Child-custody advocate: State law needs fix to provide parents with more equal custody

Thursday, October 12, 2017 ~ Updated 11:55 PM

A 2016 Missouri law has done little to give fathers more equal custody of their children after a divorce, said Cape Girardeau resident Linda Reutzel, who is the state chairman for National Parents Organization.

The custody issue will be the focus of discussion Thursday in Cape Girardeau at a public meeting hosted by Americans for Equal Shared Parenting, a St. Louis-based organization. Reutzel is among those advocates for shared custody who plan to attend the 7 p.m. session, which will be held at the Concourse building, 429 N. Broadview.

"Institutional gender bias in family court is rampant," she said Wednesday. The new law, she said, hasn't changed that situation.

State laws historically have directed judges to determine custody based on what is in a child's best interest, looking at factors such as which arrangement would disturb his or her life the least and be safest.

Legislation, championed by two Cape Girardeau lawmakers, became law a year ago. It states that judges may not give custody preference to a parent because of gender, age or financial status.

Supporters, including the two Republican lawmakers -- state Rep. Kathy Swan and state Sen. Wayne Wallingford -- had hoped the measure would maximize the amount of time a child would have to spend with his or her parents.

But Reutzel said many judges in the state still give preference to the mother. The new law "has no teeth" to force judges to start from a premise that both parents are entitled to equal custody, she said.

She and others sought new legislation this year to establish a "rebuttal presumption" that child-custody arrangements which award equal parenting time are in the best interest of the child.

But measures in the House and Senate failed to come up for a final vote.

Reutzel said she plans to push such legislation again in 2018.

Both Swan and Wallingford sponsored the legislation last year and are crafting similar legislation for the next session.

Wallingford said it is "sad" that many judges are choosing to disregard the concept of shared parenting. "We need to send all these judges to boot camp and get them reeducated," he said.

Swan said she asked the Office of State Courts Administrator for statistics on the outcome of child custody cases. Swan said she was told that the courts office doesn't keep such data.

Wallingford said he may include a provision in his bill to require the courts office to collect such data.

Reutzel said national statistics show that mothers receive "the bulk of the parenting time" in over 80 percent of the contested custody cases.

Reutzel said her son was adversely affected in his custody case, with the judge limiting the amount of time he could spend with his daughter. Reutzel said it also limited her opportunity to see her granddaughter.

Reutzel said she wants the courts to start with the premise that both parents are entitled to equal custody.

"Just like when you come into a trial, you are assumed innocent until proven guilty," she said.

Evidence then can be introduced in court to show if one parent should not receive equal custody, Reutzel said.

mbliss@semissourian.com

(573) 388-3641

Pertinent address:

Concourse, 429 N. Broadview, Cape Girardeau

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