- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 8, 2003

RICHMOND Family-advocacy lobbyists said yesterday that after years of trying to improve child-custody rights for Virginia fathers, they have a proposal that lawmakers will accept because it helps reduce the $1.2 billion budget deficit.
The Fathers for Virginia group wants lawmakers to pass legislation that would automatically give equal custody time to fathers and mothers, unless it can be proven a parent is using drugs or alcohol or otherwise behaving dangerously or illicitly.
A standardized ruling, group leaders say, would save millions in court costs and legal fees.
"If we can change the system and how it is stacked against fathers, we can balance the budget," said Murray Steinberg, a lobbyist with the Family Resolution Council, which advocates largely for children's rights and increasing parental involvement in children's lives.
While lawmakers have vowed to tackle social issues, the lobbyists know the focus during this General Assembly session will be on Gov. Mark R. Warner's plan to reduce the deficit by streamlining state agencies and cutting programs.
"Everyone is talking about the budget," said Ronald M. Grignol, a Fathers for Virginia member. "This issue is just not in the forefront. It is so important, though. I would like it to be a national issue that is debated."
He also said the laws are stuck 35 or 40 years in the past, when husbands were thought to cause most divorces.
"Today, the courts and society automatically assume that the father is wrong, and that is not the case," said Mr. Grignol, who added he feels lucky if he gets about 45 percent of the time with his 8- and 10-year-old daughters.
Virginia law allows for 50 percent custody, joint custody or sole custody by parents, grandparents or other guardians. The law also states custody decisions are made in the best interest of the child.
More specifically, Section 20 of the Virginia Code states the primary considerations are a parent's "involvement with the child's life [and his or her] ability to accurately assess and meet the emotional, intellectual and physical needs of the child."
The Virginia Bar Association has lobbied against similar proposals to change the law, arguing "equal shared custody arrangements" presume both parents have an equal relationship to the child, which is not always the case.
"We would rather you go into court with both sides having a blank slate, with the judge not struggling against any presumptions," said Donald K. Butler, a member of the Virginia Bar who has testified before the Virginia General Assembly on family-law issues.
"These regulations say that Solomon has to split the baby in half, down the middle, or satisfy with evidence as to why he shouldn't." Mr. Butler continued.
Virginia lawmakers are also skeptical about the change significantly reducing the deficit.
"This would not solve the state's budget process," said Delegate David Albo, Fairfax Republican, one of several lawmakers with whom lobbyists have met.
Mr. Albo sympathizes with the fathers, but as a lawyer thinks the courts are fair. He believes the system could be improved, though.
"We are looking at allowing juries or panels to decide custodial agreements," he said. "That way, no one can say a particular judge is against you or against certain groups of people."

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