Chapter 3: What the Records ShowSummary
1. Purpose and Goals
4. An Accidental Sample Of Proposed Parenting Plans
5. Conclusions: Answering The Research Questions
In late spring 1998, the Washington State Supreme Court Gender and Justice Commission and the Domestic Relations Commission began a study of the Washington State Parenting Act. This report presents information from one of the four parts of that study, an analysis of the contents of recent parenting plans.
A random sample of final parenting plans that were approved by the courts in eight (8) Washington State counties between May 1997 and May 1998 was drawn. The sample counties were selected to reflect the social and economic diversity of Washington State.
The sample plans were read and identical information from each plan was collated and entered into a computer database. For modified plans, the immediately prior plan was also read and information about the changes between the two plans recorded. The information was tabulated to document current patterns in parenting plans. In addition, some limited information about proposed parenting plans was gathered.
Forty-five (45) percent of the plans in this sample provided for a primary residential parent, and an every-other-weekend plus one midweek evening schedule of alternate residential time for the other parent. For the sample as a whole, two-thirds of the primary residential parents were mothers and one-third were fathers. However, for first plans only, three-quarters of primary residential parents were mothers.
Only a handful of plans provided for more alternate residential time than every-other-weekend, including 50/50 schedules. The rareness of these schedules appears to reflect the provisions of the Parenting Act, the preferences of parents, and a preference in favor of every-other-weekend among some professionals involved in the formulation of parenting plans.
More than a quarter of the plans provided less than every-other-weekend alternate residential time. These schedules are most common in families where one parent's residential time is restricted and where the parents live far apart. One-fifth of the plans included restrictions on one parent's residential time.
Nearly one in every five plans has no specified residential schedule, defining the schedule to be as arranged between the parents or between the child and the parent.
Modifications are common, especially four to six years after the original plan. More than one-quarter of modifications change the primary residential parent from mother to father. One-third of modifications involve a reduction in alternate residential time. One-quarter of modifications are associated with a parent's relocation.
One of the research questions developed by the Gender and Justice and the Domestic Relations Commissions encompasses a number of research questions under the heading Post-divorce Parenting. Some of these questions can be answered only with information gathered directly from divorced parents. Others of these questions must be answered from the files maintained by the court system. This report addresses this second group of questions about parenting arrangements after dissolution of marriage.
As the study has evolved, additional research questions have emerged as important. Thus, the present report also contains information on some issues not mentioned in the original statement of research questions. Also, some of the original research questions have been reframed in broader terms.
The research questions addressed in this report include:
These research questions are primarily descriptive; that is, they focus on identifying patterns and determining which are commonplace and which are unusual. The answers to these questions do not tell us why certain patterns emerge. Insight into why certain patterns emerge is provided by the key informant interviews and the focus groups.
The research questions listed above (see 1. PURPOSE AND GOALS) were addressed by an analysis of the contents of actual Washington State parenting plans. Such an analysis is possible because copies of all court-approved parenting plans are kept on file at the county courthouses.
It was not feasible to examine the contents of every parenting plan approved by the courts since the Parenting Act came into effect in 1988, since this would have entailed gathering information from over 150,000 parenting plans. Instead, a sample of recent court-approved parenting plans was drawn (see 2.a. Sample Selection). A researcher then read each of these plans and compiled identical information from each plan (see 2.c. Information Gathered). The information was then entered into the computer and the frequency distributions and cross-tabulations presented in 3. FINDINGS were generated.
Two sampling criteria - a temporal criterion and a spatial criterion - were used to define the sample. Together these two criteria ensured the selection of a sample of parenting plans that is feasible and efficient but that also accurately portrays the current situation in Washington State.
i. Temporal Sampling Criterion
Parenting plans for analysis were selected from among the 16,235 plans entered between May 1, 1997 and May 31, 1998.
The temporal sampling criterion ensured that only recent plans were included in the analysis, and restricted the sample to plans that were entered before the study began. By focusing on recent plans, the analysis provides information about the current situation in Washington State rather than about earlier time periods.
ii. Spatial Sampling Criterion
Parenting plans for analysis were selected from among the 8,044 plans entered during the study period (see 2.a.i. Temporal Sampling Criterion), in the following counties: Chelan, King, Lewis, Snohomish, Spokane, Thurston, Walla Walla, and Yakima.
The spatial sampling criterion was necessary because copies of plans for analysis must be collected from individual county courthouses. By limiting the sample to a few counties, sample selection was made more efficient and the administrative costs of the study and the timeline for the study were reduced.
To ensure that the sample of parenting plans remained as representative as possible of the state as a whole, the sample counties were chosen to represent the state's diversity. Thus, the sample counties include both predominantly urban and predominantly rural courts, as well as Eastern and Western counties.
Exhibit 1 shows selected sociodemographic characteristics of Washington State and the study counties and demonstrates that the study counties have a broadly similar sociodemographic composition to the state as a whole.
Exhibit 1 also shows the number of parenting plans entered in each of the study counties during the study period. A sampling proportion of 0.05 (5 percent) was selected in order to generate a sample that would be large enough to allow generalization, while still being small enough to be feasible within the constraints of the present study. The 0.05 sampling proportion resulted in a target total sample size of 403. The target sample sizes for each county are shown in the bottom row of Exhibit 1.
Because the sample of parenting plans was drawn at random from all the parenting plans in the study counties, with the same sampling fraction (5 percent) in each county, the sample of parenting plans is representative of recent parenting plans in the study counties. Formally, the sample of parenting plans is not representative of the whole of Washington State because not all parenting plans were eligible for inclusion in the sample (some counties were excluded from the study). However, to the extent that the study counties are typical of the state as a whole, the sample may be cautiously generalized to the whole state.
a. Persons of Hispanic origin may be of any race.
For Chelan, Lewis, Snohomish, Spokane, Thurston, Walla Walla, and Yakima Counties, the lists of the selected cases, again identified by SCOMIS case identification number, was sent to the county courthouses. Courthouse staff made copies of all the parenting plans on file for each case (not just the parenting plan filed during the study period) and forwarded the copies of the parenting plans to the researcher.
For King County, the large number of cases meant that copying all the selected parenting plans was impractical and expensive. Instead, OAC forwarded the list of selected cases directly to the researcher. The researcher then worked in the records departments of the King County Courthouse and the King County Regional Justice Center in Kent, Washington, reading the original parenting plans and compiling the relevant information.
CODING SHEET FOR ANALYSIS OF PARENTING PLANS.
Second, the researcher read the focal plan and recorded a standard set of information about the contents of the plan. The information recorded is shown in Exhibit 2, pages 1 to 3, and includes information about the number, age, and gender of children covered by the focal plan, the presence of limiting factors, the residential schedule, travel arrangements, decision-making, and dispute resolution.
Third, if the focal parenting plan was a modification of an earlier permanent parenting plan, the researcher identified the court-approved permanent parenting plan immediately prior to the focal plan. This plan was defined, for the purposes of the study, as the prior parenting plan. The researcher read the prior plan and recorded the number of months between the court-approval dates of the focal plan and the prior plan, as well as information about changes in parenting arrangements between the prior and focal plans. The information recorded is shown in Exhibit 2, page 4, and includes changes in the residential schedule, changes in either parent's place of residence, and changes in decision-making authority.
A sub-sample of 50 cases was selected at random from the study sample. These cases were re-read and re-coded by a second researcher. The inter-coder reliability was extremely high. There was only one case where the coders disagreed on more than three items; and there were three cases where the coders disagreed on one to three items. These disagreements were resolved by re-reading the files. In no cases were items of disagreement related to the residential schedule. Overall, this inter-coder reliability check suggests that the reliability of the data compiled from the files is extremely high.
Exhibit 4 shows the distribution of the final sample by the year and month of the focal plans. Only two plans, one approved by the court in March 1997 and one approved in June 1998, were approved outside the sample time frame. In both cases, the plans were selected for approval based on the dates recorded in OAC's computer system, SCOMIS, but the actual dates shown on the plans differed from those in the computer system.
Exhibit 5 shows the distribution of the final sample by the type of focal plan: first permanent plan versus modification. Forty-three percent of the focal parenting plans are first parenting plans; the remainder are modified parenting plans. This pattern suggests that modifications are common, and comprise a considerable fraction of the parenting cases in the court system. However, this information can not be used to infer the frequency of modification; to do this it would be necessary to track a sample of cases from the time of the first parenting plan onward and see what proportion eventually modify their plans. Second, and especially third and later modifications, are quite uncommon. This may reflect the aging of the children, the ability of parents to reach a satisfactory set of arrangements (either with or without court approval), or the reluctance of parents to re-enter the court system.
Exhibit 6 shows the distribution of focal plans in the sample by the number of children covered by the focal plan. The number of children covered by the plans is also shown separately for first plans and for modifications.
Slightly more than 45 percent of the focal plans apply to one child only; just under 40 percent apply to two children, and the remaining 15 percent apply to three or more children. This distribution is fairly similar for first plans and for modifications, although there is a slight tendency for modifications to be more likely to apply to one child only.
ii. Age of the Youngest Child
Exhibit 7 shows the distribution of focal plan in the sample by the age of the youngest child covered by the plan. This information is also presented separately for first plans and modifications.
Nearly 60 percent of the youngest children covered by the focal plans are of elementary school age - six to 11 years. Over 20 percent of the youngest children are teenagers, and fewer than 20 percent are preschoolers. This age distribution of the youngest children in the sample is consistent with national data about the ages of children of divorce. Not surprisingly, modified parenting plans tend to apply to somewhat older children than first plans. This reflects the empirical observation (see below) that typically parenting plans are modified after about four to five years.
iii. Sex of the Youngest Child
Exhibit 8 shows the distribution of the focal plans in the sample by the sex of the youngest child covered by the plan. This information is also provided separately for first and modified plans.
The sex of the children is not directly reported on the mandatory parenting plan forms. Instead, the researcher inferred this information based on the first name of the children identified on the form. For names that were ambiguous, the researcher checked the Parents' Magazine online database of children's names and read the plan for references to the child as "girl/boy" or "daughter/son." It was not possible to infer the sex of the youngest child covered by 50 parenting plans.
For the subset of focal plans where it was possibly to infer the sex of the youngest child, roughly the same numbers of girls (176) and boys (169) were identified. This is reassuring, since the sample aims to be random, and in a random sample we would expect approximately equal numbers of girls and boys based on the roughly equal numbers of girls and boys in the population. There is a slight deficit of boys among the first plans. However, it is not large enough to suggest a problem with the sample.
More than three-quarters of the plans apply to families with both parents living in Washington State. However, there is a marked difference in patterns of parents' residence between first plans and modified plans. Whereas 85 percent of first plans have both parents in Washington State, only 70 percent of modified plans have both parents in Washington State. This pattern reflects the importance of parental relocation as a reason why parents modify their parenting plans.
The second and third rows of Exhibit 9 suggest that fathers are more likely to live outside Washington State than mothers--39 percent compared to 26 percent. This difference in the propensity of mothers and fathers to live out of state appears primarily for first plans.
One of the most important qualitative findings from this sample of parenting plans concerns the residential schedule. Despite the Parenting Act's emphasis on a residential schedule, and the law's intended rejection of the language of custody and visitation, many parenting plans still refer to custody and visitation. Phrases such as "the mother shall have custody of the children and the father shall have visitation every-other-weekend" were common in the sample parenting plans reviewed, especially outside King County. As arranged schedules (see below) are especially likely to refer to custody and visitation. Some plans rather than using the straightforward everyday language of "mom's house" and "dad's house" rely instead on the cumbersome language of "the custodial residence" and "the non-custodial residence" that the Parenting Act aimed to abolish. By continuing to rely on the language of custody and visitation, participants in the system help maintain the legitimacy of concepts the law rejects and undermine the process of a cultural change toward post-dissolution coparenting that the Parenting Act sought to promote.
i. Restrictions on Residential Time
Exhibit 9 shows that approximately one in every five plans specifies that one or both parents' residential time should be restricted. Modified plans are slightly more likely to restrict parents' residential time than first plans. The most commonly identified factors serving as a basis for restricting parents' residential time were alcohol or substance abuse and domestic violence.
Among the 85 plans that restrict parents' residential time, 48 plans (56.5 percent) specify that the father's residential time should be restricted, and 36 plans (42.4 percent) specify that the mother's residential time should be restricted. One plan specified that both parents' residential time should be restricted. Thus, fathers' residential time is more likely to be restricted than mothers'.
ii. Primary Residential Parent
Exhibit 10 displays information about the primary residential parent. For the present study the primary residential parent is the parent with whom the child spends the most time. For most cases this was obvious, but for a few cases the primary residential parent was identified by constructing a calendar and counting how many nights the child spent in each parent's household over a four-week period. Although, strictly speaking 50/50 plans are only those with 14 nights in one household and 14 in the other, for the present study plans with as few as 12 nights in one household and as many as 16 in the other household were also counted as 50/50. Plans where the child alternated between households every month or every six months were also counted as 50/50 arrangements.
The first two lines of Exhibit 10 show that the mother is the primary residential parent for just over 60 percent of the sample (239 plans) and that the father is the primary residential parent for 32 percent of the sample (127 plans). Fifty/fifty plans were uncommon; only 27 plans, fewer than 7 percent, were of this type. Two plans provided for the children to live with adults who were not their parents.
PRIMARY RESIDENTIAL PARENT
The relatively high number of plans in which the father is the primary residential parent is, at first glance, surprising. However, several recent studies, using both U.S. Census Bureau data and other large-scale samples, have found a dramatic increase in formerly married father-headed single-parent families. Nationally, close to one in four formerly married single-parent families are headed by men. 2
The figure of 32 percent in the present sample is clearly higher than in national data. However, it is not implausibly higher. First, for the past decade Washington State's Parenting Act has gone further than comparable legislation in many other states in its endorsement of gender-neutral post-divorce parenting. 3 As a result, one would expect Washington to have a higher-than-average proportion of fathers who are primary residential parents. Second, the present sample includes a large number of modified parenting plans, which cover children who are, on average, older than children in first parenting plans (see Exhibit 7). In national data, and in the present sample (see below), older children are more likely to reside with their fathers than are younger children.
The main body of Exhibit 10 shows the percent distribution of primary residential parent for various subgroups of the sample. Thus, the third row of Exhibit 10 shows the percent distribution of primary residential parent among first plans, and the fourth row shows the distribution among modified plans. The first number on each row is the total number of cases on which that row's percent distribution is based. By looking down the "Mother" (or the "Father") column, the reader can identify subgroups in which primary residential mothers (or fathers) are more or less frequent.
The third and fourth rows of Exhibit 10 show that for both first and modified plans mothers are more likely than fathers to be the primary residential parent. However, as already noted, first plans are more likely than modifications to have the mother as primary residential parent--73 percent compared to 51 percent. In contrast, modifications are more likely than first plans to have the father as primary residential parent--45 percent compared to 15 percent.
Exhibit 10 reveals that a number of variables influence which parent is the primary residential parent, although for every subgroup identified in the Exhibit, children are most likely to live with their mother.
The more children that are covered by a parenting plan, the more likely it is that the mother is the primary residential parent. The difference between plans covering one child and plans covering two children is small: 56 percent of one child plans have the mother as primary residential parent compared to 60 percent of two child plans. However, 75 percent of plans that cover three or more children have the mother as primary residential parent. The other side of this pattern is that fathers are less likely to be the primary residential parent in plans that cover more children.
As children grow older they are less likely to live with their mothers and more likely to live with their fathers. For children of preschool age, over 70 percent live most of the time with their mothers, and only around 20 percent live most of the time with their father. In contrast, around half the teenagers live with their mother and around 40 percent live with their father.
Both boys and girls are more likely to live with their mothers than with their fathers. However, boys are more likely to live with their fathers than are girls. In fact, roughly one third of the plans in which the youngest child is a boy allocate most residential time to the father.
Finally, when the mother lives outside Washington State, mothers and fathers are equally likely to be the primary residential parent. Thus, mothers who move out of state are substantially less likely to be the primary residential parent than mothers who stay in state. Fathers also are less likely to be the primary residential parent if they live out of state.
As already noted, 50/50 arrangements are quite unusual--fewer than 7 percent of parenting plans are of this type. Fifty/fifty arrangements are more frequent among first plans than among modifications and are less frequent among plans that cover three or more children and among plans that cover older children.
The relative infrequency of residential schedules in which the child frequently alternates residence between parents should be interpreted in the light of the provisions of the Parenting Act. RCW 26.09.187 provides that when frequent, brief, and substantially equal intervals of residence in each parent's home are contemplated, three distinct criteria must all be met in order for the court to approve the residential schedule. First, no limitations with restrictions exist under RCW 26.09.191. Second, the parties must have agreed to the schedule voluntarily or have a history of shared parenting and cooperation; the parties are available to each other, especially in geographic proximity, to the extent necessary to ensure their ability to share parenting functions. And third, the shared parenting arrangement must be in the best interests of the child.
It is likely that newly divorced parents, who are formulating their first parenting plan, may be more willing to try a 50/50 residential schedule than parents who have been divorced longer and who may have accrued a history of conflicted or uncooperative coparenting. Also, parents who have been divorced longer are more likely to have moved further apart. These factors may explain the lower frequency of 50/50 schedules among modified plans. The lower frequency of 50/50 schedules among plans that apply to older children may reflect the greater complexity of these children's lives, with more social and extra-curricular activities than younger children, as well as the preferences of the children. Other researchers have found that 50/50 schedules are less practical for older children who wish to exert more control over their own schedules. 4 Despite the intent of the law to limit 50/50 schedules to those parents who have voluntarily chosen this arrangement and who have a history of cooperation, there are instances in this sample of recent parenting plans where 50/50 arrangements have been approved for highly conflicted families. In a couple of instances, judges and parenting evaluators appear to have promoted 50/50 schedules as a way to end parental disputes over which parent would be the primary residential parent. In one instance, a 50/50 schedule was approved as part of a parenting plan that also required the father to attend anger management counseling, arranged the transfer of children so that the parents would not interact with each other, and required both parents to enter mediation to discuss a possible two-hour change in the children's pick up and drop off times. It seems unlikely that the parents would be able to establish cooperative parenting under these circumstances.
In contrast, some cases with 50/50 schedules provide models of effective cooperative post-divorce parenting. One parenting plan in the sample provided for the children to remain in the family home, and for the parents to move in and out of the family home for alternating weeks. In another case, the children were taken to school each day by the parent with whom they were not currently residing. This ensured that both parents saw the children every day, and that the parents had daily opportunities to communicate about their children.
Two 50/50 arrangements sidestepped the Parenting Act's intention that parents with this schedule should live close together. Since both these plans contained elaborate provisions for transporting the children to and from school when they were living at the further parent's household, they appear to reflect the parents' strong commitment to continuing cooperative parenting. In another case, parents living on opposite sides of the Cascade Mountains appear to have achieved 50/50 parenting by moving their daughter between households each summer, necessitating a change of school. The arrangement unraveled when the daughter reached her mid-teens and demanded to be allowed to stay in one place through high school graduation.
iii. Alternate Residential Time
Exhibit 11 displays information about alternate residential time for the non-primary residential parent. Like Exhibit 10, the first two lines show the number and percentage of all plans in the sample with various residential schedules. The main body of the table shows the percentage distribution of alternate residential time schedules for various subgroups of the sample. The first number in each row is the number of cases on which that row's percentage distribution is based. By looking down the columns, it is possible to identify which groups in which various residential schedules are especially frequent and infrequent.
Throughout this analysis, alternate residential time schedules are divided into four categories:
For the sample as a whole, over 45 percent of plans specify every-other-weekend alternate residential time. The dominance of this schedule suggests that every-other-weekend is, to some extent, a "typical" schedule. This conclusion is reinforced by the finding that every-other-weekend schedules are equally, or nearly equally, common across a number of subgroups. The type of plan (first or modified), the number of children covered by the plan 5 , the sex of the youngest child, and which parent is the primary residential parent all exert little influence on the likelihood that every-other-weekend alternate residential time will be specified.
However, some factors clearly do influence the likelihood that a plan specified every-other-weekend alternate residential time. Not surprisingly, when one parent lives outside Washington State, every-other-weekend alternate residential time is far less likely: 17 percent, compared to 54 percent for plans where both parents live in state. Schedules with less than every-other-weekend alternate residential time are most common in plans where one parent lives out of state.
Every-other-weekend schedules are less common in plans that include restrictions on one parent's residential time. Nearly two-thirds of the plans with restrictions provide for less than every-other-weekend alternate residential time. Even so, 31 percent of plans with restrictions have every-other-weekend schedules. It may seem surprising that in nearly one third of the cases where the court believes that a parent's residential time should be restricted, that parent has the same amount of residential time as is specified in a typical plan. However, the restrictions on a non-primary residential parent's alternate residential time may involve something other than the amount of time. For example, a parent may be required to comply with drug or alcohol testing, or ensure that the children are not in the presence of specified individuals, or that another specified individual is present throughout the alternate residential time.
Plans that were filed in King County were also somewhat less likely than the sample as a whole to specify every-other-weekend alternate residential time. The age of the youngest child covered by a plan also influences the likelihood that the plan will specify every-other-weekend alternate residential time. The youngest and oldest children are less likely to be covered by every-other-weekend arrangements. For the oldest children, this probably reflects teenagers' wishes to exert control over their own schedules, especially if they are involved in weekend activities such as sports teams. This interpretation is bolstered by the finding that plans that cover older teens are most likely to have the non-primary residential parent's time as agreed. For the youngest children, the relatively low likelihood of having an every-other-weekend schedule may reflect the belief of mental health professionals and others involved in the formulation of parenting plans (often codified in alternate residential time guidelines) that very young children should not spend more than a few hours at a time away from their primary caregivers. This interpretation is borne out by the finding that the youngest children are most likely to have plans that specify less than every-other-weekend alternate residential time.
As noted earlier, the analysis presented here describes common patterns in parenting plans, but can not explain how those patterns emerge. Evidence from the focus groups and key informant interviews suggests that many parents are steered toward every-other-weekend schedules by attorneys, court facilitators, mediators, and other professionals. In addition, some counties have guidelines for alternate residential time which encourage every-other-weekend schedules. In some counties, including King County, these guidelines do not appear to be widely used. In other counties, Spokane and Yakima for example, it is not uncommon for parenting plans to say, "As per county guidelines," instead of detailing the residential schedule.
a. Alternate weekends may include up to one weekday evening per week, but no more than three overnights per two weeks.
The least common schedules for non-primary residential parents' alternate residential time are those that specify more time than every-other-weekend. Only eight percent of the whole sample, or 31 plans, had these schedules. Bear in mind that of these 31 plans, 27 were 50/50 schedules. This suggests that unless a parent is the primary residential parent or has a 50/50 residential schedule, the most alternate residential time he or she is likely to have specified in a plan is every-other-weekend and one evening a week.
After every-other-weekend, less than every-other-weekend schedules are the most common schedules for alternate residential time. More than one in four plans in the sample provide for less than every-other-weekend alternate residential time. These schedules are more common in modified plans, in plans for the youngest children, in plans for girls, in plans where the father is the primary residential parent, and in plans filed in Snohomish County.
Nearly one in every five plans in the sample does not specify a schedule for alternate residential time, using instead some variant of as agreed. This is surprising in view of the fact that one of the original goals of the Parenting Act was to replace such vagueness with clearly specified arrangements that would, at the minimum, serve as a fallback in the event of conflict. As already noted, as agreed schedules are especially common in plans for older children. As agreed schedules are more common in first plans than in modified plans suggesting that newly divorced parents are more willing to try flexible arrangements than parents who have been divorced for some time.
As agreed plans are not limited to low-conflict situations. In fact, just as some courts promote 50/50 schedules when parents can not agree on a residential schedule, some courts seem to leave alternate residential time to be agreed when parents are in extreme conflict over the residential schedule.
One of the criticisms of the Parenting Act has been that it prohibits informal, flexible arrangements--one key informant described the Parenting Act and the mandatory forms as a "straightjacket." The finding that many plans use as agreed schedules suggests that many informal, flexible arrangements have wriggled out of the straightjacket, and that parents can have flexibility if they choose. Conversely, one of the most widely cited benefits of the Parenting Act is that is provides parents with a well-defined set of arrangements for the times when they are unable to agree. Parents with as agreed schedules forgo this benefit. Possibly, parents with as agreed schedules do not need a specific fall back schedule. A reasonable question, however, is why 50/50 schedules are limited to a clearly defined set of circumstances while as agreed schedules, which appear to directly circumvent the intent of the law, are not subject to special consideration.
iv. Supervised Alternate Residential Time
Exhibit 12 provides information about parenting plans that specify that the non-primary residential parent's alternate residential time must be supervised by a designated agency or individual. Of the 395 plans in the sample, 35 (9 percent) mandate supervised alternate residential time. This percentage is approximately the same for first plans and for modified plans.
There is a clear overlap between plans mandating supervised alternate residential time and plans that restrict one parent's residential time. Over one third of the 85 plans that identify limiting factors mandate supervised alternate residential time, and 32 of the 35 plans that mandate supervised alternate residential time also restrict the parent's alternate residential time.
In addition to the 35 plans that mandate supervised alternate residential time, 10 plans order that the children should have no contact with their mothers, and six plans order that the children should have no contact with their fathers.
v. Vacation Schedules
Exhibits 13 and 14 provide information about patterns of residential time during children's school vacations.
Exhibit 13 shows that over half the plans in the sample stipulate that winter and spring vacations from school should be shared equally between parents, either by dividing the vacations in half, or by alternating years. This equal division of winter and spring vacation is much less common in plans with restrictions--25 percent compared to over 60 percent in plans where no limiting factors are noted.
Plans that apply to very young children and older teenagers are also less likely to specify that winter and spring vacations should be divided equally. For the youngest children, who are not in school, winter and spring vacations are often not mentioned in the parenting plan. Older children often have as agreed vacation schedules.
Relatively few plans--less than six percent--provide non-primary residential parents with more than half of the winter and spring school vacations. Even when one parent resides outside the state, only 15 percent have more than half of the winter and spring vacations.
Approximately one in every five plans allocates less than half the winter and spring school vacations to non-primary residential parents. First plans, plans for younger children, and plans with restrictions, are all more likely to allocate less than half the winter and spring school vacations to non-primary residential parents.
EXHIBIT 13 WINTER AND SPRING VACATION FOR NON-PRIMARY RESIDENTIAL PARENT
Exhibit 14 shows that there is considerable variation in summer residential schedules. Although very few non-primary residential parents are allotted all summer with their children, more than a quarter of all plans provide for a 50/50 sharing of summer residential time. Only 14 percent of plans specify two weeks of summer residential time. The most common summer schedules provide non-primary residential parents with between two weeks and half the summer, although nearly as many are as agreed. In general, the variables that influence summer schedules are similar to those described above for winter and spring breaks and for alternate residential time.
Exhibit 15 shows that roughly half of all parenting plans specify an equal division of transportation responsibilities. The most common wording on parenting plans is "the receiving parent will pick up the child." Primary residential parents are rarely charged with all or most of the responsibility for transporting children to their other parent's household. In contrast, nearly a third of non-primary residential parents bear all or most of the responsibility for transporting their children to and from their household. Non-primary residential parents are especially likely to be mostly or solely responsible for transportation if the plan covers very young children, if one parent lives out of state, and if their residential time is restricted. Only 13 percent of plans leave transportation arrangements to be agreed--fewer than leave the non-primary residential parent's alternate residential time to be agreed.
In addition to allocating responsibility for providing children's transportation between households, some parenting plans describe detailed arrangements for transferring children between households. Sometimes these detailed arrangements simply designate a mid-point between the parents' households where the child can be transferred, such as a freeway interchange or milepost. Most often, however, detailed arrangements are crafted to prevent parents from going to each other's homes and to avoid confrontations between parents. Roughly one quarter of the sample plans have transportation arrangements that are clearly intended to minimize contact between parents. Transportation arrangements of this type often specify that parents are to remain in their cars when picking up or dropping off their children, while the other parent remains inside the home. Other transportation arrangements require parents to transfer the children in public places, such as fast food restaurants and large stores, where presumably the parents are less likely to engage in a public dispute. Some plans contain residential schedules that require parents to collect and deliver children to school. These arrangements may also allow parents to transfer the children without knowing each other's addresses, and this can afford some limited protection to abuse and domestic violence victims. Finally, in the most conflicted cases (seven cases in this sample) children are transferred between parents at police stations, in one case with a specified "waiting time" between the departure of one parent and the arrival of the other.
a Includes children who provide their own transportation.
Some children must travel considerable distances to have residential time with their non-primary residential parent. Fifty plans in the sample have children travelling across state lines (either out of or into Washington State) to spend time with a parent. A similar number have children travelling the breadth of the state,
In contrast, the authority to make major decisions about the children covering topics such as non-emergency health care, education, religious upbringing, and any other topics specified by the parents, is explicitly allocated in the parenting plan. Decision-making authority is separated from the residential schedule; i.e., the parent with the most residential time does not automatically get a greater say in major decisions. 6 Parenting plans may specify that major decisions will be made jointly by the parents or that one parent has the authority to make major decisions. Sole decision-making authority can be ordered by the court if limiting factors are identified in the parenting plan that justify restricting one parent's decision-making authority. Sole decision-making must also be ordered if one parent is reasonably opposed to joint decision-making, or if neither parent wants joint decision-making.
Exhibit 16 shows that nearly one in five of the parenting plans in the sample contain restrictions on one parent's decision-making authority. Restrictions on decision-making are more common in modified parenting plans than in first parenting plans.
RESTRICTIONS ON DECISION-MAKING
In principle, parenting plans can specify mixes of joint and sole decision-making authority. For example, a plan can specify that parents should make educational decisions jointly, while one parent is authorized to make medical decisions. In practice, these kinds of split decision-making arrangements are unusual. Very few plans in the sample provided for split decision-making, so that nearly all plans had either sole decision-making on all major issues, or joint decision-making on all major issues.
Exhibit 17 shows that joint decision-making is far more common than sole decision-making. Nearly three-quarters of the sample plans specify joint decision-making, and just over a quarter specify sole decision-making. This pattern is reversed when there are restrictions on residential time, when three-quarters of the plans specify sole decision-making and only one-quarter specify joint decision-making. When there are restrictions on decision-making, virtually all plans have sole decision-making, as is required by the law. However, even when there are no restrictions on decision-making, 10 percent of plans still have sole decision-making, comprising plans where one or both parents is opposed to joint decision-making. Sole decision-making is also more common when one parent lives out of state, and when the father is the primary residential parent.
Parents have the option of including whatever topics they consider to be important in the list of major decision-making topics. Most parents mention just three major decision-making topics: education, health, and religion. However, a minority of parents expand the list. Common additions include the choice of daycare provider, marriage before age 18, getting a driver's license, and joining the military. Less common additions include participation in sports, getting a tattoo or body pierce, choice of clothing, and foreign travel.
a Total number of cases is 394 because one plan does not specify decision-making arrangements.
Exhibit 18 shows that three-quarters of all plans designate mediation or arbitration for the dispute resolution process. Nearly all these plans designate mediation--only four plans, all in King County, specifically designate arbitration. First plans are more likely to specify a non-court dispute resolution process than are modified plans. This may reflect some parents' frustration with mediation, a topic discussed at length in the focus groups.
DISPUTE RESOLUTION MECHANISM
The information collected on who bears the costs of non-court dispute resolution indicates that roughly equal numbers of plans specify a 50/50 sharing of costs, a proportionate sharing of costs based on the income declared on the child support worksheets, and a sharing of costs to be determined in the dispute resolution process.
A body of standard language, dealing with these special issues, has developed and become quite widely used. However, some special provisions are clearly tailored to provide unique, creative solutions to parents' difficulties. For example, one plan requires both parents to maintain fax machines so that the children can receive help with their homework from the non-primary residential parent. Another directs both parents to purchase identical large-format calendars for display in their kitchens and to use the same color-coded scheme to note the children's activities and the residential schedule. Some special provisions like the detailed transportation arrangements discussed previously (see Section 3.d.), are clearly intended to minimize parental conflict. For example, one plan (which modifies a 50/50 residential schedule to an every-other-weekend schedule) includes the following arrangements for extracurricular activities: "Parents shall be at opposite ends of the field or room and shall have no contact at games and extracurricular activities. The residential parent [at the time of the activity] shall sit on the "team" or "school" side of activities."
h. Prior Plans and Changes in Plans
Two hundred and twenty-four (224) of the 395 focal plans included in the sample were modifications of earlier plans. Of these, 171 were first modifications and 53 were second or later modifications.
Exhibit 20 shows that the modifications are heavily concentrated in the fourth, fifth, and sixth years after the prior plan.
Exhibits 21 through 24 detail the main changes between the focal plans in the sample and the plan immediately prior to the focal plan. Approximately half the changes involved a change in the primary residential parent, with the most common pattern being from mother to father. Changes from 50/50 schedules are also quite common, while very few parents elect to change to 50/50 schedules.
Changes in alternate residential time are often quite complex, reflecting the changing needs of children and their parents. In general, however, alternate residential time is more likely to decrease than it is to increase. The exception to this is for summer vacation, where older children frequently spend longer blocks of the summer with their non-primary residential parent than in the earlier plan, or where more summer time is scheduled to compensate for less school-year time. The most common reason for increases in alternate residential time is the elimination of restrictions following the non-primary residential parent successfully meeting certain criteria, such as the completion of drug or alcohol abuse treatment.
About one-quarter of modified plans incorporate changes in decision-making. The most common change is from joint decision-making to sole decision-making for the residential parent, either because parents were unable to make decisions jointly or because one parent relocated. Occasionally, sole decision-making is replaced with joint decision-making, generally after decision-making restrictions are eliminated.
Just over one-quarter of modifications to parenting plans reflect changes in one or both parents' place of residence. As noted earlier, mothers and fathers are equally likely to relocate out of state.
The information for the sample of parenting plans (see 2.METHODOLOGY) was gathered from county courthouses around the state. The files to be included in the sample were drawn at random by OAC staff, who then asked county courthouses' staff to send paper copies of the selected parenting plans to the researcher. The sole exception to this was King County, where information was collected from the files on site.
When the county courthouse staffs sent copies of the selected parenting plans to the researcher, 83 proposed parenting plans were included alongside the final parenting plans. These proposed parenting plans form the basis of an accidental sample of proposed parenting plans, and were supplemented with 25 proposed parenting plans from King County to yield a total sample of 108 proposed parenting plans.
A very brief investigation of the proposed parenting plans was conducted in the hope that it might provide some information about parents' preferences for post-dissolution parenting arrangements, on the assumption that parents propose what they want.
Interpretations of these data must be very cautious as the data suffer from some limitations:
Exhibit 25 shows the residential schedule proposed, by who proposed the plan. In this sample very few plans were proposed jointly. Also, very few parents, either mothers or fathers, propose a 50/50 residential schedule, which may help explain why this arrangement is so uncommon among final plans. Fathers appear to be more likely than mothers to propose a 50/50 residential schedule. Mothers tend to propose themselves as primary residential parents. In contrast, fathers are slightly more likely to propose the mother as primary residential parent than they are to propose themselves as primary residential parent. This pattern of proposed residential arrangements may be one possible explanation for why mothers are more likely than fathers to be the primary residential parent.
Exhibit 26 compares the residential schedules proposed in the proposed parenting plans with the residential schedule approved by the court in the final plan for that family. (This was ascertained by matching SCOMIS case numbers on the proposed plans with the case numbers for the focal plan in the sample of parenting plans.) Of the 70 cases with a plan proposing the mother as the primary residential parent, 52 (74 percent) have final plans with the mother as primary residential parent. In contrast, of the 27 cases with a plan proposing the father as primary residential parent, only 11 (40 percent) have a final plan with the father as primary residential parent. It would appear from these tentative data that not only are fathers less likely than mothers to be proposed as primary residential parent, they are also less likely to get a plan approved that names them as primary residential parent. These data are tentative and further investigation is necessary before a firm conclusion can be reached.
At the beginning of this report, the research questions that motivated this analysis of parenting plans were outlined. This section summarizes the answers to those questions.
As noted, the primary residential parent is most often the mother. In the sample as a whole, 60 percent of the primary residential parents are mothers; among first plans this rises to 73 percent. However, a substantial minority of primary residential parents are fathers--32 percent for the whole sample, and 45 percent for modified plans.
Approximately 45 percent of the plans contain an every-other-weekend residential schedule. Very few considerations greatly affect the likelihood that a divorced couple will have this schedule. Non-primary residential mothers are nearly as likely to have every-other-weekend alternate residential time as non-primary residential fathers.
Only eight (8) percent of plans provide the non-primary residential parent with more time than every-other-weekend and a mid-week visit.
After every-other-weekend schedules, the next most common residential schedules, comprising over one-quarter of the plans in the sample, provide for less than every-other-weekend alternate residential time. These schedules are most common where one parent lives out of state or where one parent's residential time has been restricted.
Slightly under one-fifth of the plans in the sample did not specify a residential schedule, leaving alternate residential time to be agreed either between the parents or between the non-primary residential parent and the child. Although these arrangements were most common in plans covering older children, they are not limited to these groups.
Taken together, the findings of this study suggest that there is indeed a "standard" plan, and the core of the standard plan is the every-other-weekend residential schedule. Every-other-weekend alternate residential time is numerically dominant, and few plans provide for more alternate residential time. Information from both the focus groups and the key informant interviews supports the view that every-other-weekend is the "standard" arrangement.
A number of factors contribute to the scarcity of shared parenting arrangements:
Restrictions on residential time do not always result in less residential time. Sometimes the restrictions impact the organization of the time, or specify criteria to be met before the residential time can begin, or identify individuals who must or must not be present during the residential time. Because of these considerations, nearly one-third of the plans that include restrictions on residential time also specify an every-other-weekend residential schedule.
On the other hand, some restrictions on residential time greatly impact the amount of residential time. Over 60 percent of the plans with restrictions provide for the non-primary residential parent to have less than every-other-weekend alternate residential time. One third of the plans with restrictions on a parent's residential time also require that parent's residential time to be supervised. Sixteen plans order that there should be no contact between a child and a parent.
Restrictions on decision-making authority are about as common as restrictions on residential time--one-fifth of the plans in the sample contained restrictions on decision-making. Restrictions on decision-making virtually always result in the non-restricted parent having sole decision-making authority.
Many plans that contain restrictions on residential time also contain restrictions on decision-making. Even so, nearly one-quarter of the plans that contain restrictions on residential time provide for joint decision-making.
Nearly two-thirds of the modifications in the sample had taken place within five years of the original plan. An additional fifth of the modifications took place in the sixth year.
Half the modifications involved a change in primary residential parent. Half of these changes in primary residential parent were from mother to father.
Just under one-third of all modifications entailed a reduction in the non-primary residential parent's alternate residential time. Just over one-quarter of all modifications were associated with a relocation across state lines by one or both parents. Mothers and fathers were equally likely to relocate.
Few proposed plans are drafted by both parents jointly; rather husbands and wives tend to develop their own proposals, although in many cases only one parent develops a proposed plan. The proposed plans were more likely to designate the mother as primary residential parent than the father, even among plans proposed by the father. Few plans proposed 50/50 schedules, although plans proposed by fathers were more likely to include this schedule than plans proposed by mothers.
When proposed plans are compared with the final, court-approved plan, it appears that mothers are more likely to be designated as the primary residential parent than fathers. When the mother was proposed as primary residential parent, the court accepted the proposal 74 percent of the time. When the father was proposed as primary residential parent the court accepted the proposal only 40 percent of the time.
1 The overwhelming majority of families never have a temporary parenting plan. Temporary plans are not always identified as temporary in JIS, and are more likely to be missing from the actual case file.
7 The category "special provisions" does not include provisions that are properly part of restrictions, such as requirements that a parent undergo drug or alcohol testing or that the children are kept out of the presence of certain individuals.
8 This exercise would be relatively straightforward using SCOMIS.
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