KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) - A growing national movement seeking to force judges to award equal custody to both divorcing parents has come to Missouri, where backers of shared parenting bills in both legislative chambers say the issue is gaining traction.
Current state law requires only that judges award “significant, but not necessarily equal” periods of time with a child. A Senate bill heard in committee last week would change that to “approximate and reasonably equal” time.
Proponents of the measure argue that in cases in which both parents are equally deserving of custody, courts disproportionately award physical custody to the mother.
Critics counter that while shared parenting makes sense on an emotional level, many factors make laws requiring equal time impractical or even dangerous for the children.
“We are trying to change the mindset of the court,” said Rep. Kathy Swan, a Cape Girardeau Republican who sponsored a duplicate shared parenting bill in her chamber. “The more time a child spends with each parent, the greater value each parent has in raising his or her child.”
Legislation introduced last year in the House never made it to a vote after the Missouri Bar raised objections, mainly over how such a law would impact child support. A spokeswoman for the group said its board of governors had not taken a position on this year’s bill.
Shared parenting measures have been proposed in 18 states in the past year, according to the National Parents Organization, which promotes such laws nationwide.
Utah and Minnesota passed shared parenting laws during that time, while three states - Missouri, Massachusetts and Kentucky - currently have active bills before their legislatures. Several states that considered such measures last year are expected to bring them up again this year, according to the National Parents Organization.
Dr. Ned Holstein, founder and board chairman of the Boston-based group, said research shows that a shared parenting arrangement is much better for a child than one in which a judge makes a winner out of one parent and a loser out of the other.
He said shared parenting bills aren’t intended to take custody away from the mother, but instead require judges to start with the assumption that parents deserve equal time and go from there.
“There are a lot of reasons a parent might not be fit. If they’re psychotic, have a drug or alcohol problem, are a compulsive gambler or can’t keep the household safe, obviously shared parenting won’t work,” Holstein said. “We don’t want to put judges into a strait jacket, but we do want to push them into the modern age.”
Linda Reutzel, a Cape Girardeau grandmother whose lobbying efforts led to the proposed Missouri legislation, said her son’s divorce case in 2014 convinced her that the state’s custody laws are unfair.
She said she was stunned when a judge limited her son’s visitation with his 3-year-old daughter to each Wednesday and every other weekend.
“We walked out thinking, what just happened?” Reutzel said. “Some guy who knows nothing about how close a daughter was to her daddy, to her mawmaw and everyone else, had the audacity to make us and her dad the visitors in her life.”
Vernon Scoville, a retired Jackson County judge who handled divorce cases for 22 years, said shared parenting is a nice goal, but there are too many variables in custody cases to remove discretion from the courts.
“One parent might live half an hour away, so who decides who goes to what school?” he said. “That’s why the concept of a primary physical custodian is so important.”
Scoville, who retired in 2013 as associate 16th Circuit Court judge and also served as a Democrat in the Missouri House, acknowledged that mothers are given physical custody more frequently than fathers. But taking away a judge’s ability to weigh specific problems when awarding custody is not the answer to any perceived inequity, he said.
“The hardest kinds of cases are not the ones where you have two bad parents, but when you have two great parents,” Scoville said. “I’ve had cases where parents sit there and say ‘yeah, he’s a great dad,’ or ‘yeah, she’s a great mother.’ But unless the kids live in the same school district, it’s almost impossible to come up with something that would facilitate equal parenting.”
Copyright © 2022 The Washington Times, LLC.