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ASK YOUR GOVERNMENT: Gender balance of child custody varies

Q. I wrote to the North Dakota Child Support Agency a few years ago to ask a simple question: What percentage of custodial parents in North Dakota is female? I received a reply that they could not answer the question. They also wrote that I could...

Teri Finneman
Teri Finneman

Q. I wrote to the North Dakota Child Support Agency a few years ago to ask a simple question: What percentage of custodial parents in North Dakota is female? I received a reply that they could not answer the question. They also wrote that I could pay more than $200 to get a list of custodial parents with the names redacted so that I could count for myself. Wouldn't this kind of information be easily available with the computer system that keeps this data?

- Joe Leggio, Fargo

A. I contacted Child Support Enforcement Program Director Jim Fleming, who also told me the agency doesn't have that data.

"Custody is set by the court, and the division provides services without regard to gender, so the gender breakdown is not relevant to program administration," he said.

So, I turned next to the court system and was referred to North Dakota State Court Administrator Sally Holewa. Here's what she told me:

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"We were able to query our database for the period of Jan. 1, 2011, through Nov. 30, 2011, for cases that were both filed and decided and produced the following information:

"During this time period, there were 1,538 total divorces filed and decided statewide. Of that total, 663, or 43 percent, involved children. The total number of children involved was 1,211.

"Of the 663 divorces involving children, 604, or 91 percent, were decided by stipulation (agreement) of the parties. The remaining 59 cases (9 percent) were decided by the court.

"The wife was granted primary residential responsibility in 361 of the 663 divorces involving children. In 324 of those cases where the wife was granted primary residential responsibility, the decision regarding who got primary residential responsibility was by stipulation of the parties. In the remaining 37 cases, the decision was by the court.

"The husband was granted primary residential responsibility in 61 of the 663 divorces involving children. In 52 of those cases where the husband was granted primary residential responsibility, the decision regarding who got primary residential responsibility was by stipulation of the parties. In the remaining nine cases, the decision was by the court.

"The parties were granted joint primary residential responsibility in 229 of the 663 divorces involving children. In 218 of those cases where the parties were granted joint primary residential responsibility, the decision to award the primary residential responsibility jointly was by stipulation of the parties. In the remaining 11 cases, the decision was by the court.

"There were 12 cases where primary residential responsibility was granted to someone other than the husband or wife. In 10 of those cases, the decision to award the primary residential responsibility to another person was by stipulation of the parties. The decision was made by the court in the remaining two cases.

"The real question is not, 'How often does mom get the kids?' but 'How does the decision get made?' It is pretty clear that it is almost always a decision of the parents, rather than a court-imposed decision.

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"And, of course, there are so many individual factors that play into what is a very personal decision for each family -- how old the children are, who is staying in the family home, who is staying in the same school district, who the day care provider is, what the family support system is for each parent.

"I do think there are probably other societal factors playing a less obvious part in the decision, such as work environment. Men are more likely than women to be working in jobs where they have longer hours, less flexibility in their schedules and no paid sick leave. Those are all factors couples and courts are having to consider when they make these gut-wrenching decisions about how the family will function post-divorce."

Do you have a question for a North Dakota state government official or agency? Send us your question, and we'll do our best to find an answer.

E-mail politics@wday.com (Subject: Ask your government).

You may also write to Teri Finneman c/o Forum Communications, Press Room, State Capitol, Bismarck, ND 58505.

Please include your name, town and a phone number to reach you for verification.

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