National Post Barbara Kay: Keeping both parents in the picture

National Post - Wednesday April 30th, 2014

Tyler Anderson/National Post
When couples separate or divorce, shared parenting of children should be the default solution.

MP Maurice Vellacott’s child-custody reform proposal, Bill C-560, is coming up for second reading on May 7. The private member’s bill aims to reduce incentives for family-law litigation over children after separation. To that end, it proposes a rebuttable presumption that, unless it can be established that children are better off in some other parenting plan, the best interests of children would be supported by equal shared parenting.

Nobody from any political party is arguing that the current, decades-old adversarial system is working. Everyone acknowledges that it is a backlogged, costly, stressful and often unjust mess. Many distinguished jurists have pleaded for wholesale rethinking of the “primary caregiver” principle that once accorded well with rigidly assigned mother-father roles, but makes no sense in our gender-convergent era.

Liberal and NDP critics continue to mount vigorous resistance to the idea of shared parenting as a default. Why? One answer is that they are heeding the alarms put forward by groups such as the Canadian Bar Association, whose 2010 report on the subject concluded that “Joint parenting arrangements are not always either possible or ideal. The animosity between parents may be too high, or their circumstances may not allow the child to benefit from equal shared time … Mandating exactly equal time comes from a perspective of parents’ rights, not a focus on the best arrangements for children.”

But remember that lawyers are the only consistent financial beneficiaries of the adversarial system, and so they are the one group with a strong motivation to challenge reforms that will diminish their workload.

Other skeptics of shared parenting claim that children benefit from a single primary parent and a single home after separation — despite the fact there is much credible evidence to the contrary. A systematic refutation of such objections can be found at the “Myths and Facts” section of the web site of the Canadian Equal Parenting Council.

Shared parenting is now trending internationally. In Australia, for example, key family-law organizations have revised policies that blocked overnight care by fathers of infants and toddlers. The reversal was prompted by a recent academic paper published in the journal of the American Psychological Association, critiquing a 2010 study that suggested that such regular overnight care by fathers was damaging to young children.

The children themselves have only one criterion for their own best interests: to continue to love and be loved by both their parents

“Everyone touched by our current family court system understands that fundamental reform is necessary, Mr. Vellacott says. “I challenge my colleagues in the Liberal and New Democratic parties to consider…why they hold to their current rhetoric in the face of overwhelming social science understanding that children of divorce need to continue to have two primary parent relationships.”

The child-custody mantra we hear most often is the “best interests” of the children — and yet the state does not assess who is the better or more capable parent in intact families. Why then, after separation, in the absence of abuse or neglect, should the state interest itself – or have the right to interest itself — in who is the better or more capable parent? The children themselves have only one criterion for their own best interests: to continue to love and be loved by both their parents.

The public has been exposed to too much rhetoric and not enough substance on this issue. Once the Bill gets into committee, all the relevant research will be scrutinized, and social scientists and other witnesses will be heard. And that’s when it will become clear that Bill C-560 offers a sensible, gender-fair model that, in principle, poll after poll shows the vast majority of Canadians support. Which is why all MPs from all parties should respect their constituents’ views and endorse it.