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Family Law In The News

Florida family law reform bill bad for kids?

By Gina Presson
Posted January 22, 2016

Senator Tom Lee is calling for one of the first mandated 50-50 child custody splits in the nation, requiring children spend “approximately equal time” with both parents. "The 21st-century view of the family is that mothers and fathers are equally equipped today to help manage the lives of their children," Lee said.

This may seem like a good idea, but Lee’s bill would increase the financial and emotional toll on mothers, and in some cases, put children at risk. Many women already believe family courts seem to serve the interests of well-off men at the expense of the rest of the family.

Lee, who went through his own contentious custody battles, argues courts are biased in favor of mothers, but judges say currently such decisions are based on the needs of the children. Judge Robert Doyle calls the Lee proposal a “horrible idea” saying “When a judge makes a life-altering decision affecting children, the judge should be guided by what’s best for the kids, not what’s best for the parents.” He explains that courts prefer joint custody, but current Florida law gives judges discretion to make that decision.

Under the Lee bill, the judge’s hands would be tied to a 50-50 split, unless there is “proof” that this arrangement would be detrimental to the children. This means additional court time and expense-a substantial burden on the parent with less money. Even in cases of abuse, it can be difficult to “prove.” Expert witnesses sometimes seem willing to testify in favor of the parent paying their fee, and many women cannot afford to hire a witness to counter. This can result in “store-bought justice” that is not always in the best interest of children.

Some academic research supports a 50-50 split when there “is no parental conflict or abuse.” But the studies are based on small samples, as only 10% of all children of divorced parents are living in joint physical custody, says Dr. Robert Emery. Senator Lee maintains those numbers should increase, but Emery says the problems with joint custody outweigh the benefits.

“Children’s lives in joint physical custody resemble that of “travelling salesmen,” Emery says. Children torn between two homes never seem to feel they have a home; they talk about going to “Dad’s house” or “Mom’s house.” The classwork, clothing, cleats or clarinet are always at the other house. The children often live under two sets of rules, sometimes with dire consequences. For example, one friend encouraged her children to do their homework, but, her ex-husband told them homework was optional. Their son nearly flunked out of high school as a result.

I have spent so much time in family court over the last 10 years that the bailiffs greet me like an old friend. I know from personal experience, even when one parent has primary custody, the other may undermine his or her efforts with school, with doctors and even with the children themselves. Because I had primary custody, I could take legal action, but at what cost? Opportunities were still lost as a result, because justice moves slowly, if at all. Plus, we all suffered unnecessary financial, emotional and physical stress. We are still in court, all these years later, over unpaid support issues. Our children feel like pawns in a war they cannot understand and they are not alone.

Many children feel like they’re living in a war zone according to Emery. He says children suffer in joint custody arrangements: “torn between two parents, two households and two lives.”

“Although joint custody may sound good, it does not automatically mean parents won't be in continued conflict.,” said Lynne Gold-Bikin, past chair of American Bar Association Family Law Division. “We are talking about parents who, when married, couldn't decide on the toothpaste. Why will they get along now?"

When parents don’t get along and their children are bounced back and forth between homes, there is a price to pay. And the victims are the children-we won’t know until this generation grows up, the toll that this legislative decision takes on Florida’s children.


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