Report Shows Where You Get Divorced in North Dakota Could Have a Big Impact on Child Custody Outcomes


North Dakota has had a long-running debate over shared parenting. Multiple ballot measures, and multiple legislative efforts, over the years have resulted in some reforms though shared parenting proponents still want more reform.

Opponents of reform tell us that there’s nothing all that wrong with the status quo. That custody cases are adjudicated fairly and impartially. But a new analysis by a group called Leading Women for Shared Parenting reveals some things about custody cases in North Dakota which call that impartiality into question.

I’ve embedded their report below. It’s a lengthy but fascinating read.

For instance, from page 15 the group demonstrates that shared parenting advocacy does seem to have had an impact on outcomes in custody cases:

The impact on outcomes in stipulated cases (those where both parents come to an agreement) has been particularly noticeable:

These numbers would seem to indicate that the shared parenting message – the idea that, as long as both parents are fit, the best situation for children is joint custody – is getting through to North Dakotans.

But maybe not judges. As page 17 of the report shows, the trend in custody situations resulting from court orders has been away from shared parenting:

The general public seems to be increasingly embracing the notion of shared parenting. The judiciary, it seems, is a different matter entirely.

More troubling is that the report seems to find wide gaps in the outcomes of cases based on geography. North Dakota is divided into eight different judicial districts. Despite our state’s generally homogeneous demographics – there aren’t major differences in things like race or economics no matter where you go – there are big differences in the number of joint custody situations depending on which judicial district you’re looking at as page 41 shows:

One might argue that the numbers in the Northeast Central and North Central districts are impacted by the presence of the Minot and Grand Forks Air Bases. Divorces in military families tend to result in joint custody cases at a much lower rate than non-military families.

But beyond that, what explains these wild variations in outcomes? Is it that some judges in some areas are more willing to embrace shared parenting than others? If that’s true, it undermines the argument that the family law system is impartial.

Here’s another look at joint custody outcomes in the various judicial districts, measuring a seven-year trend in each one:

The shared parenting activists haven’t achieved all of the reforms to state law they’d like to see, but they’re clearly moving the needle on this issue in our state. But I wonder if the focus, going forward, shouldn’t be on the judiciary.

Maybe some of these local judicial elections need to see the shared parenting question become an issue. Because outcomes in these custody cases shouldn’t hinge on the personal feelings of the judge you get in your case.

Here’s the full report:

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