High school senior Maddie Conner’s ongoing struggle with depression and anxiety was initiated by an unanticipated revision in parental custody that tore three step-sisters away from her.
Conner, a 16-year-old student at Lathrop High School northeast of Kansas City, Mo., said time with her siblings waned and infighting became the norm as their parents battled to gain the upper hand in reassignment of time with the children.
She said the Kansas Legislature could use her experience as a reference point to support passage of a bill creating a presumption that equal parenting time was in best interests of all children unless a court found clear and convincing evidence to the contrary.
“Children deserve a chance of equal time with both sides of their family,” she said. “We deserve to be loved by all of our family, not just one side.”
Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, a Wichita Democrat, said the reform would help children maintain direct connections with parents. It reduces pressure on children to choose sides, she said.
Shared parenting allows children to cultivate relationships with each of parent individually, Faust-Goudeau said.
Topeka attorney Gillian Chadwick, associate director of the Children and Family Law Center at Washburn University, objected to Senate Bill 157 along with the Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence.
Chadwick said the joint-custody legislation before the House Judiciary Committee was ill-advised.
“This bill is deeply flawed and will have extensive harmful consequences,” she said. “It is a misguided effort to prescribe an inflexible approach for all families in an attempt to remedy an extremely small number of situations that the proponents feel were unfair.”
She said the measure would impose a one-size-fits-all system on complex family dynamics. It incentivizes litigation by uninvolved parents who seek equal time in a bid to reduce child-support obligations, she said.
Sara Rust-Martin, legal and policy director of the coalition of 26 sexual and domestic violence organizations in Kansas, said an amendment exempting cases involving domestic violence was insufficient. She said the bill presupposed a non-abusive parent filed the initial divorce case, but reality wouldn’t be so clean and a nonabusive parent would be left to prove the case in court.
“Presumptions often work to favor one party over the other. In the case of Senate Bill 157, it will be the first person to the courthouse,” Rust-Martin said.
Ron Holm, representing Kansas Family Preservation Coalition, said the section of the bill on domestic inserted by the Kansas Senate was overly broad and should be altered to require evidence of a “pattern of abuse” or “significant history of domestic abuse” before taking equal parenting time off the table.
He said the bill should include a provision granting judges authority to impose sanctions against parents who made false allegations or bogus denials.