Consider two families: one in eastern Ohio’s Tuscarawas County, and another just a few miles away in Carroll County.
“A family in Tuscarawas, when they divorce, their children are entitled to equal time with each of their parents,” says Don Hubin, director of the Center for Ethics and Human Values at The Ohio State University. “This family four miles away, their children will see one of their parents only every other weekend.”
The difference between these two families, Hubin says, lies in an antiquated patchwork of court guidelines. Every Ohio county has a schedule for parents going through a divorce, which suggests how much time a child spends with each parent.
New Ohio State research found that those schedules vary dramatically by zip code.
“There’s no research to suggest that what county you’re living in makes any difference in what is best for children,” Hubin says. “It simply doesn’t make sense to have such widely varying rules on parenting time.”
Hubin graded counties by how well their schedules reflect studies saying children fare best after divorce when they have an equal amount of time with each parent.
Only three Ohio counties received an A rating, and most received a D.
The majority of the guidelines instead call for one parent to have the child every other weekend and one night per week, and the other parent to have the child for the rest of the time.
“So that model came from 1950s picture where the assumption is mom stays home and dad works, so of course dad can’t have kids during the week,” Hubin says. “Mom needs to have the kids during the week to get them off to school and so forth, and dad sees them on the weekends.”
Rob Senor is familiar with that schedule. He’s a middle school teacher in Cuyahoga County, and when he and his ex-wife got a divorce they used court guidelines to come up with a shared parenting schedule for their infant daughter.
He was working and his wife wasn’t, so they adopted the guidelines Cuyahoga recommended: Senor saw his daughter every other weekend and one night a week.
But when it came time for his daughter to start school, he asked for a more even split.
“There was no reason she couldn’t spend 50 percent of the time with me,” Senor says, “because my work hours are essentially the same as my daughter’s school hours.”
Senor was allotted more time with his daughter, but he says he felt his job counted against him in court. He still doesn’t have a equal time with his daughter.
“I am working. I don’t have the luxury to not work,” he says. “To have less time with my child because of that is really disappointing. Being a father, I feel like I wasn’t looked at on an equal footing.”
Van Wert County in western Ohio received the only F rating in the entire state. Not only do the Van Wert guidelines suggest the every-other weekend schedule, they start with the assumption that mothers gets primary custody and fathers only have visitation. That language violates state law that says courts can not favor parents based on gender during a divorce.
Van Wert County’s court magistrate, Joseph Quatam, says he’s surprised no one has called out this guideline since it was rewritten in 2002.
“Our guidelines with regard to gender neutrality are way out of date,” Quatam says.
He says these schedules are more a matter of written policy than they are of practice - they are meant to be default, fall-back rules, and parents can make a case for a different arrangement.
Regardless, Quatam says Van Wert plans to rewrite their guidelines, in part because of WOSU’s reporting.
“I want to give you my appreciation for bringing this to our attention,” he says. “It’s been a wake up call, and we’re certainly going to take every effort to take a look at our rules and bring them up to date.”
Hubin says that all county guidelines need to reflect the modern family. According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, the majority of married couples with children both work.
“I think what’s happened is the courts have just been going on inertia here,” Hubin says. “They’ve had this rule in place for a long time and they haven’t thought about it. They haven’t looked at the research that shows that this is not a good model.”
Divorce is hard enough on families, he says, without outdated court guidelines making it even more difficult.