Monday, April 04, 2005

Dueling child custody bills in Legislature-Alabama

Dueling child custody bills in Legislature

Excerpts below:

MONTGOMERY — Some divorced parents are upset about a Senate bill intended to clear up vague state law on when and where a custodial parent can move with a child.

In the House, authors of another bill want most divorced parents to have "shared parenting" and would prohibit most moves outside the child's current school district.

Sen. Myron Penn, D-Clayton, sponsors SB 239, which supporters say removes vague language in state law that sets conditions for divorced parents who want to move with minor children.

Supporters include family law advocates, attorneys and judges who say the current law's wording about moves, particularly out-of-state moves, is not clear. As a result, supporters say split families end up back before a judge for clarification.

Opponents include non-custodial parents who contend the bill will make it harder for them to be a part of their children's lives.

As grandparents, Allen Needham said he and his wife love and enjoy their grandchildren. When their son's former wife notified him a month ago about plans to move 1,000 miles away, Allen Needham said it saddened the family.

"I hate it for us, but I hate it more for my son," Allen Needham said. "He wants to be part of his children's lives and this move will make it much harder."

Rick Needham said the best system is one that allows both parents to be involved in their children's lives.

He said divorced parents should live close enough for children to see them on a regular basis.


Noah Funderburg, assistant dean of The University of Alabama School of Law, said the state already has good law to guide legal decisions when parents move, but one that needs minor modifications that SB 236 would make. Funderburg said parents and attorneys end up in court frequently because of the vague language that makes choices unclear.

The bill's intentions are to correct changes in the current law that "try to slant the law in favor of the non-custodial parent." Now, Funderburg said, a parent who moves even 60 miles away for a new job might lose custody under some interpretations of the law.

While parents like Needham believe the proposed changes would make it easier for one parent to move away and not notify the other, Funderburg said that is not the case.

"I am saddened that they have the mistaken idea that this would do away with the requirement to notify them of a move; it does not do that," the dean said.

In contrast, HB 650 would require most divorced parents to live in the same school district and participate in "shared parenting."

Rep. Steve McMillan, R-Bay Minette, sponsors the bill that could force parents to permanently lose custody of their children if they move outside the school district or violate other provisions of shared parenting.

He said the legislation is necessary based on appeals he has received from non-custodial parents caught in the legal process.

"While the current law is not perfect, virtually every study on custodial law that all things being equal it is better for both parents to be involved," he said.

Those provisions contain penalties that include custody loss if a parent files a domestic abuse/violence claim that proves to be false, or interferes with a custody order more than three times in three years.

For parents in the
Alabama Coalition for Fathers and Children, like the Needhams, a state law that sets strict limits on the actions of divorced parents and mandates shared custody is appealing. But there is another side to the coin.

Carol Gundlach, director of the
Alabama Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said while nobody likes to think about it, some parents are dangerous and should not be a part of an open custody arrangement. She said HB 650 would allow that too often.

"It could put children in the custody of a parent who is very dangerous for either the child or the other parent," Gundlach said. She plans to ask for a public hearing on the bill.

Funderburg called HB 650 "a very bad bill." McMillan was not available for comment.


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