Curt Smith: After divorce, shared parenting is key to happy kids

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Curt SmithAs a high school junior, with no-fault divorce the new rage in Indiana, I watched my parents divorce in an agonizing drama that scarred them and all four of their children. Everyone tried their best in rough circumstances, but the harm was deep and real.

So it is no surprise to read the data confirming that children who grow up with their own two parents into adulthood enjoy better outcomes—higher academic achievements leading to better economic status, fewer health and mental-health problems, less contact with the criminal justice system.

Divorce hurts everyone, but especially children. That’s why a pro-family coalition is coming together to pursue significant child custody reforms, known as shared parenting, that will encourage greater parental involvement and help mitigate harm to children.

Indiana representatives Chris Judy, R-Fort Wayne, and Heath VanNatter, R-Kokomo, will again introduce legislation in January that creates a presumption of shared parenting when divorce occurs. The bills, versions of which have been introduced the past eight years, take different approaches, reflecting the various major reforms in five states and lesser changes in about 20 states.

Our neighbor to the south, Kentucky, went first in 2018. Lawmakers there took a partial step in 2017, and the statistics began to show improvements right away, according to Matt Hale, vice chair of the National Parenting Organization. Hale reports similar changes in Ohio, where child custody and shared parenting reforms are initiated at the county level. Missouri’s law kicked in in July, Florida passed its version in 2022, and Arkansas passed it in 2021. West Virginia has also reformed its laws.

Other states, along with Indiana, are considering significant changes in upcoming legislative sessions.

The basic idea behind these initiatives is that kids do best when both parents are actively involved after a divorce. Standard custody agreements in the past might limit the noncustodial parent to minimal time even when they are desperately seeking more involvement in their children’s lives. The stories one hears about estranged parents, bruised children and a weaponized court system break your heart.

Judges in our 92 county courts, where family-law matters are addressed, retain ample discretion to acknowledge the unique needs of now-divided families. Any form of abuse is an immediate red flag; mental-health challenges, substance abuse and other problems also remain under the judge’s purview.

But the presumption—rather, the proven principle—is that children do best when living with both parents. It might be hard to make the schedule precisely 50-50 with school schedules and such, but that’s the starting point as the court guides and plans what is best for the young Hoosiers under its care.

Given the success of the new laws around the country, it is no surprise that the National Parenting Organization is prepared to make a major push in family-friendly Indiana. It will conduct a poll this month to capture public sentiment across the state to guide legislators weighing action. The Indiana Family Institute, where I serve as chair, has endorsed the reforms as well. And a coalition of prominent business leaders is coming together to help highlight the workforce and employee well-being concerns connected to better family law.

In states where the reforms have moved forward, the coalition is a diverse movement of urban-rural, white-Black-Hispanic and Republican-Democratic leaders committed to shaping law to better serve kids in a modern, high-tech era where shared parenting is the answer. Let us hope that is the Hoosier way for kids in 2024.•

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Smith is chairman of the Indiana Family Institute and author of “Deicide: Why Eliminating The Deity is Destroying America.” Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.


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