| Roman Matizov, Shutterstock

Missouri advances equal rights for child custody

A Missouri law went into effect last week aimed at equalizing child-custody arrangements for both parents. 

A Missouri father who helped spearhead the effort called it a "monumental" advance. The National Parents Organization has touted the virtues of such "shared parenting" policies and is pushing states nationwide to adopt them.

The Missouri Legislature passed House Bill 1550, which requires judges to provide a written explanation if they do not award equal child custody and child support when parents cannot agree on arrangements. (The law allows for some exceptions, including cases of child abuse, special needs or a disruption to a child’s educational needs, but the exceptions must be documented.)
 
The written provision is intended to allow the non-custodial parent a better chance on appeal. Previously, courts determined custody based on the “best interests” of the child. Critics said that allowed some parents to more easily violate visitation and financial obligations. It also didn't allow much opportunity to appeal the ruling.
 
St. Louis father Mark Ludwig, along with several other parents fighting for child-custody rights, advocated for changes to Missouri’s law as part of the non-profit Missouri Fathers’ Rights Movement.
 
“It was a whole team of us,” Ludwig said. “Most of us basically came together as individuals with our own stories. My son was taken away from me for 204 days. We had a grandmother who was fighting for more than four overnights a month. That really showed how custody issues affect the whole family.”
 
Ludwig praised the provision that forces judges to explain denials of shared custody in writing.
 
“If a judge does not give equal time, they have to give a written reason why,” Ludwig said. “That gives the appeals judge a basis to go on.
  
“The standard time given to a non-custodial parent (prior to the law’s passage) for visitation is four overnights a month and four hours a week. That’s the standard parenting plan in Missouri,” he added. “That’s not a parent, that’s a visitor. The new law does not mandate 50/50 but it allows judges to start at a 50/50 presumption. Then they have 27 different rebuttal assumptions that they have to document as to why a parent is not justified in getting equal custody.”
 
The law also states that if either party has not provided proper visitation or financial support, the violated party may request a hearing with a judge within 30 days.
 
The law, which passed the Senate 28-0 and the House 154-2, only applies to new custody cases, although Ludwig said it could some prompt parents to file modifications to current arrangements.
 
“It’s the single-most monumental family legislation to pass in the country,” Ludwig said. “We’ve been contacted by 29 other states so far. This legislation has swung the door open. Other states have some similar laws but this one is probably the most powerful as far as instructions to the judges. It makes cases appealable.

“And it’s supposed to be about the kid. Kids have the right to have equal access to both parents,” he added. “It should not be based on the sex of the parent, either. Society generally thinks kids should be with their moms but that’s not always the best interest of the child.”
 
Rep. Jim Neely, a Republican from northwest Missouri, said he initiated the legislation a couple of years ago, after two women from Cape Girardeau approached him about the issue.
 
“They came to me after they had asked someone else to do it and they didn’t,” Neely said. “I crafted the legislation into a shared parenting bill, with the intent to give it to a female legislator because we thought it might pass easier that way. Initially, the bill never had a hearing.”
 
Neely said that while the law does not guarantee equal custody, it places both parents on more equal footing from the start of legal proceedings. The law applies to anyone going through a divorce, legal separation or unwed parents who are no longer together.
 
“Divorces can be antagonistic and parents are taken advantage of because of it,” Neely said. “Before, with the findings and facts and conclusion of law, if they didn’t put it in writing, the offended party couldn’t appeal. We wanted to try to make the legal proceedings a little more concrete. They can start out at 50/50 but the judge has to give a compelling reason and proof as to why they deny 50/50.
 
“The law tends to favor one parent over another and there’s always a factor of alienation. Kids miss out on having both parents that way,” he added. “Moms and dads bring different perspectives and insight to their kids. Kids learn different things from each parent. Both, generally, are looking out for the best interests of their children. When you don’t have two people sharing that, the kid loses.”
 
Neely said he heard opposition to the legislation privately from lawyers, but not officially.
 
“I think if they were being honest, the Missouri Bar is opposed to it but I’ve been told such associations are being cautious,” Neely said.
 
The Missouri Bar Association (MBA) did formally oppose similar proposed legislation two years ago but Missouri Bar Media Relations Director Farrah Fite said HB 1550 addressed the points of opposition.
 
In February 2016, the Bar’s executive board voted to support the new legislation “in concept.” In a letter to Neely, the MBA said: “The executive committee voted to support the concept of ensuring that parties to child-custody cases are aware of all options available to them in the enforcement of a parenting plan.”
 
Fite said the executive board has not yet met to vote on HB 1550 since it passed with the amendments, including the shared parenting provision, so the organization will remain neutral on the issue for now.

How do other states compare? As of last spring, the National Parents Organization, which in 2014 released a state-by-state analysis of parental inequality, listed just eight states as having the most favorable laws for shared parenting: Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, Iowa, Louisiana, Minnesota, South Dakota and Utah.

Meghan McCann, policy specialist for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said the NCSL has documented shared parenting legislation (pending, failed, and enacted) from 2012-2016.
The bills are listed in the NCSL Child Support and Family Law Legislation Database at: http://www.ncsl.org/research/human-services/child-support-and-family-law-database.aspx.