- Associated Press - Sunday, November 23, 2014

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - A coalition of fathers and family-law attorneys will once again ask lawmakers to change Nebraska’s parental custody laws, which they argue are unfair to men.

Lawmakers have introduced bills several times in recent years, but none have made it out of committee. With 18 new senators taking office in January due to term limits, supporters are hopeful they can win enough support to change the law.

Noncustodial parents in Nebraska - usually fathers - are given an average of five days a month with their children, according to a decade-long analysis by the State Court Administrator’s office. The state reviewed divorce and child custody cases between 2002 and 2012.

The December report found disparities in how custody was divided in different parts of the state. In District 8 - the Nebraska Panhandle - mothers were granted sole custody 75 percent of the time. In District 4, encompassing Omaha, fathers were given sole custody less than 3 percent of the time.

Statewide, mothers received sole custody about half the time. Joint custody was granted in about one-third of the cases, and fathers were granted sole custody about 9 percent of the time.

Nebraska remains “behind the curve” with its current child custody laws, said Sen. Russ Karpisek of Wilber, who has tried for years to change them.

Karpisek, a divorced parent, said he and his ex-wife split time equally with their children and it has served them well. Barring issues such as domestic abuse, mental health problems and geographic distance, he said, both parents should have a chance to see their children regularly.

“I just think kids should be able to spend as much time as possible with each parent, as long they’re fit,” said Karpisek, who leaves office in January.

Phone messages left Thursday and Friday with three groups that opposed a bill during the last legislative session weren’t returned. Opponents said at a February hearing that they were willing to work toward a compromise, but they argued the measures proposed didn’t include adequate protections for women in cases that involved domestic violence.

“Provisions may encourage the court to misread true allegations of intimate partner abuse as unfriendly false allegations and to rationalize unworkable and even dangerous contact between the parties in the spirit of forced cooperation,” Tara Muir, executive director of the Domestic Violence Council, said at the hearing.

Karpisek also acknowledged at the time that the bill still needed work, and said he still hoped the groups could reach a compromise.

Currently, advocates are considering two bills. One would either encourage or require judges to “maximize” the time that each parent gets with children, while still letting the judge decide the exact split. The proposal is modeled after a similar law in Arizona that went into effect last year.

Attorneys who are pushing for the change say many judges are older and defer to the way things have always been done. And traditionally, they argue, judges have favored women in their rulings.

“It’s been an unwritten standard for a long time - not because it’s good, but because things are slow to change,” said Chris Johnson, a family-law attorney in Hastings. “There hasn’t been a real hard push to bring our parenting plans into conformance with what research shows is the right thing to do.”

Opponents argue that such bills could create more family fighting and a one-size-fits-all approach that ties a judge’s hands. Advocates for victims of domestic violence worry that women would have a harder time protecting themselves and their children if a judge forces them to work out a custody deal.

“This is not a solution in relationships where domestic violence is present, as it can create an unsafe situation for the victimized parent,” Robert Sanford, of the Nebraska Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Coalition, said in the February hearing.

A second proposal would require courts to track how custody is awarded in different parts of the state. Advocates believe the tracking would highlight disparities in how parental time is divided and support their effort to change the system. Voters could also use the information in elections when deciding whether to retain a judge.

“If one court consistently goes 80-20 and others are closer to a 45-55 split, we would know,” Johnson said. “Right now, that information is very hard to procure, because no one tracks it.”

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