Introduction

Following a series of meetings and discussions during late 1997 and early 1998, the Washington State Supreme Court Gender and Justice Commission and the Domestic Relations Commission resolved to undertake a study of the Washington State Parenting Act.1 The research questions to be addressed in the study were developed by the Subcommittee to Reduce Family Conflict and approved by the Commissions. See Appendix A for the complete text of the research questions.

In late spring 1998, the Gender and Justice Commission contracted with the author to conduct a study of the Washington State Parenting Act. The overarching goal of the study was to gather information about how parents seeking a dissolution of marriage make arrangements for parenting, and how those arrangements operate after the marriage is dissolved.

The Washington State Parenting Act Study has four distinct components. Each one of these components addresses specific research questions posed by the Commissions that illuminate the larger research goal.

What Parents Say:

This study component comprised focus groups with Washington State parents who have a court approved parenting plan. Ten focus group meetings were held at four locations around the state. The focus groups provided information about how parents formulate their parenting plans, their satisfaction with the civil justice system, how parents use their parenting plans, whether they are satisfied with their parenting plans, and whether they follow their parenting plans.

Findings include:

  • Parents find the civil justice system hard to access and utilize.
  • While some parents find every-other-weekend residential schedules acceptable, many are frustrated by this common schedule.
  • Few parents exercise joint decision-making.
  • Many parents follow their parenting plans rather loosely.
  • Parents are profoundly frustrated by the lack of enforcement mechanisms when an ex-spouse is uncooperative.
  • Domestic violence survivors find the civil justice system especially difficult to access and utilize, and often have plans they believe compromise their own and their children's safety.

What Providers Say:

This study component comprised structured, in depth, open-ended interviews with 47 professionals working with the Washington State Parenting Act. These key informants were recruited from throughout the state, and include judges, court commissioners, attorneys, family law facilitators, mental health professionals, parenting evaluators, guardians ad litem, and activists. The key informants were recruited to represent the breadth and diversity of professional experience working with the Parenting Act.

Findings include:

  • Key informants strongly support the policy goals of the Parenting Act.
  • Key informants, especially those who work with pro se litigants, believe that the process of getting a finalized parenting plan is extremely difficult for parents.
  • Too few parenting plans are individually tailored.
  • Joint decision-making does not work well.
  • Mediation is useful for formulating parenting plans and dispute resolution except in cases involving domestic violence.
  • The Parenting Act fails to adequately protect survivors of domestic violence.

What the Records Show

This study component comprised a standardized analysis of the contents of a representative sample of nearly 400 recently approved final parenting plans. The sample of plans was drawn from eight counties selected to reflect the social and economic diversity of Washington State.

Findings include:

  • Forty-five percent of the plans provided for a primary residential parent and an every-other-weekend schedule of alternate residential time for the other parent.
  • Among first plans, 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.
  • One-fifth of the plans included restrictions on one parent's residential time; one-third of these plans nevertheless had every-other-weekend schedules.
  • Nearly one in every five plans has no specified residential schedule, leaving it to be agreed between parents or between the parents and the child.
  • Three-quarters of plans specify joint decision-making.

What Experts Say:

This study component comprised a critical review of scholarly research on post-divorce parenting and child well-being. Over 100 peer-reviewed articles and monographs were reviewed. A bibliography and direct quotes from leading experts are appended to the review.

Findings include:

  • No single post-divorce residential schedule has been demonstrated to be most beneficial for children.
  • Absent high levels of parental conflict, there are no significant disadvantages to children of shared or 50/50 residential schedules. Nor are there significant advantages to children of shared or 50/50 residential schedules.
  • Parental conflict is a major source of reduced well-being among children of divorce.
  • Shared or 50/50 residential schedules have adverse consequences for children in high conflict situations.
  • Shared or 50/50 residential schedules and frequent child nonresidential parent contact do not promote parental cooperation.
  • Increased nonresidential parents' involvement in their children's lives may enhance child well-being by improving the economic support of children.

Organization of this Report

This report presents the detailed findings, and complete descriptions of the research methodologies for all four components of the study. Each component of the study is described and discussed in a separate chapter of this report, each of which may be read as a stand-alone report. Chapter summaries are presented at the beginning of each chapter.

Findings and recommendations and policy issues for discussion are presented after this introduction, before the four main chapters.

The complete list of research questions is included in Appendix A.

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1 The Washington State Supreme Court established the Gender and Justice Commission in 1994 and the Domestic Relations Commission in 1996. The Gender and Justice Commission's mission is to promote gender equality in the system of law and justice through education; coordination and cooperation with other organizations; and programs and projects designed to eliminate gender discrimination and bias. The Domestic Relations Commission's objectives are: 1) to improve system access; 2) to create a system which reduces family conflict; and 3) to create a court process that is flexible and responsive to families involved in the justice system. The Office of the Administrator for the Courts (OAC) provides staff support for both Commissions.


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