Proposed statehouse bill could change child custody in divorce cases

Legislation soon to be introduced in the Ohio House of Representatives would change the way child custody is decided in some divorce cases, state Rep. Rodney Creech, R-West Alexandria, said.

The new bill, if passed, would make “equal shared parenting” the default position for a contested childcare arrangement in a divorce unless a judge said clear and convincing evidence showed that it was not in the best interest of the children.

The exact bill language was not available Tuesday, with co-sponsor Rep. Thomas West, D-Canton, citing delays tied to the ongoing state budget process.

“From personal experience, I was in a very, very contentious battle, and the majority of the tension was from the courts keeping the kids from me,” Creech said. “I’ve got my kids 50-50 now, but you lose 6-7 years of your life proving that you’re a good person. This bill … instead of you having to prove you’re a good parent, the courts have to prove you’re a bad parent.”

The National Parents Organization — formerly the Foundation for Fathers and Families — was instrumental in getting a similar law passed in Kentucky in 2018. NPO Board Chair Donald Hubin said Tuesday that in 58 of 88 Ohio counties, the default rule in contested cases is that one parent gets primary parenting time, with the other limited to every other weekend and one evening a week.

According to Domestic Relations Court documents, that’s the system used in Montgomery County “when the parents cannot agree.” By contrast, the term “equal shared parenting” means creating a schedule where children live with each parent as close to 50% of the time as possible, but at least 35% of the time each.

“This legislation will allow both parents to be involved equally in the decision-making, and the children can enjoy equal time with both parents,” Creech said. “More than 40 years of scientific research shows that in most cases, equal parenting is the best arrangement for raising children when parents live apart.”

The NPO points to research from Linda Nielsen of Wake Forest University, summarizing 40 studies on child outcomes in divorce cases over many years. Nielsen said while some of the studies have limitations, overall child outcomes on academics, behavior and mental and physical health are better in more equal parenting situations.

“Put more bluntly (the question is), is the inconvenience of living in two homes worth it?” Nielsen wrote. “Fortunately, there are now 40 studies that have addressed this question.”

Still, not everyone agrees this is the right approach. North Dakota’s legislature rejected a bill on this topic, and governors in Minnesota and Florida vetoed them. The Illinois state bar association opposed a similar bill, saying the the state’s case-by-case “best interests of children” standard was a better default position than a 50-50 division of parenting time.

Spokeswoman Annie Yamson said the Ohio State Bar Association is waiting to review the legislation and has not taken a position yet. Officials at the Montgomery County Domestic Relations Court did not respond Tuesday to a request for comment.

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