Slowly but surely, Massachusetts is reshaping its laws around divorce. First, a task force of experts and advocates prompted a sweeping overhaul of outdated alimony laws. And two years ago, the governor’s office convened a similar committee to review the state’s child custody laws. That committee’s work is done, and the result is promising: a proposal that acknowledges that, in most circumstances, children benefit from significant time with both parents. This would put Massachusetts in line with other states that are updating their custody laws, and is worthy of the governor’s support and the Legislature’s action.
The changes to state code, if passed, would directly affect only a small portion of divorce cases: the 10 to 15 percent of couples who cannot reach an agreement through negotiation or mediation, and instead rely on the courts. But child advocates say the changes would establish expectations for all splitting families, and set the tone for settlement negotiations, by prioritizing the well-being of children over the competing interests of the parents.
Significantly, the proposal would change some of the adversarial language that’s currently in state code, replacing “custody” with “residential responsibility” and “decision-making responsibility,” and replacing the loaded term “visitation” with the more neutral “parenting time.” A new mission statement would state that significant time with both parents, when possible, is ideal. And new language would suggest that, when possible, children should spend at least one third of the time with each parent.
Of all of the changes proposed, that idea — prescribing a specific amount of time with each parent — is most likely to face resistance. Some will imagine that constant travel between homes could be too disruptive for children. Others will be disappointed that the language doesn’t mandate a 50-50 split. But the task force proposal doesn’t dictate any specific sort of split. (Parents can divide up weekends and weekdays; summers and vacation weeks could work, too.) The guidelines are a way of acknowledging research that shows the value of quality time with both parents.
The proposed changes would still leave judges broad discretion to limit a child’s contact with parents in the case of domestic violence, substance abuse, and a range of other factors. Judges would be able to penalize parents for deliberately trying to alienate a child from a father or a mother. The need for such safeguards underscores a sad reality about divorce: There is no way to eliminate all acrimony from the process, or to shield children completely from disruption. But as a baseline effort to put the needs of children first, and to bring Massachusetts custody laws into the present, these changes are worth pursuing.