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Ohio prosecutors, judges oppose proposed 50/50 child custody





Members of the legal field, including a former Ohio Supreme Court justice, spoke out Tuesday against a bill aiming to give parents automatic 50/50 custody in divorce and dissolution cases.

Paul Pfeifer, who served 24 years as a state supreme court justice, also wanted to defend domestic relations judges from what he regarded as “insulting and almost shocking testimony” from proponents of the House Bill 14.

Some of the comments he took issue with — claims that judges apply their own personal values to cases and differing processes in each of the 88 counties in the state — had also been made by a co-sponsor of the bill, state Rep. Rodney Creech, R-West Alexandria, as he introduced the bill in the House Families & Aging Committee.

“This bill, (HB) 14, is all about the parents and not about the children,” Pfeifer told the committee on Tuesday.

Brittany Whitney, assistant director for the Mount Vernon Law Director’s office, and director of the Mount Vernon Domestic Violence Special Prosecution Unit, wanted to discredit claims that false abuse accusations are sullying the existing system.

“I want to assure you that in my experience as a domestic violence prosecutor, it is exceedingly rare for there to be false reports of domestic violence, almost to the point where it just doesn’t happen,” Whitney said.

Children who come from loving families are often the subject of amicable separations, and agreeable custody cases. In about 10% of cases, dysfunctional and sometimes violent family situations are involved, she said.

“It’s really inappropriate to start from a parent-centered model, because they’re not the vulnerable party here,” Whitney said. “The child is.”

Pfeifer is now the executive director of the Ohio Judicial Conference, and he acknowledged that while he did not support HB 14, the family court system could be improved.

“Several judges, magistrates, attorneys and other family law experts have been formulating a legislative proposal to build upon Ohio’s child-centered process for children and families involved in the court system through statutory and rule changes,” Pfeifer wrote in his committee statements.

Reform would come through changes to language in the Ohio Revised Code, rules of civil and juvenile procedure and other court rules to “reflect that both parents have continuing roles and responsibilities as parents when they are not living together,” according to Pfeifer.

“To the furthest extend possible, terms of conflict and empowerment should be removed from Ohio statutes involving parenting issues,” he wrote in citing the recommendations, led by the Supreme Court of Ohio’s Advisory Committee on Children & Families’ Subcommittee on Family Law Reform Implementation.

The reform of the Ohio Revised Code could also include discontinuing the terms “residential parent” or “custodial parent” to “remove the perception that one parent may have the upper hand or more authority than the other.”

“When you’re dealing with these issues, you’re dealing with a powder keg,” Pfeifer told the committee.

When asked how to improve the bill as it goes forward in the committee, both Pfeifer and Whitney had a similar answer.

“I would be inclined to think this bill probably can’t be fixed in the form that it is,” Whitney said.

Pfeifer went so far as to say the bill was “a hot mess.”

“You can’t fix it, because it begins with the premise that everything has to be 50-50, and that’s just unnatural,” Pfeifer said.

This story was republished from the Ohio Capital Journal under a Creative Commons license.

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