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Opponents of bill on equal parenting in child custody cases say it could be dangerous

A parent holds the hand of a small child
Konstantin Christian
A parent holds the hand of a small child

Ohio lawmakers are considering a bill (HB14) that would require courts to use equal parenting as a default position when starting decisions about custody of children. But the legislation is being lambasted by opponents as being against the best interest of kids.

Each Ohio court handles child custody cases differently. This bill would mandate all custody cases start with the default position that children should be spending equal time with each parent.

Right now, in some cases, one parent is determined to be the custodial parent from the start of the process. Opponents of this bill said it represents a shift from courts considering the best interest of the child first to determining the parents’ best interest first.

Retired Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul Pfeifer was one of the critics who testified against the bill in the House Family and Aging Committee meeting. Pfeifer didn't mince words when he talked about the bill.

“It’s just a hot mess and you can’t fix it because it begins with the premise that everything has to be 50/50 and that's just unnatural," Pfeifer said.

Attorneys told the committee parents who want equal custody now can usually get it, especially if they are willing to work together for the good of the children. But opponents said this bill would have a devastating effect on children who have an abusive parent.

Brittany Whitney, the director of the Mt. Vernon Law Directors Domestic Violence Special Prosecution Unit, said not all cases of abuse are prosecuted for various reasons. And she explained this legislation would require there be legal proof that a parent is abusive or is mentally unstable to be able to veer away from the equal parenting default position in this bill. She said judges have discretion to protect kids in cases of suspected abuse, but said this bill would change that.

“What I think this bill does is it actually takes the guardrails that are there and frankly, aren’t enough, it takes even those guardrails away and that’s really concerning," Whitney said.

Whitney said in her experience, it is rare for children to make untrue allegations of abuse or violence, so their concerns should be given top consideration by courts.

Backers of the bill see it differently

Rep. Rodney Creech (R-West Alexandria), the sponsor of the legislation, is a divorced father himself. Earlier this month, he said this bill would ensure both parents get equal time with the children.

“What our bill does is create an official state policy that ensures children have a continued and meaningful relationship with both parents and to the greatest extent possible, that parents share equally in time and responsibility,” Creech said.

Cosponsor Rep. Marilyn John (R-Richland County) said equal parenting is best for the well-bring child of children.

“Currently, we have a winner-loser system where children are often caught in the middle, having to choose between parents or worse yet, being used as pawns in a conflict. Until this system changes, our children will continue to be the losers,” John said.

The sponsors of the legislation say only five counties in Ohio use equal parenting as the starting point.

Elizabeth McNeese, chair of the Ohio chapter of the National Parents Organization, said she supports this bill because current law is decades old and needs to be changed.

“When parents end a relationship in Ohio, the default in law requires courts to choose one custodial parent. And there is little guidance for courts on how to handle parenting time,” McNeese said. “So, the decision falls upon a complete stranger whose expertise is in law to decide which of the two parents they feel is the best parent for that child, and to decide which parent will get the most time with the child.”

McNeese said this approach often creates conflicts and brings out the worst in both parents. And that, she said, affects children. She said this bill removes the incentive for parents to fight.

Contact Jo Ingles at jingles@statehousenews.org.