There is a clear consensus among most mental health professionals that divorce is difficult for children, but many are coming forward to suggest that joint custody arrangements make the process easier for all involved. Recent changes to Illinois divorce law have changed the way that custody is defined, a revision that was designed to make joint parental involvement a reality for many divorcing families.
Custody in Illinois
Child custody and other terms used during the divorce process differ from state to state. Changes to Illinois divorce law that went into effect in January of 2016 redefined many of the common terms that divorcing parents are accustomed to hearing. This has transformed that way that child custody lawyers handle divorce cases and provides additional flexibility to divorcing parents, who often fear the loss of their parental rights. In the past, divorcing parents were generally awarded either sole custody or joint custody, with shared decision making. The new laws allow the court to assign the decision-making authority for individual issues, such as healthcare, education and religious upbringing to one or both parents, with each issue considered individually.
The term “visitation time” has also been replaced by “parenting time,” a change that is meant to support co-parenting rather than the traditional approach of custody and visitation. Rather than assigning one parent control and another occasional access, the shift is meant to encourage both parties to truly share parental responsibilities, reducing the level of conflict that they and their children experience during and after the divorce process. Additionally there have been changes made to the notification time required before a parent moves out of state.
The new divorce laws also encourage judges and custody lawyers to listen to the wishes of children, based on their age and maturity level, and parents and make decisions that encourage close relationships between both parents. Child advocates generally prefer this method due to concerns that the sole-custody litigation system encouraged a culture of conflict between each member of the family that forced the court to unwittingly make the worst possible decisions regarding the care and upbringing of a child. Parents often felt forced to discourage each other and make harsh claims in court because they felt that this was the only way that they could retain access to their child.
The Harm in Custody Fights
Mental health researchers are general in agreement that, outside of cases of abuse or neglect, having consistent access to both parents is in the best interest of the child. This research is reflected in the sweeping changes made to Illinois divorce law. It was once recommended that parents who were in situations of consistent conflict should alternate parenting time, limiting their interaction with one another. More recent research concludes that reducing that shared parenting time between parents can actually help mend conflict and encourage the development of a healthy parenting relationship. This in turn helps children to feel safer and more confident interacting with both parents.
Sole custody, on the other hand, has been shown to increase the level of conflict that a child experiences. The winner and loser system of sole custody encourages battles between parents and could potentially threaten the physical and emotional health of the children involved. When a parent no longer fears the loss of their children, they are less likely to act in a hostile or inappropriate way. Researchers also suggest that even in situations where tension is high, the level of conflict lowers with the passing of time.
A Battle is Not the Only Answer
It’s not uncommon for divorcing parents to assume that the conflict that was present during their marriage will automatically lead to a tension-filled custody battle. Even in the most complicated of divorce situations, this does not have to be the case. High-conflict situations are not a given for divorcing families. Mental health professionals and child custody lawyers alike are now encouraging divorcing families to consider the many options available to them, regarding parenting time and responsibility. The shared-parenting model provides incentive for both parents to cooperate and work together to make decisions and develop parenting plans.
In Illinois and across the country, mental health professionals are working with families to assist them with the creation of parenting accommodations that make sense for both parents and children and fit within the guidelines of state law. Education and participation in special mediation programs has also been encouraged. Ultimately, parents and the legal system place the best interest of a child above any other factor and it is hoped that this focus on the benefits of joint custody will produce happier, healthier children who are better able to cope and handle transition following the divorce of their parents.