Kansas lawmakers weigh making ‘shared parenting’ a presumption in most divorce cases

Joe Sessel of Topeka takes notes while also tending to his daughter Claire during a committee hearing Tuesday on a bill that would put more pressure on courts to order shared custody and parenting in divorce cases.

? A Kansas legislative committee heard passionate testimony Tuesday from people both for and against a bill that would require courts to order shared custody and parenting of children in most divorce cases.

Senate Bill 257 would create a presumption in divorce cases that children of the couple would spend roughly equal time with each parent, unless the parties have agreed to another parenting plan in advance.

Judges would be allowed to order other arrangements only if there is “clear and convincing evidence” that an equal-time arrangement would not be in the best interests of the child.

Under current law, child custody cases are governed by what judges determine to be in the best interest of the child. Parenting agreements worked out in advance of a divorce are presumed to be in the child’s best interest, but judges have some latitude if they feel a need to override such an agreement.

The hearing drew a packed audience, including many single parents, some of whom had their children with them, who told about the difficulty they have had maintaining relationships with their children when they were allowed only limited visitation.

Joe Sessel of Topeka takes notes while also tending to his daughter Claire during a committee hearing Tuesday on a bill that would put more pressure on courts to order shared custody and parenting in divorce cases.

Paul Schwennesen, an Air Force veteran and a graduate student at the University of Kansas, described himself as a devoted father of three children. But when he was suddenly served with divorce papers three years ago, he was denied equal access to his children and watched them start to fade from his life.

“I can have equality in every aspect of my life, but not as a parent,” he said. “I can have equality to serve my country, to serve in the military, but not have equal time with my kids.”

Dennis Fontelroy, from the fathers advocacy group Dads Care 2, said shared custody and parenting duties were often in the best interest of all parties.

“This parenting bill will eliminate a lot of the parenting issues that go on in our families on a day-to-day basis,” he told the committee. “Because of the influence that fathers have, that both parents have, equal parenting is really the key to minimizing a lot of mental health issues.”

Under questioning from Sen. Pat Pettey, D-Kansas City, Fontelroy also said equal parenting would help resolve many issues involving child support.

But judges and lawyers who work in the family court system in Kansas said passage of the bill could create more problems than it solves.

Judge Wayne Lampson, chief judge on the Wyandotte County District Court and a member of the executive board of the Kansas District Judges Association, said it is no longer the case that judges assume one parent or the other should have primary custody over the children and that the other parent should have only limited visitation rights.

He said shared custody and parenting duties were granted now as a matter of course in many cases, especially when the divorcing couple agreed to such an arrangement in advance, unless they found circumstances that indicated such an arrangement was not in the child’s best interest, such as criminal activity, drug or alcohol abuse, or any of several other factors that might come into play.

“This bill, to us, appears to override all those presumptions and put in shared custody as the top priority,” Lampson said. “Not only for good fathers — and we heard several good fathers testify here today. Our concern is, what about the bad fathers? The bad fathers are given 50-50 (custody) the same way, or at least that’s the presumption.”

He also said the bill does not address situations in which the parents live in different school districts or even in different states.

Ron Wilson, who spoke on behalf of the Kansas Bar Association, said the statewide association of attorneys opposed the bill because it presupposed how all divorce cases involving children should be resolved.

“Presumptions inherently don’t do families well,” he said. “Children are not cookies. Children are not malleable flour, and a cookie-cutter solution for every family in the state of Kansas does not do children well.”

The committee took no action on the bill Tuesday. It is expected to consider amendments and decide whether to advance it to the full Senate later in the session.