ASU psychology research leads to international conversation about custody laws

Determining custody arrangements after divorce can be one of the most important decisions made about a child. Arizona’s child custody law is the first of its kind in the United States to abolish the traditional idea of “visitation” and replace it with a presumption of equal parenting time.

Research from Arizona State University scientists, in particular developmental psychologist William Fabricius, informed the law. Now other countries are noticing Arizona’s child custody law, and the work of Fabricius.William Fabricius

William Fabricius, associate professor of psychology at ASU. Photo by Robert Ewing  Download Full Image

“Arizona judges start out presuming that a child will spend 50% of the time with mom and 50% with dad, unless there is evidence that makes that arrangement inappropriate,” said Fabricius, an associate professor of psychology at ASU.

The government of Japan is currently studying whether to update their child custody laws, so the Japanese Ministry of Justice sent a representative, Ryusuke Kurashige, to Arizona to learn about the developmental psychology research that served as the foundation for the state’s 2013 child custody law.

“In Japan, the parent who doesn’t live with his/her child — which in most cases is the father — can meet with his/her child only once a month,” Kurashige said.

While Kurashige was at ASU, he and Fabricius discussed findings from decades of research on children of divorce. ASU undergraduate Megan Russell also shared her honor’s thesis research project, which tests whether voluntary surveys accurately assess the mental health of ASU students with divorced parents.

“The opportunity to explain my research to a member of another country’s government was a wonderful experience,” said Russell, who is a senior in Barrett, The Honors College.

Fabricius also helped organize a statewide series of meetings for Kurashige so he could learn how Arizona’s child custody law works. Kurashige visited the family court in Pinal County and conversed with family court judges, attorneys and conciliation court officers from across the state.

Kurashige said his meetings demonstrated that Arizona’s law has widespread support, and he anticipates that learning how important parenting time is could lead to more co-parenting in Japanese divorced couples and possible changes to Japanese family law.

Arizona’s custody law started with an interruption

Fabricius started studying the effects of divorce from the perspective of children in the mid-1990s. He interviewed college students of divorced parents and found the students overwhelmingly thought that living with each of their parents for equal amounts of time was best.

The long road to the new state custody law began soon after, when he was interrupted during a lecture to family court employees.

“I was asked to give a half-hour talk on basic child development. I started my talk by saying that developmental psychologists had known since the early 1980s that infants become attached to their fathers as much as they do their mothers,” Fabricius said. “They stopped me in my tracks, and I could not get past that point.”

The talk inspired him to change the fact that the people in charge of child custody decisions were unaware of findings in developmental psychology.

“Developmental psychologists should offer to provide training in current research to the family law communities in their states,” he said.

Changing Arizona’s child custody law took more than a decade of work. Fabricius started by sharing research findings with the state, national and international family law communities. He also served on the board of the Arizona chapter of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts and was appointed by the governor to the Domestic Relations Committee of the Arizona legislature. In 2008, the committee appointed Fabricius chair of the Ad Hoc Custody Workgroup. The workgroup brought together judges, attorneys, conciliation court directors, mental health providers, anti-domestic abuse advocates, fathers’ rights advocates and parents to consider how to overhaul Arizona’s child custody statutes.

The bill the Ad Hoc Custody Workgroup wrote became law in 2013, with bipartisan support and near unanimous votes in both houses of the Arizona state legislature.

“From the beginning, we decided to be research-focused,” Fabricius said. “It took more than 40 meetings, 40 months and 40 individuals to change the law.”

Equal parenting time is a public health issue

Before beginning his efforts to change the state custody law, Fabricius joined forces with ASU psychology professors Linda Leucken and Sanford Braver and with Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law Professor Ira Ellman. These partnerships led to the discovery that not only was spending time with both parents important to children of divorce, it was also a public health issue. Fabricius and his collaborators kept finding that maximizing time with both parents is linked to better physical and mental health for children.

“It is high-quality parenting, regardless of gender of parent, that is critical to promoting a child’s well-being following divorce,” said Irwin Sandler, Regents’ Professor emeritus and research professor of psychology. “But, parents need adequate time with their children for their quality of parenting to have an impact.”

Poor relationships with parents are linked to many adverse outcomes later in life, including early mortality.

“If a child from a divorced family has equal parenting time, they can have relationships with both their parents that are as good as those in intact families,” Fabricius said.

Since Arizona’s child custody law passed in 2013, Fabricius has consulted with other states. He published an editorial in the Baltimore Post Examiner as the Maryland legislature debated changing the state’s child custody law. Fabricius estimated that over 30 states are debating a law change similar to Arizona’s child custody law and said people from all over want to know how the law is working in Arizona.

“Professionals and parents are hungry for current research about custody,” Fabricius said. “And every western European state is debating whether it is a good idea for children of divorce to spend equal time with their fathers and mothers.”

In March, Fabricius will travel to Denmark to speak to the Danish Parliament about Arizona’s child custody law and his research into the effects of divorce on children.

Posted in Family Law, Fatherhood, Hot Topics, Shared Parenting | Leave a comment

Are joint custody and shared parenting a child’s right?

October 5, 2018 12.46am AEST


  1. Michel Grangeat

Professeur Emérite de Sciences de l’Education, Université Grenoble Alpes (UGA)

  1. Edward Kruk

Associate Professor of Social Work, University of British Columbia

  1. Malin Bergström

Professor, Stockholm University

  1. Sofia Marinho

Research fellow, Universidade de Lisboa

Disclosure statement

Michel Grangeat is a member of the Conseil International sur la Résidence Alternée (CIRA/ICSP).

Sofia Marinho is a reserch felow at Institute of Social Sciences, University of Lisbon. Her research work is sponsored by FCT- Portuguese Funding Agency for Science and Technology, by Grant SFRH/BPD/84273/2012.

Malin Bergström is a clinical psychologist for children.

Sofia Marinho is a reserch felow at Institute of Social Sciences, University of Lisbon. Her research work is sponsored by FCT (Portuguese Funding Agency for Science and Technology) by grant SFRH/BPD/84273/2012.


University of British Columbia provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation CA.

Université Grenoble Alpes provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation FR.

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In France, nearly three-quarters of the children of divorced couples see their fathers only one weekend every fifteen days. PixabayCC BY


Many families with children separate all around the world. In France, for instance, nearly 200,000 children per year are affected by the divorce of their parents. After divorce, just over seven out of ten children (73%) live only with their mother and visit their father on alternate weekends. This phenomenon begs the question of the short- and long-term fate of these children, particularly in light of research showing that the active involvement of both parents in children’s lives is vital to their development and well-being.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), as well as the European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights (2011, Article 24), mandates that children should be allowed to maintain meaningful relationships with both of their parents. In parallel, the father’s involvement in rearing and childcare tasks in the family has grown significantly in recent decades, which in association with the salience of mothers’ engagement in labour market participation, has called for new family arrangements that need to be taken into account in public policies.

Most importantly, recent studies have clearly demonstrated that children’s ongoing relationships with both parents are vital, regardless of children’s age and situation. These convergences raise the question about needed reforms in social-legal policies and the therapeutic practices focused in post-divorce/separation relationships and living arrangements, in order to improve the welfare, development, and the “best interests” of children whose parents live apart. Additionally, they point out to the importance of raising public awareness about the importance of carrying out these reforms.

The right to maintain regular relations with both parents

The Convention on the Right of the Child, Article 9-3, emphasizes

“the right of a child separated from both parents or one of them to regularly maintain personal relationships and direct contact with both parents, unless it is contrary to the best interests of the child”.

This right is most salient to situations of parental separation, referred to in Article 9-1, which states that, “States Parties shall ensure that a child shall not be separated from his or her parents against their will, except when competent authorities subject to judicial review determine, in accordance with applicable law and procedures, that such separation is necessary for the best interests of the child.”

However, neither children’s rights nor the definition of their best interests is a straight forward definition, either in the Convention or in family laws. These concepts need to be interpreted according to the unique situation and circumstances of each child. This interpretation falls under the responsibility of the judges, but it is also the concern of international organizations focused on the well-being of children. Thus, a 2014 conference under the aegis of the Council of Europe concluded that:

“There is no comprehensive definition of the concept [‘best interests of the child’], and that its vagueness has resulted in practical difficulties for those trying to apply it. Some suggest that ‘best interests’ should therefore only be used when necessary, appropriate and feasible for advancing children’s rights, whereas others see the flexibility of the concept as its strong point.”

We advocate a “best interests of the child from the perspective of the child” approach to replace the current standard, taking into account the results of child-focused research on the consequences of parental divorce on children’s well-being.

The balance between work and family life

The recognition that the child benefits from both the care and close relationships with both parents reflects changes toward more equal divisions of parenting and domestic tasks between mothers and fathers, as well as in the role of each in work-family articulation, in the context of the dual earner family model. This means that the male breadwinner/female housewife and caregiver family model has become obsolete either as a family practice or as a basis for family policies.

Social and political advances have resulted in girls’ access to higher education and women’s integration into the professions. Undeniably, further progress remains in this regard. For instance, maternity leave should be adapted to allow for better retention in employment, and paternity leave should be extended to allow fathers to build, maintain or strengthen ties with babies and very young children.

Current psychological research demonstrates that there is no competition between children’s attachment to the father and mother. Instead, children are predisposed to build and enjoy multiple attachment bonds. Mothers are not necessarily, by nature, more sensitive and responsive to children than fathers. A key factor in the development of attachment bonds is the amount of time spent interacting with the child: the more the parent is engaged in the care of the infant and child, the more sensitive and responsive the parent becomes to the child’s signals.

A balance between work, family and personal life, allowing both parents to build a secure bond with their child, reinforces the application of Article 9-3 of the UNCRC. Since the children have established significant relationships with both parents, they must have a residential arrangement that allows them to maintain and preserve these relationships after divorce/separation.

The consequences of residential arrangements on health and welfare

Current research converges in the results on the consequences of different residential arrangements of children whose parents have separated. The large-scale studies conducted in recent years are enlightening.

Research from Sweden and other jurisdictions shows that young children (3-5 years old) who live in equal shared parenting have a level of well-being equivalent to that of the children from intact families. Parents and teachers, on the other hand, note psychological problems in children living mainly with one parent. Identical results are shown with teenagers aged 12-15. These results are independent of the socio-cultural level of parents. A study with 5,000 teenagers aged 10-18 confirms and clarifies these results: neither children in equal shared parenting nor their parents are disadvantaged or hampered for changing frequently their place of residence. In Norway, a study with more than 7,000 teenagers aged 16 to 19 does not show significant differences between teenagers living in equal shared parenting or nuclear families in terms of their physical health, their emotions and their social behaviour.

On the other hand, in all cases and on almost all indicators, children and teenagers living in a single parent residence are disadvantaged. This does not mean that only sole residence is the cause of this situation.

Studies conducted in the United States show that these benefits are also valid for very young children, under three years. Regardless of the level of conflict of the parents, their degree of study or income, the more the baby (1 year) or toddler (2 years) spent nights with his or her father, up to 50%, the more relationship with both his or her parents at the age of young adult (19 years) is healthy and balanced.

The best interests of the child in the 21st century

International organizations and national courts are focused on preserving the well-being and best interests of children. However, many constraints to child well-being persist, and keep infants, toddlers, children and teenagers within a mother-centred mode of care and education in post-divorce/separation families. These barriers work to the detriment of children, fathers and mothers.

The maternal deference standard is unfavourable to children, and seems contrary to article 2-2 of the UN CRC, which states that, “States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to ensure that the child is protected against all forms of discrimination or punishment on the basis of the status […] of the child’s parents.”

Parents’ and professionals’ reflections and decisions might be more relevant, if professional practices and legal judgments prioritize the terms of residence that allow the child to have “personal relationships and contacts with both parents’ to the maximum degree possible.

The concept of the “best interest of the child in the 21st century’ will be the focus of discussion and debate at the Fourth International Conference on Shared Parenting, to be held in Strasbourg, at the Palais de l’Europe, on 2018, November 22 and 23.

All information about the program and the registrations are available at

This article was originally published in French


Posted in CS Studies, Family Law, Family Separation, Hot Topics, Shared Parenting | Leave a comment