COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – Ohio lawmakers are reconsidering a bill to give divorced parents 50-50 child custody as a starting point.
Similar to a proposal introduced last year, House Bill 14 would automatically establish an equal parenting arrangement at the onset of custody disputes. The bill’s sponsors, Reps. Rodney Creech (R-West Alexandria) and Marilyn John (R-Shelby), said overhauling Ohio’s existing custody standards will protect the rights of parents to see their children – and vice versa.
“We have a winner-loser system where children are often caught in the middle or, worse yet, having to choose between parents or being used as pawns in a conflict,” John said. “Until the system changes, our children will continue to lose.”
Under the bill, Ohio judges would be mandated to encourage divorced parents to submit a 50-50 custody plan to the court, including arrangements for child support and school attendance. If the parents disagree, they must prove to the court – using a stricter burden of proof than currently exists – why equal parenting would not suffice.
Judges are to presume that a 50-50 agreement is adequate, but if a parent can successfully show “clear and convincing” evidence that proves otherwise, the judge can reassess where one parent should have primary custody over another.
John said the presumption of equal parenting will not only incentivize parents to hash out a custody agreement prior to entering a custody battle in court, but the 50-50 split in parenting time will also benefit a child’s development.
“Children raised in single-parent households without the involvement of the other parent, especially fathers, are at the highest risk of delinquency, suicide, mental illness, incarceration and poor performance in school,” John said. “And that’s just the shortlist.”
Though Creech said 59 bipartisan lawmakers supported a similar bill, House Bill 508, which was introduced last year, the proposal isn’t immune to controversy.
Franklin County Judge James Brown, who also serves as vice president of the Ohio Association of Domestic Relations Judges, said the bill could cause more harm than good, particularly for the children at the center of custody disputes.
“It’s a misguided attempt to solve a problem that doesn’t really exist,” Brown said. “We have shared parenting now; we have 50-50 orders when it fits the need of a child – we aren’t against that.”
But establishing a presumption of equal parenting from the get-go strips judges of their discretion to order different outcomes when different circumstances are presented, he said, chipping away at their ultimate goal: applying the best interest of a child.
“The proposed House Bill 14 flips that and makes the presumption about the parent,” Brown said. “And that’s an unacceptable proposition because our focus shouldn’t be on how we please a parent or what we do for a parent; our focus needs to be what’s in the best interest of the child.”
The bill also ignores the practical considerations of custody agreements, Brown said. Most court-ordered arrangements give parents shared time, but it’s nearly impossible to divide that time equally when factoring in employment, transportation, school location and other factors.
Dr. Maria Houston, executive director of the Columbus-based domestic violence prevention group LSS Choices, said the presumption of 50-50 parenting could backfire in cases of familial abuse.
Adjusting the burden of proof from the current “preponderance of evidence” standard to the higher “clear and convincing” standard could make it more challenging for victims and survivors of domestic violence to prove the existence of abuse.
“Oftentimes we know that the abuser, even though they are the father of the children, could be using the children as a way to manipulate or continue to abuse the victim,” Houston said.
Creech, however, said there are enough safeguards in HB 14 to carve out exceptions to the presumption of equal parenting when needed. The state shouldn’t penalize all Ohio children simply because there is potential for abuse, he said.
“What can we do to improve the mental health of our children?” Creech asked his fellow lawmakers. “Well, maybe the first thing we can do is stop ripping them from two fit parents.”
HB 14 awaits additional hearings in the House Families and Aging Committee.