Ohio Bill would assume 50-50 custody of children in a divorce

COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – Ohio lawmakers are considering a bill to give divorced parents custody of 50-50 children as a starting point.

Similar to a proposal introduced last year, House Bill 14 would automatically create an equal parenting regime at the start of custody battles. The bill’s sponsors, Reps. Rodney Creech (R-West Alexandria) and Marilyn John (R-Shelby), said revising existing custody standards in Ohio will protect parents’ right to see their children — and vice versa.

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“We have a win-loser system where children often find themselves in the middle or, worse, have to choose between parents or are used as pawns in a conflict,” John said. “Until the system changes, our kids will keep losing.”

Under the bill, Ohio judges would be mandated to encourage divorced parents to present the court with a 50:50 custody plan, including child support and schooling arrangements. If the parents have a different opinion, they have to prove to the court – with a stricter burden of proof than before – why equal parenthood would not be sufficient.

Judges must assume that a 50:50 settlement is reasonable, but if a parent can successfully present “clear and compelling” evidence proving otherwise, the judge can reassess where one parent has primary custody over another should.

John said that not only will the presumption of equal parenting encourage parents to negotiate a custody agreement before entering a custody battle in court, but the 50-50 split of parental leave will also benefit a child’s development.

“Children raised in single-parent households without the involvement of the other parent, particularly fathers, are at the highest risk of crime, suicide, mental illness, incarceration and poor school performance,” John said. “And that’s just the shortlist.”

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Although Creech said 59 bipartisan lawmakers supported a similar bill, House Bill 508, introduced last year, the proposal is not immune to controversy.

Franklin County Judge James Brown, who also serves as vice president of the Ohio Association of Domestic Relations Judges, said the law could do more harm than good, especially for the children at the center of custody battles.

“It’s a misguided attempt to solve a problem that doesn’t really exist,” Brown said. “We now share parenthood; We have 50-50 orders if it suits a child’s needs – we’re not against it.”

But assuming equal parenting from the start strips judges of their discretion to order different outcomes when different circumstances exist, he said, missing their ultimate goal: applying a child’s best interests.

“Proposed House Bill 14 reverses that and makes the assumption about the parent,” Brown said. “And that’s an unacceptable suggestion, because our focus shouldn’t be on how we please a parent or what we do for a parent; our focus needs to be what is in the best interests of the child.”

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The bill also ignores the practical considerations of child custody arrangements, Brown said. Most court-ordered agreements give parents time together, but it’s almost impossible to divide that time evenly when you consider employment, transportation, school location, and other factors.

dr Maria Houston, executive director of Columbus-based domestic violence prevention group LSS Choices, said adopting 50-50 parenting could backfire in cases of family abuse.

Adjusting the burden of proof from the current standard of “preponderance of evidence” to the higher standard of “clear and convincing” could make it more difficult for victims and survivors of domestic violence to prove abuse.

“Often we know that even though the abuser is the father of the children, the abuser could use the children to manipulate or further abuse the victim,” Houston said.

However, Creech said there are enough safeguards in HB 14 to create exceptions to the presumption of equal parenting when necessary. The state shouldn’t punish all children in Ohio just because there is potential for abuse, he said.

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“What can we do to improve the mental health of our children?” Creech asked his fellow lawmakers. “Well, maybe the first thing we can do is stop tearing her from two fit parents.”

HB 14 is awaiting further hearings in the Home Family and Aging Committee.

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