Child’s Best Interest vs. Parental Rights

The “Parental Rights Initiative” required courts to award “equal parenting time” to both parents after divorce or separation. The measure was defeated by a sizeable margin (62% to 38%) but it represents only the latest round in a combustible campaign to change how child custody cases are decided.

A history of child custody (in a nutshell)

Colonial Americans followed the English common law rule that upon divorce the father retained custody of his children. Fathers had the right to the physical custody, labor and earnings of their children in exchange for supporting, educating, and training them to earn their own livelihoods or, in the case of girls, marry a man who would support them.

Colonial mothers, though deemed worthy of honor and deference, were not endowed with legally enforceable parental rights.

This paternal preference continued well into the 19th century. In fact, the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls – the first women’s rights convention – listed the fathers’ automatic custody rule among its principal complaints. But women began gaining the upper hand as our legal system dealt with two cultural transformations: the industrial revolution’s remaking men into marketplace wage earners and the emergence of a “separate sphere” for women as domestic caregivers.

By the early 20th century, motherhood had attained near-mythical status. Under the “tender years” presumption, custody of young children was almost exclusively awarded to mothers upon divorce.

It took a social revolution to unseat the tender years doctrine and replace it with gender-neutral custody standards.

English: Daniel Amneus, author, Ph.D., English...
English: Daniel Amneus, author, Ph.D., English Professor (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mounting divorce rates in the 1960s and ensuing decades provoked a lively debate about parental roles and custody issues. The movement for gender equality, along with the rise of fathers’ rights groups, called attention to the importance of both parents in the care of children at the same time as loosening the link between gender and parental roles.

The end of formal rules dictating a result favoring one parent over the other led to the adoption of a more inclusive but less definitive standard of deciding custody cases based on the “best interests of the child.” This standard opened up the possibility of excessive judicial discretion as well as a threat of inconsistency in the results, resulting in hotly contested custody battles.

From the rule of one to the sharing of custody

No matter how child custody was determined, one rule continued to be ironclad: custody was indivisible. After a marital breakup, only one parent could properly raise the children, with the other parent entitled merely to visiting rights. Until the late 20th century, courts regularly refused to allow divorcing parents to share custody. The dominant view was that after divorce a child needed the full time stability of a home run by one parent.judge judy

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