As our nation mourns the losses caused by another mass shooter in Florida, there is no doubt the national dialogue will turn again into a conversation about the causes for this latest tragedy. Gun regulations, mental health issues and the FBI’s failure to follow up on reported concerns are already dominating headlines.
That said, there is a significant underlying and common thread connecting these shooters that continues to be overlooked — fatherless children. While there are special interests that defend the status quo in family court proceedings, the truth is that 80 percent of cases result in one parent having primary custody and the other — most commonly the father — relegated to the role of visitor in his child’s life.
Fortunately, Kansas and Missouri legislators are considering shared parenting legislation — Kansas Senate Bill 257 and Missouri Senate Bill 645 — that would make certain children impacted by divorce do not lose the important connection they have with both parents.
The connection to the mass shootings and crime among children in general is not a stretch — in fact, CNN publishes a list of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history and nearly a third were carried out by men under 30 years of age. What’s more, a strong majority of those young men did not have a biological father present in their lives growing up.
In the most recent example, the Florida shooter’s father died when he was young. And while the teenager’s story was not one of divorce, fatherlessness is an epidemic in our nation and its impact is far reaching. For instance, according to federal statistics from sources including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Census Bureau, children raised in single-parent households account for:
• 85 percent of children who exhibit behavioral disorders;
• 63 percent of teen suicides;
• 70 percent of juveniles in state-operated institutions;
• 71 percent of high school dropouts;
• 75 percent of children in chemical abuse centers;
• 85 percent of those in prison; and
• 90 percent of homeless and runaway children.
Unfortunately, in the face of these statistics, our own outdated family courts are knowingly exacerbating these problems by continuing to award sole custody to one parent — overwhelmingly to the mother — in about 80 percent of cases.
This is a behavior that must stop not only because of the statistics tied to children raised by single parents but also for the overwhelming amount of research that shows children’s health and well being are much improved when they have as close to equal time as possible with both parents, especially in instances of divorce.
Dr. Richard Warshak, clinical professor of psychology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, published an article in the Journal of the American Psychological Association that was endorsed by 110 authorities around the world that concluded that “shared parenting should be the norm for parenting plans for children of all ages, including very young children.”
And while the examples of research showing the benefits of shared parenting goes on and on, a study released just last month led by Linda Nielsen, a renowned child development researcher and professor of adolescent and educational psychology at Wake Forest University, may demonstrate the point best. Her research, which analyzed about 60 scientific studies spanning many decades, numerous countries and millions of children, mothers and fathers, culminated in a firm conclusion: shared parenting is best for children when parents divorce or separate.
The good news is that Kansas and Missouri legislators are the latest to press forward with important and overdue reforms to each state’s child custody laws.
It is important to note that the proposed child custody legislation does not interfere with judicial discretion; it does not apply in instances where domestic violence exists; and it does not prevent divorcing parents from coming up with alternative plans of their own. It simply directs that, in instances where parents may not be able to agree, the court will give children what they most want and need — equal time with both mom and dad.
The bills coincide with a national movement that recognizes the importance both parents play in a child’s upbringing. As the The Washington Post recently reported, 25 states in the last year have considered legislation that advances shared parenting.
It is promising momentum to reform a system that is out of line with gender equality, our modern families and, most importantly, what research shows is in the best interest of our children. With that in mind, Kansas and Missouri moms and dads should call their legislators and encourage them to pass this important legislation.
In terms of the recent mass shootings that have shocked the nation, we should all respond by doing whatever we possibly can to prevent these horrifying acts from happening again. Preserving the loving, nurturing and mentoring relationships our youth have with their parents is one step in the right direction to curbing crime in our community.
Chair of National Parents Organization of Kansas