The Ohio legislature is considering a bill (HB14) that would require courts to use equal parenting as the default position in child custody decisions. But the legislation has been said by opponents to be against the welfare of children.
Each Ohio court handles custody cases differently. This law would dictate that all custody cases begin with the standard position that children should spend equal amounts of time with each parent.
Currently, in some cases, one parent is designated as the custodial parent from the start of the process. Opponents of the bill said it represented a shift from courts considering the best interests of the child first to determining the best interests of the parents.
Retired Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul Pfeifer was one of the critics who testified against the bill at the House Family and Aging Committee meeting. Pfeifer didn’t mince his words when he spoke about the bill.
“It’s just a hot mess and 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.
Lawyers told the committee that parents who want equal custody now can usually get it, especially if they are willing to work together for the children’s benefit. But opponents said this law would have devastating effects on children who have an abusive parent.
Brittany Whitney, the director of the Mt. Vernon Law Directors Special Prosecution Unit on domestic violence, said not all cases of abuse on multiple grounds are prosecuted. And she explained that this legislation would require legal proof that a parent is abusive or mentally unstable in order to deviate from the standard position for equal parents in this bill. She said judges have discretion to protect children in cases of alleged abuse, but said this bill would change that.
“What I think is that this bill actually takes away the guardrails that are there and frankly it’s not enough, it even takes away those guardrails and that’s really worrying,” Whitney said.
Whitney said in her experience that it is rare for children to make false allegations of abuse or violence, so their concerns should receive the highest attention from courts.
Proponents of the bill see it differently
Rep. Rodney Creech (R-West Alexandria), the sponsor of the legislation, is himself a divorced father. Earlier this month he said this bill would ensure both parents have equal time with the children.
“Our bill establishes official state policy that will ensure that children have an ongoing and meaningful relationship with both parents and that, to the greatest extent possible, parents share time and responsibility equally,” Creech said.
Co-sponsor Rep. Marilyn John (R-Richland County) said equal parenting is best for the children’s well-behaved child.
“Currently we have a win-loser system where children often stand between parents and have to choose between parents or, worse, are used as pawns in a conflict. Until that system changes, our children will continue to be the losers,” John said.
The legislation’s sponsors say only five counties in Ohio use equal parenting as a starting point.
Elizabeth McNeese, chair of the Ohio chapter of the National Parents Organization, said she supports the bill because the current law is decades old and needs to be changed.
“When parents end a relationship in Ohio, the violation of the law requires the courts to select a custodial parent. And there’s little guidance for courts on how to deal with parental leave,” McNeese said. “So the decision falls on a complete stranger who has legal knowledge to decide which of the two parents they think is the best parent for this child and to decide which parent will be spending the most time with the child.”
McNeese said this approach often creates conflict and brings out the worst in both parents. And that, she said, affects children. She said this bill removes the incentive for parents to argue.