Monday, January 16, 2006

Time to get serious about child visitation

Time to get serious about child visitation


Bitter parents who try to block their formerly beloved's access to the couple's child(ren) following divorce might think twice in New Hampshire, where a proposed bill aims to make life difficult for uncooperative custodial parents.

How difficult? By inviting the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to investigate the offending parent for child abuse and neglect.

The idea behind such legislation is that children of divorce should continue to have access to both parents, assuming there's no reason to protect a child from one of his parents. While child visitation orders are taken seriously in theory, the legal process of enforcement is usually time-consuming, laborious and expensive. In practice, the failure to take them seriously leads to an ever-widening, and predictable, trajectory of distance between the child and visiting parent.

Bickford's bill (HB 1585) would make it easier for parents denied visitation to seek remedy, while promising grief for parents who don't cooperate.

First, the non-custodial parent would get an expedited court hearing rather than take a docket number and possibly wait three to four months. Next, if the judge determines that the custodial parent is blocking access for no legitimate reason, then the Department of Health and Human Services would be notified of a possible case of child abuse and neglect.

Common sense tells us what we seem to need studies to demonstrate — that children need two parents and manage divorce best when they have equal access to both.

While family courts are increasingly trying to ensure that children have that access by awarding joint or shared custody, emotionally distraught humans don't always follow directions.

Meanwhile, courts and the state historically have been more effective in enforcing child support than visitation such that we have entire bureaucracies built around support collection tied to federal incentives. For every dollar that states put up to collect child support monies, for example, the federal government matches with two dollars. Other incentive funds are also available to reward collections.

But the proposed bill is not without critics. As with any law related to personal relationships, this one could be tricky to enforce. Imagine a HHS social worker knocking on your door to ask why you didn't let Johnny see his daddy last weekend.

Such well-intentioned laws also could backfire. As one close observer put it in an e-mail exchange, "Getting (HHS) involved is usually the worst thing to do. They usually side with the 'Mom who is concerned about letting the kids go to their father' and, they (investigators) may decide that neither parent is fit. And take custody of the kid(s)."

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