Presumption of joint child custody

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An emotional debate that crossed party and gender lines had members characterizing a bill to change the state’s child custody laws as “long overdue,” while others termed it “problematic and would negatively affect children for years to come.”

Sponsored by Rep. Peggy Scott (R-Andover), HF322 would change current law to a presumption of joint legal and joint physical custody with a minimum of 45.1 percent of parenting time for each parent. A parent is currently entitled to receive at least 25 percent of parenting time. Provisions would be extended to those who are not married, but where parentage has been established.

Passed 80-53 by the House, it now moves the Senate where Sen. Pam Wolf (R-Spring Lake Park) is the sponsor.

At every committee stop the bill has made over its two-year journey to the House floor, testifiers’ stories have been “heart-wrenching and breathtaking,” Scott said. The current system pits parents in a divorce situation against one another, she said. “It is a contest to see who is the most fit. The day before a divorce, (someone) is considered a fit parent, and then at the end of the day they are considered a noncustodial parent.

Rep. Tina Liebling (DFL-Rochester) said the bill would make “extreme changes” to the state’s custody laws. She said it proposes a one-size-fits-all solution when each family situation is different. She is concerned that the bill does not take the child’s needs into consideration, but only those of the parents.

A successful amendment, directed mostly toward helping deployed service members, would make virtual parenting time part of the plan. Put forward by Rep. John Lesch (DFL-St. Paul), he said the provision would reflect the new technology that people use to stay in touch.

The bill is expected to cost the General Fund $1.5 million in fiscal year 2013 and $4 million in each of the following two fiscal years. The cost reflects the additional court staffing that would be added, according to a nonpartisan fiscal note.

“I think this is a small amount of money to invest in making children have as close to equal access to both parents as possible,” Scott said during the April 16 House Ways and Means Committee meeting.

Rep. Jean Wagenius (DFL-Mpls) disagreed. “I’m very troubled by changing the standard we have in the state which is in the best interest in the child, to essentially moving to a parent standard which is the best interest of the parent. I think we are taking a huge expensive road that is not good for children, either.”