A broken family should not break innocent children. As the daughter of a single father, I have experienced firsthand just how important a dad can be in the life of a child. Even now, I simply cannot imagine my life without his love, guidance, and care.
Yet not everyone is so lucky. Today, one in four American children lives in a home without a father figure. If enacted, Florida House Bill 1395 could reverse that trend and support the active presence of a mother and a father for kids, even after divorce.
Introduced by Rep. Jenna Persons-Mulicka (R-Fort Myers), H.B. 1395 aims to help solve the problem of fatherlessness in the Sunshine State by codifying the “presumption that equal time-sharing is in best interests of [a] minor child.” In practice, this allows the courts to default to a 50-50 custody split in the event of a divorce.
This would be a major shift from the status quo, where mothers nationwide are awarded sole or primary custody nearly 80 percent of the time. By passing this legislation, Florida lawmakers would acknowledge the invaluable role that fathers play in the lives of their children.
Facts support my childhood experience. Extensive research confirms that fathers are irreplaceable in the development and happiness of their children. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services emphasizes the value of fatherhood, citing scientific research demonstrating the positive effect on “verbal skills, intellectual functioning and academic achievement” among adolescents exposed to an “active and nurturing style of fathering.” The agency says the benefits of fatherhood are realized as early as infancy, since babies and toddlers “who have involved fathers in their lives for the first 18 to 24 months of life are more secure and are more likely to explore the world around them with increased enthusiasm and curiosity than children who did not have close, involved fathers.”
The results can truly be seen as children mature. A 2017 report from the University of Texas Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs’ Child and Family Research Partnership found that the active presence of fathers in the lives of their children led to better outcomes throughout their journey from childhood to adulthood.
“Children who grow up with involved fathers are 39 percent more likely to earn mostly A’s in school, 45 percent less likely to repeat a grade, 60 percent less likely to be suspended or expelled from school, twice as likely to go to college and find stable employment after high school, 75 percent less likely to have a teen birth, and 80 percent less likely to spend time in jail,” they explained.
As a group, children without a strong fatherly presence unfortunately fare far worse than their peers with engaged fathers, often spurring grave personal and societal consequences. The pains of this reality are felt even more deeply by girls, who face “elevated risk for early sexual activity and adolescent pregnancy,” the Society for Research in Child Development reports.
According to the American Psychological Association, children of divorce are already “twice as likely to academically, behaviorally and socially struggle as children of first-marriage families.” Already contending with the challenges of divorce, these kids must be able to rely upon two parents who are constant presences in their lives—and 50-50 custody can often be a way to ensure that occurs.
Children living in equal custody arrangements have a far greater chance at success than those raised only by one parent. After analyzing data from more than 1,100 divorced families, Stanford Custody Project discovered that children in shared parenting families were more likely to make better grades, were less depressed and more well-adjusted behaviorally than those who resided only with their mothers.
Similarly, a 2016 Swedish study found that “children in equal shared parenting arrangements… had lower levels of psychosomatic problems than those who lived mostly with one, or only with one parent.” Children raised exclusively by a single parent were also far more likely to suffer from sleep and health issues, both of which can affect their overall development.
Sadly, not all fathers are the parents their children need them to be. That’s why this bill still requires the courts to consider stability, reliability, and fitness of both parents when making custody determinations. Any evidence of behavior that is detrimental to the child—parental drug or alcohol abuse, domestic violence, sexual abuse, abandonment, neglect, and so on—would be considered. With the appropriate safeguards in place, this bill is a win for Florida families and children.
Stefani E. Buhajla is the communications director at the Foundation for Government Accountability.