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Tennessee moves to split custody evenly in messy divorces

A Tennessee bill that would evenly split child custody in contentious divorce cases is drawing national attention and dividing groups along gender lines.On one side is an alliance of women’s groups, some judges and the Tennessee Bar Association, who say the change would make divorces tougher to settle and give abusive ex-husbands leverage they shouldn’t have. Spending half of the time with each parent would also impose impractical schedules on kids, they say.

 On the other side are fathers’ rights groups who say kids get deprived of full relationships with both parents. Courts have too long ignored laws calling for custody decisions to be made in children’s best interests, they say, and judges are overly influenced by notions about the mother-child bond.

 The state’s House Children and Family Affairs’ Family Justice Subcommittee is scheduled to meet today to review divorce-related data it requested from the Tennessee Bar Association, as it works to determine whether to send the bill to a second committee that could send it to the full House.

 Other states, including Missouri, start from a presumption of an even custodial split unless there has been abuse, said Janet Richards, a law professor at the University of Memphis who specializes in child custody matters. Tennessee would be alone in requiring clear, convincing evidence that one parent is unfit before dividing custody unequally, she said.

 “This law sets up a standard of proof that’s just short of the criminal standard of beyond a reasonable doubt,” Richards said.

 Committee hearings on the bill have drawn standing-room-only crowds full of mothers wearing saucer-size lapel stickers that read “Vote no on HB 2916″ and fathers wearing everything from military fatigues to business suits.

Right now, parents divorcing in Tennessee — or unmarried parents trying to work out custody arrangements — are urged to work out a plan with a mediator. Under the pending bill, courts automatically would divide children’s time equally between moms and dads who are unable to agree unless one parent can prove the other utterly unfit.

The way Eric Kyle sees it, he hasn’t been able to properly father his children since his 2005 divorce.

Kyle, who lives in Davidson County, Tenn., wanted his son and daughter to split their time equally between him and his ex-wife, who lives in Williamson County, Tenn. But when Kyle sought an attorney willing to try to negotiate that kind of arrangement, one after another told him the same thing.

“You either have to dirty up your ex and do whatever you have to to get full custody, or you accept what I understand is a pretty standard 80-20 time split,” he said. “Of course, it’s dads that get the children 20% of the time, in most cases.”

Rep. Mike Bell, a Republican and the bill’s key sponsor, said he introduced the bills after constituents’ complaints and hopes it might encourage more parents to reconsider divorce.

“It’s a concern that children are being deprived of one parent or another in most cases in a custody battle,” said Bell, who has been married 25 years and has five children.

Opponents want to scare the public with claims about children being shuttled back and forth and attending multiple schools, said Mike McCormick, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based American Coalition for Fathers and Children.

“I say — with the recognition that there is nothing like (this bill) in the country — all it would actually do is require parents to be on equal footing in courts of law,” McCormick said. The bill ignores the problems some families have, said Kathy Walsh, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.

Some parents divorce after years of the kind of controlling, domineering or even violent behavior by one party that doesn’t go away just because the relationship ends, Walsh said.

She said the bill could prompt victims to stay with their abusers so they don’t have to leave their kids alone with the other parent.

Monica Gimbles said she doesn’t think the bill is realistic. She is in the process of finding an attorney to work out custody arrangements for her 5-year-old daughter with her onetime fiancé.

“This is the kind of idea that people come up with when they haven’t ever actually taken care of a child, a small child that needs a lot of care and takes a lot of time,” Gimbles said. “It just makes the child’s life topsy-turvy.”

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