For Your Children’s Sake, Support HB368

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Contributed by Lori Barkus
Do you support Alaska’s HB368?  Have you called your representatives yet and told them to support it?  For our children’s sake, you need too. You can find your representatives' contact info in this publication. Do not delay. 

A parent's separation or divorce may end their relationship, but parents must be encouraged to work together to ensure that both remain a part of their children’s lives.

Historically, courts favored mothers having “custody” and fathers having “visitation”. Courts began to recognize how damaging these labels are (and possibly unconstitutional), and lawmakers began rewriting custody laws to reflect the concept of time-sharing. States then began moving in the direction of shared parenting.

Although courts are becoming more receptive to shared parenting, not every court or judge is on board. Judges must make custody decisions based on a “best interest of the child” standard. This phrase sounds comforting, but since judges are not required to explain their decisions, many argue the standard is nebulous. Many judges retain the belief that it’s preferable for children to have one primary residence. Although there is a plethora of research showing this is not the case, many remain unaware or unwilling to acknowledge it.

States just like Alaska around the country have passed, or are trying to pass, laws that create a rebuttable presumption of equal timesharing, with the following exceptions:
•    The safety, well being and physical, mental and emotional health of the child would be endangered by equal time-sharing.
•    Clear and convincing evidence of extenuating circumstances justify a departure from equal time-sharing with written findings justifying the departure.
•    Incarceration
•    The distance between residences makes equal time-sharing impracticable.
•    A parent does not request at least 50-percent time-sharing.
•    A permanent injunction has been entered or is warranted against a parent or household member.
•    Domestic violence

As a practicing family attorney with nearly 20 years of experience, I have seen all too often, children become pawns in their parents’ divorce. A shared parenting bill prevents the minimization of one parent, usually the father, from a child’s life. In many of these “every other weekend” scenarios, a child loses out on time with his/her father and 50% of the child’s extended family as well. Additionally, the lesser-earning parent opposes equal time-sharing because it will lower their monthly child support payment. A parent is then forced to try and “buy” time with his/her children, meaning that the parent pays full child support just to get the other parent to agree to equal time-sharing.

Child custody is not a gender issue. Ask any daughter who grew up without a father, any mother of a divorced son, any paternal grandmother, sisters of divorced brothers, stepmothers or others. 

Groups of women are now starting to assemble to change the system that hurts both them and our children. Leading Women for Shared Parenting (LW4SP) is such a group and I am proud to be a member. LW4SP has one cause: a rebuttable presumption of Equally Shared Parenting in Family Law. While equal shared parenting will help both women and men, we believe the voice of a group of strong women will be required to correct the messaging about current family law practices.

We have started working with groups traditionally seen as men’s groups like The Fathers Rights Movement in an attempt to educate the public on the advantages to both sexes when parental equality and shared parenting is encouraged, practiced and presumed to be in the child’s best interests until shown to be otherwise.

For years, women's groups have opposed shared parenting presumptions. What they fail to take into account is that presumptions are rebuttable. Presumptions provide a starting point, a leveling of the playing field, removing the winner-takes-all approach to child custody - a framework that is in no one’s best interest. 

There are some exceptional cases in which shared parenting is inappropriate or where one parent cannot spend equal time with the children, due to work or other reasons. A judge can order more or less time sharing if an equal time-sharing arrangement is truly detrimental or impossible. There are parents (fathers mostly, as 85% of custodial parents are currently mothers) who are able and willing to spend equal time with their children. 

No child should be denied the participation of two capable and loving parents and no parent should be forced to bargain for or purchase time with their children.