Findings and Recommendations: Policy Challenges
The three most important findings of the Washington State Parenting Plan Study are:
- The Parenting Act works well for most Washington State families.
Most parents are able to develop a workable parenting plan and come to a satisfactory working day-to-day relationship. These parents use their parenting plans as a fall back arrangement; their day-to-day parenting arrangements are flexible and responsive to their own and their children's changing needs. In these families, both parents sustain ongoing involvement in their children's lives.
- There is widespread, strong support for the policy goals of the Parenting Act.
Washington State parents and professionals who work with the Parenting Act express strong support for the policy goal that post dissolution parenting arrangements should be based on serving the best interests of children. Parents and professionals strongly endorse the goal of continued, on-going involvement by both parents after a dissolution of marriage. Parents and professionals support the goal of the Act to provide parents with clearly defined, specific post dissolution parenting arrangements that are flexible and tailored to the needs of the individual child and family.
- The provisions of the Parenting Act are consistent with the findings of scholarly research about post divorce parenting and child well-being.
Child development and post-divorce parenting experts agree that different families and different children have different needs for post dissolution parenting; the Parenting Act provides for such an individualized approach. Child development and post-divorce parenting experts agree that the best interests of most children are served by the continued involvement of both parents; the Parenting Act provides for on-going involvement by both parents. Child development and post-divorce parenting experts agree that 50/50 or shared parenting arrangements are only appropriate where parents have good relations, and they can harm children where parental relations are conflicted. The Parenting Act limits these arrangements to families where parental cooperation is high.
Despite these strong, positive findings, there are still opportunities for better serving the needs of Washington State's families. The following are some of the steps that could be taken. The list is undoubtedly not complete; some of the suggestions are mutually exclusive and others are redundant.
Some of the policy suggestions are beyond the remit of the Gender and Justice Commission. However, there is a clear role for the Commission in many of these activities, particularly in the development of informational materials and in the provision of training.
- Provide parents with more information.
Parents need information on a variety of topics, including:
- The process of getting a parenting plan.
- The purpose and goals of the Parenting Act.
- Good language to use on a parenting plan (and language to avoid).
- Creative residential schedules.
- Creative extra provisions for making the plan work.
- What does joint decision-making mean and how is it done.
- What does it mean to be the custodian?
- What is mediation? How does it work? And which parents are (and are not) good candidates for mediation.
- When and how to invoke the dispute resolution mechanism.
This information could be provided in a variety of ways, including:
- More emphasis on the practicalities (and less emphasis on abstract or general information) in parenting classes.
- Workshops for divorcing parents.
- Help pages on the OAC website, including FAQs (frequently asked questions).
- Help sheets and FAQs distributed with parenting plan forms.
- Extended instructions on completing the parenting plan forms distributed with the forms.
- Help telephone lines or email lines.
Information of this type will be useful to litigants with or without attorneys, but will be especially helpful to pro se litigants.
Encourage more creativity and individualizing of parenting plans.
Too many Washington State parents have cookie cutter parenting plans that are centered on the every-other-weekend residential schedule. For many parents, this schedule works well; however, some parents find this schedule too limiting and would be better served by more creativity in devising their parenting plan. Strategies to encourage creativity and individualizing include:
These days, fewer families follow traditional parenting arrangements where mothers are caretakers and fathers are breadwinners. The social and cultural meanings of motherhood and fatherhood have dramatically changed since the early 1970s. Creative schedules that offer alternatives to every other weekend will be better able to accommodate these changes in family life and parenting. Encouraging more individualization of parenting plans and less routine use of every other weekend is also consistent with the Parenting Act's goal of an individualized approach that serves the best interests of each individual child.
- Discourage the routine use of prescriptive alternate residential time guidelines in favor of informational materials.
- Disseminate information about diverse residential schedules and the benefits of individualizing residential schedules to attorneys, judges, court commissioners, guardians ad litem, court facilitators, and other professionals involved in the formulation of parenting plans.
- Provide parents with information about diverse residential schedules in the informational materials described in 1. on the previous page.
- Discourage the use of versions of the parenting plan forms that list only one or two possible residential schedules.
Strengthen protections for survivors of domestic violence and improve services to survivors of domestic violence.
Survivors of domestic violence reported a particularly difficult time accessing the civil justice system and securing parenting plans that adequately protect their safety. These problems appear to be related to the way the Parenting Act is implemented, rather than to shortcomings in the Act itself. Several measures could be taken to support domestic violence survivors.
In combination, provisions like these can reduce the likelihood of a domestic violence survivor encountering her abuser in the context of developing her parenting plan and can reduce the number of hurdles a domestic violence survivor must clear before securing a final decree of dissolution and parenting plan. These provisions may also reduce the number of parenting plans that require unsafe encounters between a survivor and an abuser.
- Develop special packets of information tailored to the needs of domestic violence survivors. This information should inform survivors of their right not to participate in programs that may be dangerous to them, such as parenting classes and mediation, and explain how to opt out of these programs.
- Improve awareness of issues relating to domestic violence as it relates to the Parenting Act among professionals working in the civil justice system. This might be achieved through workshops, bulletins, and other educational programs. This information should be available to judges, court commissioners, facilitators, mediators, attorneys, guardians ad litem, parenting evaluators, and so forth. These professionals should be alerted to the possibility of the use of harassment, intimidation, threats, and inappropriate trading by abusers, and encouraged to recognize and redress such problems. These professionals should also be alerted to the threats to domestic violence survivors' safety posed by releasing addresses and other information to abusers.
- Encourage courts to clarify policies regarding domestic violence survivors' obligations to attend parenting classes and mediation. Encourage courts to develop and implement clear means for domestic violence survivors to opt out of these programs.
- Improve security for all parents working to develop a parenting plan.
- Clarify the circumstances under which as agreed and 50/50 residential schedules are permitted. These schedules should never be allowed in families with a history of domestic violence.
- Examine the routine use of the every-other-weekend residential schedule. Encourage judges and court commissioners to pay special attention to whether this residential schedule is appropriate for families with a history of domestic violence.
- Clarify which agencies and individuals are appropriate as supervisors of alternate residential time and of exchanges of children. Generally, members of the abusers' family and friends are not appropriate supervisors.
- Clarify the circumstances under which joint decision-making is permitted. This should never be allowed in families with a history of domestic violence.
- When domestic violence is alleged, or where professionals working in the civil justice system suspect domestic violence has occurred, an immediate broad-based investigation of the charges must be ordered, including a risk assessment of the potential danger to the victim posed by the abuser. Early, comprehensive parenting evaluations by a single, outside evaluator should also be considered.
Improve the mandatory parenting plan forms.
At present, several different versions of the mandatory parenting plans forms are in circulation and use. Some of the versions are poorly printed. All are difficult to use.
Strategies to improve the mandatory forms include:
- Enhance the layout and graphic design of the form.
- Improve standardization of the form.
- Provide comprehensive directions for completing the form on the form itself (perhaps on the reverse side of pages, or on the left-hand page of a side-by-side layout).
- All forms should include information about whether this is a first or modified plan, the place of residence of the parents, and whether the parents were pro se litigants.
Clarify and maintain restrictions on shared or 50/50 residential schedules.
Child development and post-divorce parenting experts agree that shared or 50/50 residential schedules can harm children when parental relations are conflicted. This information, together with information about the limits the Parenting Act places on shared or 50/50 residential schedules, should be disseminated to parents and professionals working in the civil justice system. While these schedules should be supported for families where they are mutually sought, and are practical, they should not be permitted in families where parental relations are conflicted.
Discourage as agreed plans.
Plans that do not specify a residential schedule, but leave arrangements to be agreed between parents or between the child and the parents, appear to be contrary to both the spirit and the letter of the Parenting Act. Since parents always have the option of informally agreeing to vary the residential schedule, plans with as agreed residential schedules should be discouraged. If these plans are to be permitted, the circumstances under which they are allowable should be specified and this information disseminated. As agreed plans should never be approved for families with a history of domestic violence or conflicted parental relations.
Reconsider the routine use of joint decision making in parenting plans.
Most parents do not adhere to the joint decision-making provisions in their plans, and most professionals believe these provisions promote conflict. Parents should be provided with more information about the intent and meaning of joint decision-
making and should be encouraged to formulate individualized plans for decision-making, rather than routinely adopting joint decision-making. Joint decision-making should never be approved for families with a history of domestic violence.
Enhance the dispute resolution provisions in parenting plans.
Dispute resolution provisions should provide detailed, step-by-step directions for invoking the dispute resolution mechanism. Information to this effect should be disseminated to professionals involved in the formulation of parenting plans and to parents. Court commissioners and judges should not approve plans that do not tell parents exactly how to invoke the dispute resolution procedure.
Strengthen monitoring and enforcement of parenting plan provisions.
Parents need a clear recourse if their ex-spouses refuse to follow the parenting plan, attempt to undermine the parenting plan, or engage in other abusive behavior.
- The authority of the court to deal with these issues should be clarified.
- At the time the parenting plan is finalized, parents should be provided with clear information on how to report violations of the parenting plan and how to seek redress.
Support efforts to improve the standard of practice for professionals working with the Parenting Act.
Mediators, guardians ad litem, parenting evaluators, parenting class instructors, and other professionals working with the Parenting Act have made significant strides toward enhancing their professional standards of practice. This has been accomplished through links to state, national, and international professional organizations that provide training, accreditation, and codes of conduct. These efforts should be commended and supported. Standards of practice can also be enhanced by the provision of clear guidance from the courts about the appropriate roles of these professionals working with the Parenting Act. The Gender and Justice Commission can help in this effort by assisting with training on a range of issues, including issues related to gender fairness and domestic violence.
Clarify the situation with regard to relocation of the primary residential parent.
Most parents and professionals working with the Parenting Act believe the present situation, with regard to the relocation of the primary residential parent, is too uncertain. The present situation should be clarified and improved procedures to handle relocations should be developed.
Enhance parenting classes.
Nearly all professionals working with the Parenting Act, and many parents, believe that parenting classes are extremely valuable. These programs could be further enhanced in a number of ways.
- Expand the amount of specific information about the process of getting a final parenting plan.
- Consider holding classes in locations (e.g., community centers) and at times (e.g., evenings and weekends) that are more easily accessible to parents.
- Consider directing parents seeking a first parenting plan and parents seeking to modify a parenting plan to separate classes.
- Reconsider mandatory parenting classes in favor of voluntary classes, so that resources can be directed at those most likely to benefit from them. Or consider separating parents who wish to attend from parents ordered to attend.
- Survivors of domestic violence should not be required to attend parenting classes. Specialized information should be made available to domestic violence survivors.
Download the Findings and Recommendations in Word format.
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