Monday, December 19, 2005

Group getting its wish: Custody issue out in the open - Illinois

Group getting its wish: Custody issue out in the open


About 40 people turned out at a meeting Dec. 6 in Urbana to hear the executive director of the American Coalition for Fathers and Children talk about ways to get the Illinois legislature and the Champaign County judiciary to consider shared parenting.

"Courts regularly separate fit parents from children," Michael Mc-Cormick said. "We think the starting point should be equal time."

In late October, the group launched a billboard campaign in Urbana, calling upon Champaign County family court Judge Arnold Blockman to consider that concept. The billboards and radio ads have sparked a lot of discussion among users of the system and prompted the Dec. 6 meeting.

"During marriage, both parents are typically active in raising their children," McCormick said. "After divorce, children deserve equal access to both parents. But in Champaign County Circuit Court, kids rarely get that. They're caged; stuck in the old every-other-weekend-with-Dad schedule."

A Democrat elected in 1996, Blockman said he's human and can't help but be bothered by the billboards on Cunningham and East University avenues, which feature a crying child and the words: "Is four days a month with Dad really in a child's best interest?"

He's upset not because he thinks the billboard backers are right but because they don't recognize the reforms he's instituted to improve the system since he took over administration of family court.

For those unhappy about his custody rulings, Blockman said the appellate court is probably the best indicator of if his actions are appropriate.

Since taking the bench, Blockman said, 105 of his rulings have been appealed; 91 were affirmed outright; seven were partially affirmed. That means seven cases, or less than 7 percent, were overturned. Those numbers involve all kinds of cases, but for the last five years, he's done essentially nothing but family cases.

McCormick, a father of six who lives in northern Virginia and runs the coalition office out of Washington D.C., said this isn't a personal attack on Blockman but part of a nationwide campaign to get judges to do the right thing.

"I don't see Blockman as the problem. He is the solution," McCormick said. "This is not a campaign directed at him. There are a number of people heartbroken at what's left of their relationship with their children."

Blockman said it's true he doesn't grant joint custody when only one parent wants it. But it's because the law precludes him, not because he has a prejudice against a particular parent.

"Look at the criteria (outlined in the statute)," Blockman said.

He referred to the section stating a judge may enter an order of joint custody, taking into account "the ability of the parents to cooperate effectively and consistently in matters that directly affect the joint parenting of the child. 'Ability of the parents to cooperate' means the parents' capacity to substantially comply with a Joint Parenting Order."

Those who met with McCormick were asked to complete surveys asking if they'd help with cash, write to legislators, talk to reporters, monitor judges or recruit members, for example.

The group decided it wanted a town hall meeting on shared parenting in Champaign or Urbana and tentatively scheduled one for Jan. 26. McCormick also discussed the possibility of a march to the courthouse with 150 or 200 people, suggesting it could generate national TV coverage.

"I want wholesale legislative changes," he said, adding that disgruntled noncustodial parents have to work together to have their voices heard. "Judges are not hearing en masse that this doesn't work."

Read the entire article by clicking on the title - link to the American Coalition for Fathers and Children here.

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