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A recent article in The Guardian took a horrific incident in which an Ohio father killed his two children and inexplicably warned that a trend of states pushing for joint custody laws is somehow putting more kids in danger. As the Chair of National Parents Organization, I am concerned that such a poorly informed conclusion threatens to roll back significant progress being made toward establishing laws that ensure that more children reap the benefits of shared parenting.
The most recent progress was in the States of Florida and Missouri. Just last month, Republican Governor DeSantis signed into law House Bill 1301 making the Sunshine State the fourth state — following Kentucky, Arkansas, and West Virginia — to enact an explicit equal parenting presumption. And earlier this month, Governor Parson (R) signed Senate Bill 35 to add Missouri to the equal shared parenting states.
The Guardian article begins with a horrific story of a father, Shane Elliott, who abused his wife, Kellie, and ultimately murdered their two children, Caleb and Gracie, before killing himself. The facts of this story are appalling and represent a shameful failure of Ohio’s current family court system to protect Kellie, Caleb, and Gracie. Shane’s long history of violence was well documented and Ohio’s courts should have protected the victims.
What lesson are we to take from this shocking story? The Guardian story suggests that this story, and others like it, show that it is dangerous to establish legal presumptions of equal shared parenting for divorced/separated parents. But, for multiple reasons, it’s a mystery how this conclusion is supposed to follow.
In the first place, the tragedy that befell Kellie Elliott and her children was not the result of their being in Shane’s care 50% of the time. Shane was a clear and present danger to Kellie and their children and should not have had any unsupervised time with the children. The Elliott’s divorce took place in Preble County. At the time of their divorce, Preble County’s default parenting time schedule would allow the children to be in the care of a non-residential parent for 82 hours and four overnights in a two-week period during the school year, half the holidays, and extended time in the summer. It is beyond belief that the tragedy that befell Kellie and her children would have been prevented had Shane been restricted to that schedule. Of course, courts need to do a better job of protecting children from abuse. But, if a parent is abusive, that isn’t accomplished by allowing a parent unsupervised time but just ensuring that it’s less than equal parenting time. It’s accomplished by doing a better job of identifying dangerous parents and ensuring that these parents don’t have any unsupervised time with their children.
Second, every equal shared parenting bill I’m aware of, and most certainly every such bill that National Parents Organization has supported, explicitly and specifically creates an exception for cases of documented domestic violence. The 50/50 presumption would not apply in those cases.
Third, opponents of presumptions of equal shared parenting have presented insufficient evidence that such presumptions place victims of domestic violence or children at increased risk. Indeed, the evidence we do have points in exactly the opposite direction. Research from Spain found that the regions of Spain that instituted presumptions of shared parenting saw a “large and significant decrease in intimate partner violence,” with regions without such a presumption seeing no such decline.
U.S. states that have created legal presumptions of equal shared parenting have not experienced increases in domestic violence or child maltreatment. Just the opposite. Take Kentucky, for example. According to the Kentucky Department of Information and Technology Services, the number of domestic relations cases that were also domestic violence cases dropped from 988 in 2017 — when the state created its first equal shared parenting presumption — to 454 in 2022, a drop of more than 50%.
What about child maltreatment? According to statistics from the Department of Health and Human Services, Arizona and Kentucky, both of which have strong equal shared parenting presumptions, have significantly lower and decreasing levels of child abuse and neglect than Ohio. An NPO study comparing child maltreatment cases in Ohio found that, in counties with presumptions of equal shared parenting, cases of child abuse and neglect decreased significantly in comparison with other counties.
The Guardian article notes that “[t]he vast majority of the time, children who are the victims in homicide-suicide cases die at the hands of their fathers or male caregivers.” While this is true, it says more about the suicide element than the homicide element. We know that divorced fathers are more than 8 times more likely to commit suicide than divorced mothers. With respect to the likelihood of a parent killing a child, the statistics are quite different. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, in 2021, fathers acting alone committed 13.5% of child murders while mothers acting alone committed 29.5%. Fathers acting with a non-parent were responsible for 1.9% of child murders while mothers acting with a non-parent were responsible for 11%.
The bottom line is this: our legal system needs to do a better job of identifying parents who present a danger to the other parent or to the children and protecting potential victims. That’s for sure. But you don’t accomplish that by denying children the presumption of a continuing full relationship with both fit and loving parents just because the parents are no longer living together.
So, why is National Parents Organization “pushing for joint custody laws”? Because forty years of research has shown that, in the vast majority of cases, it’s best for children. It’s also best for both parents to ensure that neither is overburdened with parental duties nor sidelined in the children’s lives. We do not protect potential victims of violence by routinely denying children a full and equal relationship with both of their fit and loving parents. In the absence of evidence of family violence, equal shared parenting should be the starting point and the presumptive parenting arrangement when parents are separated.
Don Hubin is the Chair of National Parents Organization, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at The Ohio State University, and Founding Director Emeritus of the OSU Center for Ethics and Human Values.
The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.