For over 10 years, my job was to try to cut a rapidly spinning cantaloupe in half. Sure, it’s easy to cut a stationary one, but put that fruit on a spinning spit and it suddenly gets much more complicated. It’s not a job that I would recommend to the faint of heart.
No, I don’t make appearances at supermarket grand openings. I’m a retired lawyer and, for over 10 years, I served as a family law master. After I retired, I spent another three years substituting for Family Court judges when a vacancy or a disqualification occurred. From that seat behind the bench, deciding a custody case is like trying to slice that spinning cantaloupe. Parents have lives, jobs, medical conditions, children from other relationships, parents of their own who need assistance. Multiply that by the two parents and their new partners.
What is easy to overlook is the separate lives and needs of the children. Children have school schedules, sports practices and games, dating, clubs and academic competitions, and they want and need time to just be kids.
The West Virginia Legislature is considering House Bill 2363, a measure that would require judges to presume that a 50/50 custodial split between parents is best for the child, unless an exception is found after a full evidentiary hearing. Note those words — a full evidentiary hearing.
The requirement for a full evidentiary hearing would apply to temporary-custody hearings and final hearings alike. That means calling witnesses, cross-examination and entering exhibits into evidence. This will have a number of effects.
1. It will be extremely difficult for parties without attorneys to adequately represent themselves, causing attorney fees to go up.
2. Family courts will be backlogged with requests for lengthy temporary-custody hearings.
3. Employed parents will hire attorneys before letting unemployed or lower-income spouses know that a divorce is imminent, allowing the attorney more time to prepare for the hearing.
4. Because temporary hearings will be delayed because of the court backlog, there will be a period of time when neither parent will have a valid order in place, resulting in attempts by one parent to get and maintain physical custody of the child, a bizarre type of “finder’s keepers.”
5. Magistrate courts will be inundated with claims of domestic violence, no matter how skimpy the evidence, to try to get a temporary-custody order.
6. Child support will be reduced.
None of these six results of passage of this bill does anything to improve the lives of children. If anything, there will more trauma inflicted, as children are paraded before judges to talk about their parents’ arguments, their housekeeping skills and their relative participation in their lives.
Do you know what would improve the lives of children? Providing well-trained domestic relations mediators for every Family Court; requiring that people who run for, or are appointed to, Family Court judge positions have at least five years experience in the practice of family law; and mandating that a guardian ad litem be appointed in any situation where it appears that a person’s parenting time will be in the range of 35% or less.
We entrust elected judges to make difficult and wise decisions regarding our children. Everyone who has ever sat behind that Family Court bench takes that responsibility seriously. Instead of tying their hands, why don’t we try giving them a sharper knife? Please join me in contacting our legislators to ask them to oppose this bill.