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August 5, 2016
By Ned Holstein, MD, MS  Founder and Chair of the Board, National Parents Organization

In a giant step forward for shared parenting, the Massachusetts House of Representatives passed an excellent shared parenting bill known as An Act Relative to Child-Centered Family Law. No previous shared parenting bill in Massachusetts has ever gotten out of its assigned Committee, much less having been passed by a chamber of the Legislature.

This action confers legitimacy on shared parenting in a way never before achieved in Massachusetts. It means that the House side of the Judiciary Committee, the Committee on Third Reading, the Committee on Ways and Means, the House Leadership and the House as a whole has endorsed the concept that shared parenting is in the best interest of most children.

For instance, the House Chair of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, Representative John V. Fernandes, wrote, “The current law may in words encourage the best interest of the child, but we disagree that the law in practice has achieved that goal.” This stunning statement demonstrates that our years of effort educating legislators, the media, thought leaders, and the general public about the importance of two parents in the lives of children are bearing fruit.

The bill which at various times was known as S834, H4107 and finally as H4544, was originally written by a Working Group convened by former Governor Deval Patrick. The Working Group consisted of representatives of three different bar associations, practicing attorneys, family court judges, the Commonwealth’s Child Advocate, experts on child development, advocates for the poor, domestic violence groups, women’s groups, representatives of the LGBTQ community and advocates for shared parenting, including me, Richard Fucillo, Peter Hill and David Calvo.

The bill had its public hearing in July, 2015. Our members turned out in droves to promote the bill, testifying to their personal sorrows and the harms done to their children under the present law. Only a handful of parties showed up to testify against the bill. Astoundingly, this included two of the very bar associations who had been represented on the Governor’s Working Group and whose representatives had signed off on the bill! This raises the question whether the bar associations are credible and honorable bodies, and whether their representations can ever be taken at face value again.

Because of the enormous pressure applied by the politically powerful bar associations, somehow a radically altered bill emerged, a version that gutted almost every key provision that National Parents Organization cared about. I sent out an alarm to our members in the early spring of 2016, and you responded superbly. The legislature was deluged with your calls and emails. As a direct result of your counter-pressure, the Judiciary Committee asked me and a few others to meet with them to discuss the bill further. We did so in a long series of meetings. In the end, we won back almost everything we had lost. Clearly, the intense pressure brought by our members, rather than any brilliance on our part, enabled us to win back so much.

Unfortunately, the backdoor dealings of the bar associations were not done. In politics, sometimes if you can delay something, you win. In this case, the bar associations succeeded in creating a long delay before this bill proceeded through channels to a vote on the floor of the House. Finally, the bill was passed by the House on Saturday, July 23, 2016.

Unfortunately, this left only one week for the Senate to act on the bill. It also had to deal with over 200 bills that had been passed but which had been vetoed by the Governor, and a large number of bills like ours -- sent over from the House at the last moment.

So the following Monday, I emailed all of our Massachusetts members and urged them to call, email and visit various Senators to urge immediate action on the bill. Once again, the response was fantastic. I am quite sure that literally hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of such calls and emails were made. The legislative aides received so many calls that once a member of ours would start a sentence, the aide would complete it for them.

Unfortunately, this gargantuan effort did not succeed. The Senate failed to act on our bill in the limited time it had before the close of the 2015-2016 legislative session. (While it is theoretically possible that bills can be passed over the next few months in what is called “informal session,” this will not happen with the shared parenting bill.)

I look upon this story as a great, but partial, victory for the shared parenting and family court reform movement. The prestige conferred upon this bill when it passed the House, together with the statements of Representative Fernandes and others, and the fact that the bill originated with a diverse, blue-ribbon Working Group appointed by a Governor mean that this bill, when re-submitted in January, 2017, will go into the legislature with a tremendous amount of momentum.

However, we fully expect determined opposition from the bar associations once again. Over the next six to twelve months, the Massachusetts Chapter of National Parents Organization will meet several times to consider new approaches, tactics and strategies to pass this bill. One thing is clear, however: the massive pressure created by your calls, emails and visits to legislators had an enormous effect, and similar actions will be necessary next year as well. For those of you who made dozens of phone calls, my hat is off to you, and I extend the sincere appreciation of all the parents and children who need our help. For those of you who did not call or email, what can we do to get you activated next year???

Passing legislation that creates a massive social change -- wrenching a system that has been in place for centuries -- will not happen overnight. This process requires that we be more determined, more energetic and more tenacious than our opponents. We must play the long game. We are winning, step by step. The legislators know we will be back. If we want this more than the bar associations want to defeat it, we will win! And we will have shared parenting in Massachusetts just as we have it in Arizona, Alaska, Utah, Missouri and elsewhere.

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