Written by Nick Langford, MA
Shared parenting is the term usually given to a post-separation or divorce arrangement in which children will spend their time more or less evenly with both parents. Generally this will mean the child spending this time at each parent’s home, but in one arrangement, known as ‘birds nest custody’ the children remain in one home and the parents alternate.
The essence of shared parenting is that neither parent is regarded as in any way superior, and both take equal responsibility for their children. Time need not be shared absolutely equally, but any share less than about 35% is not regarded as shared parenting.
The alternative to shared parenting is for one parent to be regarded as ‘primary’ and to do the bulk of the care and take on the bulk of the responsibility. Unlike shared parenting, this arrangement is not stable, and often results in a child losing substantial, or even all, contact with one parent.
Shared parenting is politically very controversial and is hotly debated. Fathers and their advocate groups campaign for the wider adoption and legal enforcement of shared parenting while some women’s groups believe that mothers only should determine with whom their children have contact and that fathers should accept whatever level of contact they are offered, with no legal right to seek more through the courts. Disputes over the division of parenting time represent more than half the business of the family courts.
The benefits to the child of shared parenting
Shared parenting generally ensures better outcomes for children following family breakdown; some of the advantages are that it,
- ensures the continuation of the child’s family life, with nurture from both parents rather than just one, and from two extended families;
- reassures the child he/she still has two parents, and that though they now live in separate houses, he/she has a home in both;
- counters the myth that only one parent is ‘caring’ while the other is ‘deadbeat’ or ‘absent’;
- ensures that the responsibility for discipline doesn’t fall only to one parent while the other is seen as being the ‘fun’ parent;
- ensures that children and parents develop meaningful and lasting relationships, instead of the time-limited ‘contact’;
- convinces the parents that they both have an enduring role in their child’s life;
- encourages parents to work together and support each other in their parenting;
- places both parents on an equal footing with schools, doctors and other agencies, which might otherwise only be prepared to deal with the ‘resident’ parent;
- gives both parents the right to take their child on holiday;
- affirms that no matter what, each parent wants to, and is able to, provide a home for their child; and
- reassures the child that in the event of one parent dying he still has a home to go to.
Making shared parenting work
It is generally considered that three prerequisites must be satisfied for shared parenting to work:
- The needs of the child must be prioritised, and children be given a say in how arrangements evolve over time;
- There must be flexibility over arrangements, with supportive and cooperative parenting;
- Children must be able to feel settled and truly at home in both households.
You must try to put any bitterness you may still have aside, and focus on what is in the best interests of your children.
Don’t try to control how the other parent looks after your children; their way of parenting may not be yours, but you have to accept that and not try to change it unless they are putting the child at substantial risk. Accept that the children are just as much the other parent’s as they are yours.
Sometimes it isn’t possible for parents to cooperate fully, but this need not be a bar to shared parenting. It is possible to arrange handovers, for example, which do not necessitate the parents having to meet: collection of children from school is best, or you can suggest that hand-overs are conducted by intermediaries. One possibility is to arrange contact where a trusted relative (such as a grandparent) can be present. It is also possible to drop children off at a contact centre from which they can be collected by the other parent.
If your former partner has specific concerns about contact – he or she doesn’t trust your driving, thinks you drink too much, doesn’t want your child to be taken to see a particular adult or to engage in a particular activity – you can make an ‘undertaking’ to the Court that you will not do these things. If you break the Undertaking the Court can fine you or imprison you for up to two years.
The courts and shared parenting
Sometimes parents are unable to agree arrangements between themselves and find that they must seek help from professional services such as mediation or the courts. Hitherto the usual legal route has been to make an application to the court for a ‘contact order’ which would award them a greater share of the child’s time. In 2011 108,552 orders were made for contact, representing 53% of all child-related orders. Most of these orders were breached to some extent, necessitating traumatic and costly returns to court.
Rather than increase levels of contact, the courts were also able to order a ‘shared residence order’ as the best way to achieve shared parenting. The government has now eliminated this adversarial distinction between ‘contact’ and ‘residence’ by introducing parenting time arrangements.
Over recent years the number of situations has grown in which the courts consider shared parenting to be appropriate and the obstacles to shared parenting are steadily being demolished. Thus courts are now more inclined to regard shared parenting as the default arrangement and to require exceptional circumstances to order sole residence. They are prepared to order shared parenting even where there is conflict between parents and have used shared residence orders to reduce conflict and remind parents that they have equal responsibility. They have also ordered shared residence where parents live a considerable distance apart and even where one parent is not the biological parent.
Before you seek consider shared parenting for you own family you should consider the following:
- How far away from your children’s other parent do you live?
- Has she/he made any allegations about you?
- (If you are the father) do you know whether your children’s mother is still breastfeeding?
- Do you have accommodation suitable for your child?
- Do you work flexibly enough to be able to have your child stay overnight and some full days during the week?
- Are you likely to be away from home for weeks or months at a time?
- Do you have the ability to cook for your children and carry out day-to-day parenting chores?
An application for residence is likely to involve CAFCASS. They will want to see if you have suitable accommodation for your children, who will care for them when you are at work, whether your new partner is suitable, etc. They may visit your home, interview relevant parties and carry out background checks.
Start thinking of reasons why your child deserves to have you in their life; make sure you have worked out a parenting plan for your child; contact the Court and ask them to send you out one of their parenting plan booklets.
Look at cases where shared residence has been granted and emphasise these points to the Court in your case; here are some of the key points which emerge;
- Shared parenting must be shown to be in the best interests of the child;
- Shared parenting is more likely to be ordered where parents live close to each other (though distance need not be an impediment);
- Shared parenting shows that each parent, and the home offered by them, is of equal status;
- Shared parenting tells parents that they have equal duties and responsibilities;
- Shared parenting prevents one parent trying to control the other.
Document all the time your child has spent with you; use a spread-sheet to show every day – and especially nights – your child has stayed with you. You could use one row for each day and 4 columns for mornings, afternoons, evenings and overnight stays. Colour-code the cells show clearly the range and extent of the times when your child has been in your care.
You are aiming to establish evidence you can present to the judge showing you are competent to care for your child, you are supportive of the relationship between your child and the other parent. You must show how involved you are with every aspect of your child’s life, and become a paragon of parenthood.
You must show that sole parenting is injurious to your child’s welfare and violates his right to his family well the harm done to your child’s education; show how involved you have been with his homework, use research to prove the link between parental involvement and educational success and show the court that you are fully committed and that a full relationship with you is essential to your child.