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Bill would give 50-50 custody
 
March 21, 2005
By John Finnerty
 
 
The Daily Item At least three local residents were among roughly 100 at a rally last week in Harrisburg intended to get fathers treated more fairly in custody disputes.

The rally, sponsored by Fathersí And Childrenís Equality, was meant to show support for House Bill 888 which advocates say would order that children of separated parents begin in joint custody arrangements, spending half the time with each parent.

[More:]

"Pennsylvania is one of the states where in a case of separation, divorce or out-of-wedlock birth, for no rhyme or reason, there is a presumption that the child is best off with the mother," said Rep. Robert Belfanti, D-107 of Mount Carmel. Fathers are often forced to petition the court to gain more time with their children, the legislator said.

The proposed legislation would "put both parents on an equal footing," Mr. Belfanti said.

Under the proposed legislation, the parents are asked to develop a parenting plan to be approved by a judge. If the parents canít agree on such a plan, the "guideline parenting plan" would be used: the father would get the kids the first and third week of the month; the mother would get them the second and fourth week of the month.

If one of the parents wants to petition to change the custody from 50-50 joint custody to a different arrangement, he or she can still do that, Mr. Belfanti said.

Northumberland County hearing officer Michael Seward said that currently the court typically uses "shared custody" arrangements which give one parent primary custody. The criticism of joint custody is that by making them split time evenly between two homes, the children donít have one place that they can really consider their home, he said.

One of those who went to Harrisburg was Julie Ranck of Sunbury. She became involved in lobbying for child custody reform out of frustration with the custody dispute between her son and daughter-in-law.

"I didnít like seeing my grandchildren in court," Mrs. Ranck said. "For my grandchildren and other children, so they donít go through this. Kids shouldnít have to deal with the burden of worrying about their parents bickering."

She said the law needs to be reformed to treat both parents more fairly. "When you go with joint custody, it wonít give one party control of the situation," she said. "They will start out on even ground."

There are some fathers who donít want to be greatly involved in the upbringing of their children after a divorce but "all fathers should not be penalized," Ms. Ranck said.

Mr. Belfanti said that the change is needed because the current situation is unfair.

"If weíre going to have gender-based equal rights, then it should be across-the-board," Mr. Belfanti said, adding that he often supports legislation that is aimed to benefit womenís rights. "Letís not compare apples and oranges," he said.

The current proposal is a revised form of legislation Belfanti initially introduced seven years ago.

Two Northumberland County judges ó President Judge Robert B. Sacavage and Judge William H. Wiest ó contacted by The Daily Item Thursday disputed the notion that women have an unfair advantage in custody disputes.

"That used to be the case. It used to be very heavily weighted in favor of the mother, but not anymore," Mr. Wiest said. "When people ask me what the biggest change Iíve seen in civil law, thatís my stock answer."

The tide has changed over the years due to court decisions directing that the primary factor in custody disputes should be determining whatís in the best interest of the child, the judge said.

Generally, the children begin in the custody of the parent who has physical custody of them when the parents separate, Mr. Wiest said.

State Rep. Russell Fairchild, R-85 of Winfield, said he signed as a co-sponsor of the legislation because he hopes it will provide a better means of determining custody arrangements.

Itís not something that will only benefit fathers, Mr. Fairchild said.

"That goes both ways. I can recall phone calls from women complaining of the same" sort of problems the fathersí rights advocates complain about, he said.

Arguments over custody "get ugly real quick. Hopefully this will limit some of that by saying, hereís an agreement, so at least we have a starting point," Mr. Fairchild said.

But Mr. Belfanti said that the current starting point seems to favor women and said that he began working to get the law changed after his family experienced first-hand how expensive and difficulty custody disputes can be.

Mr. Belfanti said his son ended up wracking up $20,000 in legal bills to ultimately get a judge to approve 50-50 shared custody.

"I didnít understand how tilted the law in the Commonwealth was until it happened to me personally," Belfanti said.

The legislator added that one of his staff members went through a divorce and the child involved in the case was placed with the mother. That staff member did eventually get custody of the child, after his ex-wife died of a drug overdose, Mr. Belfanti said.

He said that the legislation is opposed by some womenís advocacy groups that claim that the current system is sufficient.

But Dan Rummel of Lewisburg, another of the local residents who attended the rally in Harrisburg, said they hope the law will be changed to create a system thatís better for everyone, most importantly the children involved.

"All they want to do is to get kids out of the courtrooms, stop playing tug-of-war with them," said Dan Rummel of Lewisburg.

He said that too often judges donít treat fathers fairly in determining custody arrangements. "(Judges) use too much discretion. Women do well in court because they sniffle and then, Ďboom!í" the court finds in the womanís favor, Mr. Rummel said.

The movement to increase joint custody is one that has support from some mothers as well as fathers, he said. "It works both ways," Mr. Rummel said. "There are women who want the fathers in the picture to help out more."

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E-mail comments to jfinnerty@dailyitem.com