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Parents bring child custody bills to lawmakers
 
Mar 28, 12:04 AM EST
 
By NOREEN GILLESPIE
Associated Press Writer
 

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) -- Christopher Kennedy's divorce taught him an unwanted lesson: When fighting for their children, divorced dads have to be their own advocates in court.

For Kennedy, that hasn't been easy.

Kennedy, of Ellington, lost custody of his three children last year after a contentious divorce. The engineer is appealing two restraining orders barring him from seeing his kids and mostly blames the court system for his plight.

"They will not enforce a father's motion, and they will do everything they can to rule in favor of mothers," he said. "You would honestly have to sit through a hearing to believe it yourself."

Now he and other divorced dads are taking issue with the state's laws and court system, claiming that they are biased towards mothers in custody disputes. The fathers back a bill before the General Assembly that promotes shared parenting, which encourages judges to have children of broken families split roughly equal time with both parents, unless one parent is deeemed to be unfit.

"The court situation really is modeled on criminal situations where there's a right and a wrong, and a winner and a loser. And I think that's the exact wrong way to handle it," said John M. Clapp, chairman of the Shared Parenting Council of Connecticut.

Under current state law, joint legal custody is awarded only if parents agree. But arrangements for children spending time with both parents can vary greatly depending on family circumstances. Backers of the bill say the system doesn't encourage co-parenting because children often live with one parent and visit the other.

But as lawmakers begin to assess the state's custody laws, they enter rough terrain. What works for one family will not necessarily work for another, making it difficult to impose unilateral change.

Rep. Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven, who chairs the Judiciary Commiitte, said a group of lawmakers will study the issue more carefully.

"The vast majority of the time, one of the two parents is going to get physical custody. The vast majority of the time it is going to be the parent that stays in the family home. The vast majority of the time that is going to be the mother," Lawlor said. "How you change that, what law you can do to change that, I'm not exactly sure."

Divorce lawyers and the state's Judicial Department say there are some practical problems with defining shared parenting as state law. Does time when a child is in school or sleeping count? What happens if a parent can't get transportation, or child care, or works hours that conflict with another parent? Is shuttling back and forth between two homes in a child's best interest?

Under the current system, there is flexibility to look at individual family circumstances, experts say.

"One size does not fit all when it comes to children," said Shirley Pripstein, a divorce attorney who serves on the family law section for the Connecticut Bar Association. "Shared custody does not always work. Sometimes the parents cannot continue to live in the same town. It's very hard to work a shared parenting plan when the parents live an hour apart. And the children often don't like it."

Determining if bias actually exists in the system also is difficult. The state's Judicial Department does not track how frequently children are given to mothers and fathers in divorce cases. Though complaints can be filed against judges, lawmakers say they are often filed by people who are just dissatisfied with the outcome of their cases.

Proponents of shared parenting look to Oregon's law as a model, which encourages parents to get out of the courtroom and into mediation to develop a parenting plan. Massachusetts, New Hampshire and New Jersey have also begun discussing how to better encourage involvement from both parents following a divorce.

The issue has been studied in Connecticut before. In 2002, the Gov.'s Commission on Divorce, Custody and Children found that the divorce and custody process takes too long, is too expensive, and is stressful on parents and children.

One of the commission's key recommendations was to change state statutes to emphasize the role of both parents in a child's life and get parents to file parenting plans with the court. The plans would detail schedules and how the parents planned to make decisions about medical matters and school, and remedies if a parent didn't adhere to the plan.

"When children have responsible and actively involved parents they do better during and after divorce," the report said.

A bill before the Legislature would also put that recommendation and others from the commission into law. Clapp, the leader of the state's shared parenting group, said he's also supportive of that bill.

"What could be more in the best interests of the child than active involvement by both parents?" he said. "What is better than that? Is there anything you can think of? It's just common sense."

2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. T

Chris Kennedy
Ellington, CT 06029
860-871-8538(H)

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