Parenting Our Children:

In the Best Interest of the Nation

Report of the U. S. Commission on Child and Family Welfare

September 1996

Mary R. Cathcart,

Robert E. Robles,




Mothers and fathers in families are the backbone of America. They teach children right from wrong, respect for others, and the value of working hard to make a good life for themselves and for their future families. Many single parents work hard to do the job of both mother and father and succeed in raising children to become successful adults. Many children overcome parental and environmental deficits to become contributing members of society. However, the evidence is clear that most children do best when they receive the emotional and financial support of both parents.' Marriage is the institution by which society communicates the social value of longterm, two-parent commitment to raising children. Yet, despite the importance of marriage, each year nearly a million American children experience the divorce of their parents. In addition, each year more than a quarter of all American children born have unmarried parents. In fact, sometime before they reach adulthood over half of all children will live in a home with one parent only.

Many divorcing parents focus on the interests of their children. They try to assure that their separation has a minimal impact on their children. They work together to provide adequately for their children. They plan together how to share decision-making about the children's schooling, religious upbringing, medical care, and participation in activities. They agree on what rules and kinds of discipline should be used with the children. They agree on where the children will live and they make reasonable arrangements about sharing parenting time.

For other parents, divorce is a paralyzing experience. Only one spouse may want the divorce. The other spouse may experience severe feelings of betrayal, fear of what lies ahead, or a loss of control. Each parent may face a sharp break in relationships with many others beyond the spouse.

...the evidence is clear that most children do best when they receive the emotional and financial support of both parents.

Although in many divorcing families there is hostility before the decision to divorce, the divorce often heightens the hostility. The parents vie for the loyalty of their children. One parent may use control of the children to the exclusion of the other parent as a source of power and security; another parent may use control of financial resources to achieve the same ends. Often, anger toward each other is used as justification for lack of cooperation. Too often, the parent who does not live with the children fades from their lives. It has been well documented that children in such hostile situations pay a price.

Most divorcing parents struggle with their own feelings and try to do what is best for the children. While many parents manage to resolve their disputes out of court, others do not have the help they need to agree on the future role each parent will play in their children's lives.

Many unmarried parents, too, need help in agreeing on the roles they will play in their children's lives. In recent years, through collaborative Federal/State efforts, increased emphasis has been placed on establishing the paternity of children born to unwed parents and securing child support for them. Less emphasis has been placed on developing effective mechanisms for formalizing other parenting responsibilities to assure that both parents provide emotional and financial support to their children as they grow to maturity.

...the Commission, as its mission, sought ways of creating environments in which decisions can best be made about the well-being of children to ensure they receive the emotional and financial support of both parents.

When separating, divorcing, or unmarried parents cannot reach agreement on parenting issues involving their children, they must often resort to an adversarial system that dies little to ensure that they come to terms with their changing situation and feel comfortable with the outcome. The confrontation of parent against parent, especially if it is ultimately resolved in litigation in there are winners and losers, simply is not a good way to induce cooperation between parents and best address the interests of the children.

Therefore, the Commission, as its mission, sought ways of creating environments in which decisions can best be make about the well-being of children to ensure they receive the emotional and financial support of both parents. In particular, the Commission decided to focus on custody and visitation issues that affect the children of separating, divorcing, and unmarried parents. As described in Chapter 2, Framing the Issues, the Commission examined the demographic and economic factors contributing to the increase in divorce and out-of-wedlock births, the ways in which custody and visitation determinations currently are made, and the problems often presented by the ways the determinations are made.

After analysis, the Commission decided to focus on two important forums courts and communities and the assistance they can give in helping parents meet their ongoing responsibilities to their children. The Commission looked for ways to reduce the adversarial nature of court proceedings affecting parental decision-making, parenting time, and residential arrangements of children whose parents are separating, divorcing, or unmarried. In addition, the Commission looked for ways to build support for parents in their communities to help them better fulfill their responsibilities to their families before, during, in the absence of, and after marriage.

The Courts

Courts that address family matters are the forums for deciding parenting disputes that affect the children of separating, divorcing, and unmarried parents. These courts make decisions that are of enormous importance to the well-being of children. Yet the adversarial nature of many courts can exacerbate rather than ameliorate family conflict. In contrast, family-friendly courts can empower parents to focus on the needs of their children and help parents resolve together the nature of their continuing relationship to their children. Chapter 3, Reshaping the Courts, provides a discussion of the core components of family-friendly courts, and urges States and court systems to adopt these components. In sum, to help ensure that courts produce outcomes that are beneficial to children and families, the Commission on Child and Family Welfare makes the following recommendations:

Recommendation 1:

Courts and legislatures should replace the terms "custody" and "visitation" with terms that more accurately describe parenting responsibilities and are less likely to foster conflict, such as "parental decision-making," "parenting time," and "residential arrangements" for children.

Recommendation 2:

States should assure that courts charged with adjudicating family matters are at the level of the highest trial court of general jurisdiction and have appropriate resources, high-quality judges, and well-trained court personnel.

Recommendation 3:

Courts should provide intake and referral services that are appropriate to the individual needs of separating, divorcing, and unmarried parents.

Recommendation 4:

Courts should require separating, divorcing, and unmarried parents to attend orientation and education programs to help them understand court processes and the effect that their decisions will have on their lives and the lives of their children.

Recommendation 5:

Courts should adopt effective court coordination and information systems that provide complete, accurate, timely, and (when appropriate) confidential information, including information on current and past court actions within and across courts that involve particular families or family members. The coordination of family matters before the courts should in no way undermine the authority or discretion of court systems to prosecute family violence offenses as criminal matters.

Recommendation 6:

The National Council of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws (NCCUSL) should make recommendations for revisions to the Uniform Child Custody and Jurisdiction Act and other relevant laws that would clarify jurisdictional issues, resolve subject matter conflicts, and improve communications between courts in interstate cases affecting parental decision-making, parenting time, and residential arrangements for children.

Recommendation 7:

Courts should require separating, divorcing, and unmarried parents living apart to attempt to develop parenting plans that set forth parental decision-making, parenting time, and residential arrangements for the children. Courts should provide guidance for the development of parenting plans by identifying the legal parameters and issues that plans should address and by making forms available to help parents develop the plans.

Recommendation 8:

Courts should require separating, divorcing, or unmarried parents living apart who have not agreed on a parenting plan to try to resolve their differences through mediation, except in cases involving domestic abuse, substance abuse, mental impairments, and/or other characteristics of the parties that would make mediation inadvisable or that would preclude a fair mediation process.

Recommendation 9:

Public and private efforts should be made to increase the competence of attorneys, judges, and other court personnel on issues of family law and family dynamics and to increase the availability of counsel for probono work in family law cases.

The Community

Beyond the extended family, resources to help families can be found in the communities where families live. The community, with its various voluntary, religious, business, nonprofit and public institutions, and their mix of programs and approaches, can help provide the strong support that families in distress so desperately need. The Commission believes that, together with family-friendly courts, the community can help families ensure that children receive the emotional and financial support of both parents, whether those parents are married, separated, divorced, or unmarried. Approaches that communities should consider in developing their family support networks are discussed in Chapter 4, Empowering the Family Through the Community. In sum, to help communities support and strengthen families, the Commission on Child and Family Welfare makes the following recommendations:

Recommendation 10:

Communities should support education, counseling, and employment assistance programs designed to prepare people for marriage and to promote responsible parenting.

Recommendation 11:

Communities should help at-risk teens set viable, long-term goals and develop plans for achieving them through mentoring programs that reinforce responsible behavior and through avenue-out-of-poverty programs that invest in education, training, and job placement.

Recommendation 12

Communities should support the development and public awareness of effective community-based, non-court, dispute resolution, and family support programs that can help family members resolve disputes and address the consequences of divorce.

Recommendation 13:

Communities should develop and disseminate directories of programs that help families meet their emotional and financial responsibilities to their children and foster the creation of networks among these programs.

Recommendation 14:

Religious institutions and other community-based groups should work cooperatively to disseminate information about the positive impact on children of the involvement of both parents in their lives and to adopt approaches and expand efforts to reduce the rate and ad-verse consequences of divorce and non-marital births.

Recommendation 15:

Religious leaders should convene a multilevel summit to develop a strategic plan on ways to expand assistance in support of families and provide the necessary interventions to help individuals prepare for marriage and parenting, strengthen intact families, and support families in which parents are separated, divorced, or unmarried.

Recommendation 16:

Businesses should develop family-friendly business practices to build more effective supports for families.

Recommendation 17:

Governments at all levels should adopt as a priority the goal of keeping both parents involved emotionally and financially in the lives of their children.

Recommendation 18:

Governments at all levels should evaluate laws and policies with respect to their effects on the family.

Recommendation 19:

Governments at all levels should examine tax codes and modify them to provide greater support for families with children and to eliminate marriage penalties.

Recommendation 20:

Government and private organizations should encourage the training of parent leaders who ill help other parents improve their parenting and problem-solving skills and will work to influence and improve the delivery of family services in their communities.

Recommendation 21:

Public schools should be catalysts for widely based community efforts to strengthen families and encourage parent groups to make greater use of school facilities.

Next Steps

The Commission developed an agenda for strengthening families and communities through court reform and increased community efforts to support families. To encourage further research and educate the public about its important agenda, the Commission on Child and Family Welfare makes the following recommendations:

Recommendation 22:

Federal and State governments and other research funding sources should sponsor additional research and disseminate findings on important issues such as: 1) the elements of a successful marriage; 2) the causes of divorce; 3) the effects of different parenting arrangements on children; 4) the impact of divorce on the well-being of children; 5) the well-being of children of unmarried parents; and 6) the components of the current legal system that promote or fail to promote the continued financial and emotional support of children by both parents.

Recommendation 23:

Federal, State, and local government and private entities should participate in a broad public education program to promote the Commission's recommendations.


The Commission on Child and Family Welfare was established by Congress in the Child Support Recovery Act of 1992 (PL.102521). The Commission received a broad charge to investigate a wide variety of issues that affect the best interests of children and provide recommendations to the President and the Congress.

The Commission is comprised of 15 individuals: 3 appointed by the President; 4 by the President Pro Tempore of the Senate; 2 by the Senate Minority Leader; 4 by the Speaker of the House of Representatives; and 2 by the House Minority Leader. The Commission's expertise spans family law, children s issues, mental health, domestic violence, and child and family welfare. Members have expertise in both research and delivery of services.

The Commissioners were sworn in on January 10,1995. Deputy Secretary of Health and Human Services Walter Broadnax advised the Commission to select its topics carefully so that in the brief time available it could focus on urgent priorities for children. In looking at how to improve outcomes for the Nation's children through better, more harmonious parental decision-making, Commissioners brought to the table their own expertise and specific concerns, which were then bolstered as well as challenged by expert and public testimony and staff research. The Commission heard national experts, parents, and other concerned citizens and representatives of community-based organizations that educate and assist parents and children who are experiencing the effects of divorce and single parenthood (see Appendix E). The Commission sought information on parenting arrangements that were beneficial to children and looked for ways to reduce conflict. The focus on the well-being of children allowed this diverse group of Commissioners to address basic concerns and formulate a concrete set of recommendations.


In charting its course, the Commission had to try to reconcile strongly held viewpoints on the family, marriage, parenting, divorce, unmarried parents, father absence, and outcomes for children. These viewpoints often were at odds with one another. Moreover, the Commission found it hard to make general statements about what is desirable, because exceptions arose that were so compelling and of such vital concern that it became necessary to retreat before them. For instance, although two-parent, married-couple families generally have desirable outcomes for children, there are bad marriages that adversely affect children and parents who harm their spouses and their children. At the same time, there are single parents who are raising their children well in difficult circumstances. Finally, there is evidence that the absence of either parent negatively affects children, but there also are fathers and mothers whose behavior negatively affects children. The Commission was hampered by a lack of definitive, critically needed research that might help reconcile these disparities.

Moreover, the Commission had only nine months and extremely limited resources to perform the complicated task before it. As a result, the Commission could undertake only a limited exploration of a number of complex issues. In particular, the Commission wishes it could have examined more closely the research on single-parent families; the impact of family violence on the well-being of children; the impact of poverty and the economy on families; and the many societal factors and government policies that affect families, especially their formation and stability. Despite these constraints, the Commission believes that its 23 recommendations, if implemented, will advance its goal of building supports in the courts and communities to help parents provide their children with both emotional and financial support.nmarriedIn conclusion, the Commission believes that it is in the Nation's best interest to promote and encourage healthy and functional two-parent families as the most effective and stabilizing environments for rearing children. At the same time, the Commission believes that persons in other family structures must be supported in the interest of the children who live in these families. The Commission believes that its recommendations will help our Nation reach these goals.

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Guidubaldi Report

Harrington Report