Tennessee enacted a law requiring judges to give parents the maximum parenting time possible. Here's the entire text of the bill as enacted:
Section 1. Tennessee Code Annotated, Section 36-6-106(a), is amended by adding the following language after the first sentence:
In taking into account the child's best interest, the court shall order a custody arrangement that permits both parents to enjoy the maximum participation possible in the life of the child consistent with the factors set out below, the location of the residences of the parents, the child's need for stability and all other relevant factors.
Section 2. This act shall take effect upon becoming law, the public welfare requiring it.
The vote in the House of Representatives was 92 - 0 and 19 - 9 in the Senate, and Governor Bill Haslam signed the bill into law. That means that as of now, all new divorce and custody cases in Tennessee will be decided using the new standard.
Proponents of the bill believe it'll be a big step in the direction of equal parenting post-divorce. That of course remains to be seen, but certainly the new law holds the promise of major changes in the way custody is decided in Tennessee.
Of course there are caveats. One is that it only applies to new cases. The usual rules will apply to parents seeking to modify existing orders. So parents with orders in place won't benefit from the new law absent a showing of "changed circumstances" necessitating a modification of a custody order. But any modification would then come under the new law.
And of course any judge who is truly anti-father will have no difficulty relying on any of a number of "other relevant factors" to accomplish the usual "primary custody to Mom, every other weekend visitation plus Wednesday, for Dad." As many people have noted, changing laws and changing people are two different things.
And it's not just the few overtly anti-father judges who can do that. I've said many times that I don't think many judges are consciously biased against fathers. But I'm essentially certain that judges, like everyone else, hold certain assumptions about parents and parenting. Those are products of countless influences, from their own upbringing, to popular culture, to news reporting, to intentionally misleading statements by the persistent and ubiquitous anti-dad crowd.
All of those things militate against custody for fathers, and judges aren't immune to their influence.
So we shouldn't expect an immediate sea-change in the way custody is decided in Tennessee. But we may see a move, gradual at first and then gaining some momentum, toward greater equality of mothers and fathers in custody matters.
For one thing, the new law explicitly connects "the best interest of the child" with the "maximum participation possible in the life of the child" by both parents. That should push most judges toward the conclusion that greater participation by fathers is in the child's best interest, if not as a matter of law, at least as a matter of policy.
Further, it seems unavoidable that the new law will help fathers get more time with their kids. After all, the standard visitation schedule gives them and mothers nothing like equal time. So the new law seems bound to improve matters for fathers, even if they don't get equal parenting time.
Finally, it's a step and nothing more. We'll see how this works. If dads in Tennessee are satisfied with the new law, however it works, then Tennessee will have done what it needs to do toward equalizing parental rights. If it proves to be unsatisfactory (probably because it gives judges too much wiggle room), we'll pressure the legislature to do better.
Speaking of seeing how it works, it's too bad that Tennessee doesn't have a system in place like Washington's, that records the results in every single custody matter decided in the state. If it did, we could see clearly if things were improving for fathers or not after the effective date of the statute. As it is, we'll have to read tealeaves.
Still, the new law holds considerable promise. It's flexible enough to take away the anti-dad argument that it "ties judges' hands." But it may just be clear enough that judges take note and start paying attention to children's need for their fathers.
Thanks to Matt for the heads-up.