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Professor instrumental in passage of groundbreaking divorce law

William Fabricius
May 10, 2012

Law gives more children equal time with both parents

William Fabricius, an associate psychology professor at ASU, is working to give children of divorce a voice through his research and by working on groundbreaking statute changes as a member of the state Legislature’s Arizona Domestic Relations Committee. 

With the passage of Senate Bill 1127 that was recently signed into law, Arizona becomes one of the first states in the nation to enact legislation to provide divorced parents – primarily fathers – more equitable time with their children.

“We’re going to be just about the only state with a law like this. There have been lots of other attempts in other states that have failed,” he said. “I think that Arizona will have the most contemporary laws in line with research.”

The bill passed the Arizona House 46 to 9, and the Senate 28 to 0. “This was a truly bi-partisan effort, and I am proud of Arizona,” Fabricius said.

Fabricius chaired a subcommittee of judges, attorneys, mental health professionals, court personnel, anti-domestic violence advocates, and parents to build a comprehensive reform of the state’s divorce law starting in 2009. In 2010, the committee’s first bill was signed into law that said that it is in the children’s best interest for parents to share legal decision making and for both parents to have frequent, meaningful, substantial and continual parenting time. The impetus behind the 2010 law was the experience of a divorced father, Michael Espinoza, who brought his case to Arizona Senator Sylvia Allen. Together, they worked with the subcommittee.

SB 1127, the committee’s second bill, was also sponsored by Senator Allen and Senator Linda Gray. It states that the courts shall maximize parenting time between the two parents and order shared legal decision-making. Courts consider first if there is any mental or physical impairment among the parents, domestic violence and the child’s adjustments to both households.

“It gives the court and the public a clear statement that if there is no evidence to the contrary, the courts will maximize the parenting time between the two households. That should remove the perception of bias and should result in Arizona children having more equitable time with both their parents after divorce,” Fabricius said.

As a child psychologist, Fabricius saw the need to study the effects of divorce on children 12 years ago.

“I realized that the child’s perspective was missing,” he said.

Research findings from his work showed that Arizona children of divorce wanted to spend much more time with their fathers and that equal parenting time is important. Arizona children from divorced families who were studied from seventh to tenth grade from 2003 to 2006 revealed that 50 percent of children at every age wanted to spend more time with their fathers.

“Only 10 percent wanted to spend less,” he added. Fabricius’ studies also showed that the more time that a child spends living with their divorced father, the closer their relationship with their dad when they are in their early 20s.

Perhaps most telling is research that predicts poor future health in later adulthood for those 20-year-olds who had lacking relationships with their fathers.

“If children spend less than substantial time with both parents, this is a huge long-term public health issue. It sets up this chronic stress response that initiates stress-related health problems including susceptibility to cancer and early mortality. These weren’t just our findings. This is supported by long-term health studies that link parent-child relationships and later health,” he said.

“It is a major public health issue that children are not spending enough time with dad after divorce,” Fabricius added.

 Other research that polled the Arizona public showed that people from all walks of life strongly support equal parenting time and laws that support equal time, but they believe that the courts are biased toward mothers. “Only about 15 percent thought that the family court was fair,” he said.

However, further studies of family court judges that he lead found that they are not biased and are in favor of shared parenting.

“The public belief that the courts are biased is going to affect the decisions that divorcing parents make,” Fabricius said.

With the passage of SB 1127, the question of how much time children should spend with each parent is clarified. Another modification in the legislation changes the word “custody” to “legal decision making,” reflecting a shift away from the idea that children would have one home after divorce, not equitable time with both parents.

“The idea is that both parents are still the parents of the child,” Fabricius said. “The old idea was that the court needed to decide which one is the child’s home. Now the decision is based on how much time the child spends at each house.”

Fabricius is a development psychologist who became interested in this area of study after realizing that the child’s perspective was missing from most divorce research at the time.

“It didn’t make sense to me in that I knew how children become emotionally attached to both of their parents,” he said. “This new law will help ensure that more children are able to spend equal time with both parents.”