Illinois needs a law on equal parenting time to protect the rights of fathers

For far too long, gender bias in custody cases has existed at the expense of too many fathers and their children. It’s time to put both parents on an equal playing field and allow the focus to be solely on the child’s interests.

In 2017, a bill was introduced in the Illinois House of  Representatives that would give both mothers and fathers the presumption of having equal parenting time. The bill ultimately died. Now, five years down the road, it’s needed more than ever.

Here’s why: Over the last two years, the pandemic has taken a toll on society. Social services and programs that help keep crime down have been cut. Schools were closed and unable to keep unruly teens safe and  distracted. Crime, including carjackings often committed by teens, is on the rise in virtually every city in the United States. 

Students and parents arrive at Jordan Community Public School, 7414 N. Wolcott Ave., in Rogers Park on the North Side, Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022.
Parents and children arrive at school on a day in January. Custody cases should start with the presumption that both parents should have equal parenting time, attorney Jeffery Leving writes.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

At the same time, divorces have increased, putting more children at risk of behavioral problems — and down the road, crime — that can arise from growing up in sole-custody households.

It’s essential to begin divorce and child custody cases with the presumption that joint custody and equal parenting time — for fathers as well as mothers — is the best solution for children who may be caught in the middle of legal battles between parents. 

Of course, for some cases, a judge might well decide that a  50/50 arrangement is not in the best interests of a specific child. But all cases should start out with the presumption that the best parent is both parents. 

Better for kids, and society

For far too long, gender bias in custody cases has existed at the expense of too many fathers and their children. It is high time that this situation changes, to put both parents on an equal playing field and allow the focus to be solely on the child’s interests.

Numerous studies have shown that children tend to do much better behaviorally and emotionally when both of their parents are important in their lives. Yet, despite the abundant scientific evidence in favor of the notion that both mothers and fathers should pay a meaningful role in a child’s life after divorce, courts too often continue to go along with outdated gender stereotypes by awarding the bulk of parenting time to just one parent — more often than not, the mother.

This persistent prejudice regarding gender norms still often impacts the outcomes in family law courtrooms.

The 2017 bill sought to change that dynamic. If passed, it would have changed the system to one in which courts would start from the default position that each parent should be awarded equal parenting time, unless there is evidence that awarding parenting time to one of the parents would jeopardize the child’s mental, physical, moral, or emotional health. 

Opponents of equal parenting bills rely on the argument that forcing a child to live with two parents, through shared custody arrangements, is overly disruptive. Awarding sole physical custody to one parent — again, usually the mother — is, they claim, in the child’s best interests. 

But studies show that children can adapt well to living in two different households. What they don’t adapt well to is losing their ability to form a meaningful relationship with a parent who has lost out on significant time with a child because of sole custody arrangements. 

Opponents also argue that shared parenting laws put the rights of parents ahead of those of children, claiming that such laws hinder judicial discretion. But equal parenting time is, in fact, in the best interests of children based on research. And ultimately, judges still decide on custody arrangements. A parent whose living environment puts a child in physical, mental, emotional or moral danger can still be denied equal parenting time. 

It’s time for legislators to make equal parenting time the law in Illinois. It’s better for children and families — and ultimately, for society.

Jeffery M. Leving is founder and president of the Law Offices of Jeffery M. Leving Ltd.,and is an advocate for the rights of fathers.

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