Why an “A” for Effort? Effort begins with E; the traditional grading system does not even have an E. You can thank Mount Holyoke College, circa 1897, for letter grades. We are certain most of our loyal readers were Straight-A students, but imagine getting a C- on something. Not too impressive, is it? Virginia’s “Shared Parenting Report Card” earns the Commonwealth a C-. Let’s find out why, and what it means to you.

The National Parents Organization Reports

The National Parents Organization (NPO) puts out a national round-up of states’ policies on shared parenting. Shared parenting means splitting the responsibility, even after divorce, for the little lives you and your ex-wife brought into this world. As the NPO’s report says,

[C]ompelling, and growing consensus among researchers [shows] that true shared parenting by separated parents is usually best for children, even when there is (nonviolent) conflict between the parents and even when the parents do not initially agree to shared parenting. And the benefits to children increase as they have more equal time with each of their fit and loving parents.

This is hard to argue against. Two parents produced magnificent, loved children; two parents should continue to support and nurture them into adulthood.

Yet the nation shows tremendous disparity in the ways states support this progressive, child-centered method of post-divorce care.

Alarming Numbers

The 2019 Shared Parenting Report highlights some alarming numbers that point toward the many benefits of shared parenting:

[T]he 35% of children in fatherless or single parent families not only fare worse in terms of psychological and emotional well-being, physical and mental health, labor market and wealth accumulation outcomes, but are more prone to social pathologies such as child abuse, crime and substance abuse …

These 35 percent of children in fatherless or single-parent households represent:

  • 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
  • 85 percent of children who exhibit behavioral disorders
  • 90 percent of homeless and runaway children
  • 85 percent of teen pregnancies

Anything a state can do to improve the odds stacked against these children, that state should do it. How is Virginia doing? The NPO says the Commonwealth is not doing very well.

First, The Positives in Virginia’s Code

The NPO points out three positive steps the state has taken to promote shared parenting:

  1. Under Code of Virginia § 20-124.3, the Old Dominion requires a court to consider a “friendly parent” factor in determining a child’s best interest for custody purposes.
  2. Recent legislative changes, found in the same legal Section, promoted by NPO explicitly permit joint legal or physical custody for final orders.
  3. Also ensconced in § 20-124.3, Virginia courts are required to “communicate to the parties the basis of the [custody] decision either orally or in writing.”

These are all well and good, though perhaps a bit tentative or conservative for many advocates of fathers’ rights in Virginia. Do they balance out the negatives cited by NPO that result in the state’s C- rating?

Alas, The Negatives

We would be thrilled to cite legal passages in Code of Virginia to illustrate the negative aspects seen in Virginia’s legal view of shared parenting. We, alas, cannot, because the negatives are what is missing from the Commonwealth’s laws, as described by NPO:

  1. Virginia has no statutory preference for, or presumption of, shared parenting (joint legal custody and shared physical custody) for temporary or final orders.
  2. Virginia statute does not contain any policy statement or other language encouraging shared parenting.
  3. The statutory provision that a court “shall consider and may award joint legal, joint physical, or sole custody” does not specifically encourage courts to promote shared parenting.

Virginia is not alone in taking its sweet time to adopt legislation that brightens the future for the state’s children after divorce. Fully half of the United States scored grades of C+ to C-; only two states received As (Arizona and Kentucky) and two states received Fs (New York and Rhode Island).

We need to unpack each of the three negatives to fully understand their implications for you, a Virginia Dad.

No Statutory Preference for Shared Parenting

Virginia has no statutory preference or legal presumption that shared parenting is a preferred method for apportioning child custody.

To quote the NPO, “A legal presumption of shared parenting could be framed as follows: ‘when two parents with custody of a child separate or divorce, there is a rebuttable legal presumption that equal legal custody and equal or nearly equal physical custody is in the best interest of the child.’ The statement of the presumption would be followed by a specification of the factors that would rebut the presumption.”

BUT There’s Encouraging Language

As of now, Virginia has no wording enshrined in state law encouraging shared parenting. A statutorily mandated preference would require Virginia’s courts to consider custodial arrangements in a particular, preferential order. The legal preference would be for shared parenting, moving to a less-preferred arrangement only when a situation requires it.

A legal preference for shared parenting could be worded, says the NPO, like this: “when two parents with custody of a child separate or divorce, a court shall consider the following custodial arrangements of the children in the following order, preferring the higher ranked arrangement unless it finds grounds for concluding that it would be detrimental to the child: equal legal custody and equal or nearly equal physical custody; equal legal custody and sole physical custody; sole legal and physical custody.”

Legislators, if you are reading, please feel free to cut and paste! We did the work for you!

Statutory Provision

The NPO has a problem with Virginia’s mealy-mouthed wording in Virginia Code § 20-124.2, “Court-ordered custody and visitation arrangements,” because it does not express a directive to judges to prioritize shared parenting. The wording is,

In determining custody, the court shall give primary consideration to the best interests of the child. The court shall consider and may award joint legal, joint physical, or sole custody, and there shall be no presumption in favor of any form of custody.

That could be more direct, with wording that does favor shared parenting, by revising the last part of the last sentence.

On the face of it, all these issues are soluble if the political will is in the Legislature. Virginia fathers can legally have as much right to parenting time with their children as Virginia’s mothers do. Our great Commonwealth need not suffer the shame of a C- for many more years. All it takes is a little hard work—study skills, your teachers called them.

Study political candidates and their positions; ask current officeholders what they think of shared parenting; show up at public forums and make your voice heard. Our children deserve better than passing marks. Virginia’s Dads (and Moms!) deserve to be on the Honor Roll of shared parenting.

Your Virginia law case will make the grade if you use the experienced attorneys at The Firm For Men. Contact us online or telephone our offices at 757-383-9184. We can work against the weak statutory provisions of Virginia’s child custody and visitation laws. We can fight for the parenting time you need and want.