They made a big mistake. In addition to addressing the custody and visitation issues, they also took on child support, which is an area of family law so firmly embedded in federal law and human services policy that challenging is fraught with peril.
The 2006 shared parenting measure met with a concerted opposition campaign from social workers, and a lot of cash from the State Bar Association of North Dakota, all while having just a few thousand dollars of contributions and a bunch of inexperienced volunteers in support. Yet, despite those uneven odds and the child support distraction, shared parenting got nearly 44 percent of the vote. A loss, and a bitter one for supporters of the measure, but still an impressive outcome.
The supporters of shared parenting never gave up. Now, nearly a decade later, they’ve put another more streamlined version of their initiative on the ballot, and its prospects look good. Polling from the Fargo Forum shows majority support for the measure, and the measure has received some newspaper endorsements including from the Bismarck Tribune.
Opponents of the measure, which seems made up almost entirely of divorce lawyers, argue that the measure will confuse already confusing family law and create more conflict and litigation to the detriment of the family and children involved. They’re fond of calling proponents of the measure “mad dads,” though it’s worth pointing out that every member of the sponsoring committee of this measure is female.
Proponents of the measure say that the family law system is flaw, and hopelessly biased, and generally prone to treating non-custodial parents (mostly dads) as little more than walking, talking child support checks.
I am sensitive to the fact that our family law process is already hugely complicated, and that justice in these cases can be a very subjective thing. Divorcing parents who end up going to war in court are in court because they don’t want to have to work together any more. Trying to force them to come together for their children can be a difficult thing. No doubt picking one of the parents to be the custodian, relegating the other parent to a subservient role, is the path of least resistance.
But I think we can aspire to something better. Measure 6, which you can read here, creates the presumption (in the absence of evidence to the contrary) that both parents are fit and entitled to equal parenting time with their children.
Parents do not have to have equal parenting time. There is still flexibility to create a parenting plan that takes into account the desires of the parents, not to mention things like work schedules. Judges will still maintain a great deal of discretion in these cases where parents disagree, but that statement of equality at the beginning of any given case will mean a lot.
Opponents of the measure say the family court system is not biased, but one need look no further the outcomes of that system to see otherwise. Certainly, those who have been through the process and must live with the outcomes might disagree.
Opponents also say that what’s most important in these cases isn’t what the parents want, but what the kids need. And that’s true. But it’s also true that kids need both of their parents.
Divorce is never ideal for anyone involved. But it is also unavoidable in our society, and the least we can do is recognize the importance of both parents in the lives of their children by giving both parents equal footing in the process. Justice, as the saying goes, should be blind. But it isn’t blind in the area of family law. I think the blindfold has come off, and the gender of those before the court has begun to matter a bit too much.
Measure 6 is a step toward putting the blindfold back on. I say vote yes.