Monday, March 28, 2005

Debate rages over child custody bill - Alabama

Excerpts below:

Debate rages over child custody bill

He and other noncustodial parents are asking state lawmakers to pass a measure that would give them equal custody of their children. Proponents say the new law would create a shared parenting arrangement for divorcing and separating parents and eliminate current joint custody statutes from Alabama divorce law. Critics believe the measure seeks a "cookie cutter" approach to settling custody disputes and unduly blocks judges' discretionary power.

Rusmisel, vice president of the Alabama Coalition for Fathers and Children, said the proposed legislation is "far overdue" in Alabama.

Rep. Steve McMillan, R-Bay Minette, is sponsoring the bill. Currently, courts may order some form of joint custody without the consent of both parents. McMillan's proposal would require formal consent.

Also, parents would have to submit a comprehensive parenting plan, addressing such issues as the child's education, day care, health insurance and visitation. Either parent could submit the outline or they could present a joint plan.

"The motivation is for them to work together to come up with a plan that is in the best interests of the children," Rusmisel said. "We're trying to get custody situations standardized as much as possible."

The legislation, now assigned to the House Judiciary Committee, is not without opposition.

Jerry Baxley, executive director of the Family Law Association of Alabama, said the measure sidesteps the authority of judges.

"On its face it looks good, but it should allow the court to make the decision, not the Legislature," Baxley said. "That's why we have judges. It's trying to make every divorce a cookie cutter. It has to still be the judges' responsibility to make those types of decisions."

The shared-parenting bill is not the only proposed measure that noncustodial parents are talking about. A separate legislative proposal, proponents of which stress that it is meant to protect Alabama's children in child-custody battles, is drawing vocal opposition from noncustodial parents.

Under existing law, there is the presumption that a change in a child's principal residence is not in the best interest of the child. Weiss noted that Penn's bill removes such language.

However Penn's measure keeps wording that places the initial burden of proof on the person seeking the residential change. If that burden is met, however, then the parent objecting to the change -- that is, the noncustodial parent -- has to convince the court that such a move is unjustified.

"I would think it would be fair," said the Family Law Association's Baxley. "The court shouldn't presume that the noncustodial parent is right. There should be a burden of proof for the noncustodial parent.

"Forcing a child by law to contact a noncustodial parent ... seems to me to be something very bad. There should be no law that requires a child to have to contact the noncustodial parent. Under this law, a child that has been abused could be forced to contact the noncustodial parent. It should be the parent's responsibility to contact the child."

Says Weiss: "The overwhelming theme is to eliminate anything that previously constrained a parent seeking to make a distant move away with the children."

Among other concerns of the bill's opponents is the removal of language in current Alabama law that requires judges to take into consideration whether the custodial parent has a past history of noncompliance with certain court orders.

"We feel this is an undisguised and bald attempt by the lawyers and judges lobby to eviscerate present law because judges do not like it and because the law removes some of the discretion of the court in order to protect parents and children from arbitrary or biased rulings," Weiss said.

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