Members of the legal branch, including a former Ohio Supreme Court justice, on Tuesday opposed a bill aimed at automatically giving parents 50/50 custody in divorce and dissolution cases.
Paul Pfeifer, who served as a state Supreme Court justice for 24 years, also wanted to defend internal relations justices from what he saw as “insulting and almost shocking testimony” by House Bill 14 supporters.
Some of the comments he objected to — claims that judges are applying their own personal values to cases and different processes in each of the state’s 88 counties — had also been made by a fellow supporter of the bill, State Assemblyman Rodney Creech, R-West Alexandria , as he introduced the bill to the House Families & Aging Committee.
“This bill (HB) 14 is only about the parents and not the children,” Pfeifer told the committee on Tuesday.
Brittany Whitney, deputy director of the Mount Vernon legal director’s office and director of the Mount Vernon Domestic Violence Attorney’s Office, wanted to debunk claims that false abuse allegations tainted the existing system.
“I want to assure you that in my experience as a domestic violence prosecutor, it’s extremely rare for there to be false reports of domestic violence, almost to the point where it just doesn’t happen,” Whitney said.
Children who come from loving families are often the subject of consensual separations and consensual custody cases. About 10% of cases involve dysfunctional and sometimes violent family situations, she said.
“It’s really inappropriate to assume a parent-centric model because they’re not the vulnerable party here,” Whitney said. “The child is.”
Pfeifer is now the executive director of the Ohio Judicial Conference, and he acknowledged that the family court system could be improved, although he did not support HB 14.
“Several judges, prosecutors, attorneys and other family law professionals have drafted a legislative proposal to build upon Ohio’s child-centered practice for children and families involved in the court system through law and rule changes,” Pfeifer wrote in his committee statements.
The reform would come through changes to language in the Ohio Revised Code, rules of civil and juvenile procedure, and other court rules to “reflect that both parents continue to have roles and responsibilities as parents when not living together,” Pfeifer said.
“Conflict and empowerment concepts should be removed as far as possible from Ohio statutes that address matters of parenting,” he wrote, citing recommendations led by the Ohio Supreme Court Children and Families Advisory Committee on implementation of the reform of family law.
Ohio Revised Code reform could also include eliminating the terms “dependent parent” or “custodial parent” to “remove the perception that one parent might have the upper hand or more authority than the other.”
“When you’re dealing with these issues, you’re dealing with a powder keg,” Pfeifer told the committee.
When asked how the bill could be improved as the committee progressed, both Pfeifer and Whitney had a similar response.
“I would be inclined to think that this bill as it stands is unlikely to be fixed,” Whitney said.
Pfeifer went so far as to say the bill was “a hot mess.”
“You can’t fix it because it starts with the premise that everything has to be 50-50, and that’s just unnatural,” Pfeifer said.
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