- Associated Press - Thursday, March 12, 2015

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Parents, attorneys and victim advocacy groups squared off Thursday over the newest effort to overhaul Nebraska’s shared-parenting law.

The bill would encourage judges to “maximize” the time that each separated parent gets with their children if they can’t agree on a parenting plan. Judges could determine the exact split, but neither parent could have less than 35 percent.

Sen. Laura Ebke of Crete said her bill seeks to reduce the number of children who don’t have regular contact with their fathers - a “critical public health” issue that she said contributes to incarceration, truancy and crime.

“Most people, I think, would agree that it’s an improvement over the status quo,” Ebke said in testimony to the Judiciary Committee.

Parents wouldn’t qualify for the minimum if the judge finds a pattern of abuse or neglect, if the parents live too far apart, or if the parent is otherwise deemed unfit.

The bill reflects a rough compromise among parental advocates, family-law attorneys and domestic violence groups, although its prospects remain uncertain. Nebraska lawmakers have introduced at least 11 shared-parenting measures since 2007.

At least 16 other states are considering new parenting laws. The Nebraska bill was modeled after an Arizona law that took effect in 2013.

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 2013 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.

Attorneys pushing for the change have said many judges are older and defer to the way things have always been done - and traditionally, judges favored women in their rulings. Supporters of the bill argued that some women exploit their parental rights to get more child-support money from fathers.

Felicia Keiser, a junior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said she was disappointed that lawmakers haven’t acted sooner. The 20-year-old said she appealed to lawmakers for the last seven years in an effort that started because she wanted more time with her father.

“I’ve been let down every time I come here,” she said. “This doesn’t help me or my siblings, but we don’t want to see any other child go through what we had to go through,” she said.

Joe Trader of Omaha told senators he missed his daughter’s first haircut and first day of preschool after he separated from his girlfriend. He said his daughter, born in 2010, has started calling another man “Dad.”

“Here we are again, fighting for the right to be more than just visitors and paychecks for our children,” he said.

Opponents argue that the bill would increase conflicts by eliminating any incentive to take the case to mediation or other court alternatives. A parent who is guaranteed at least 35 percent parenting time isn’t as likely to seek compromises, said Mary Kay Hansen, a Lincoln family-law attorney and mediator.

Advocates for victims of domestic violence said the bill requires women to show evidence that they’ve been abused before they can terminate a father’s rights. Forcing women to do so could keep them in dangerous relationships.

“We’re not necessarily opposed to shared parenting, but getting to that point puts victims at greater risk,” said Robert Sanford, legal director of the Nebraska Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence.

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