Illinois stands poised to enforce visitation orders the same way it enforces child support orders. A bill, known as the Stephen Watkins Memorial Bill, would become the country's most stringent enforcement mechanism for non-custodial parents, if enacted into law. The bill has passed the Illinois House of Representatives and awaits action in the Senate. Read about it here
Stephen Watkins was the non-custodial father who was murdered by his former mother-in-law using his ex-wife's pistol when he went to pick up his daughter for visitation. Ultimately, a judge awarded visitation rights to Watkins' parents, but mother and child are nowhere to be found. The mother abducted the child over a year ago and has yet to be located.
One of the many problems with the concept of 'visitation' is that courts pretty routinely refuse to enforce the visitation orders they issue. Generally, a non-custodial parent, 84% of whom are fathers, has to build up a catalogue of visitation interference by the custodial parent. That usually takes over a year to do. Then he has to file a motion with the court which, in most jurisdictions is an original filing, meaning it costs in the hundreds of dollars just to file the motion. He then faces a judge who's often ill-disposed to enforce the order, which results, on the first try, in little more than an admonition to the mother to do better in the future.
If the interference continues, Dad has to jump through the same hoops again and usually on the second or third try, he might get some real enforcement in the form of increased custody or an award of costs and fees against the mother.
By then, he may have gone two years without seeing his son or daughter who, if the child is young enough, may barely recognize him. In other words, the mother's campaign of interference will have accomplished its goal - the alienation of the child.
At present, a non-custodial parent has two options if the custodial parent is not following a court-ordered visitation schedule. The first is to report the visitation interference to the police, as it is a crime, and the State Attorney"s office could then prosecute the parent who is interfering. However, many parents report that police consider this a petty crime and refuse to enforce the law.
The second option for the non-custodial parent is to file a petition for civil contempt and ask for a modification of the visitation order, compensatory visitation, supervised visitation or any other equitable remedy the court deems just. The success that parents have using this method is inconsistent around the state and often results in judges merely dismissing the cases.
That's a sanitized way of saying that convincing a judge to actually enforce a visitation order is like pulling teeth - hard, painful, with a not-very-gratifying result.
Of course the parallel order - that of child support - is approached completely differently. There, the most draconian penalties are meted out to non-custodial parents who are so callous as to lose a job and be unable to pay. In that case, no punishment is too severe, including prison for those without the money to pay what they owe.
The proposed legislation would bring the penalties for visitation abuse in line with those for failure to pay child support. The bill calls for suspending driver"s and professional licenses of offending parents, as well as fines of $500 for each instance of visitation interference. If the court finds a parent in contempt for visitation interference and the parent commits another offense, the bill allows courts to order the parent to jail or to post a $5,000 bond -- which the parent would lose if he or she committed another offense -- to ensure compliance with the court ordered visitation schedule in the future.
Although the bill passed the House, predictably, it has its opponents many of whom relentlessly parody themselves.
Not everyone is in favor of the bill. The Secretary of State"s office, which currently teams with the Department of Healthcare and Family Services to suspend driver"s licenses of those who are delinquent in child support payments, issued a statement opposing the legislation for fear of the expanding role of the office in enforcing the law turning the office into an arm of the police force, unnecessarily burdening the office.
You have to love that last bit, "unnecessarily burdening the office." Do these people ever pause to notice, as the rest of us do, what they consider necessary and what unnecessary? Don't they understand that enforcement of visitation is
necessary? As necessary as enforcement of child support? Apparently they don't.
Then there's the part about making the Secretary of State's Office an arm of the police department. The office is already an arm of the police force in child support matters and no one gripes, but when it comes to lifting a finger for fathers, all of a sudden a different standard applies. Funny how that works.
Maybe someone should let the Secretary of State's Office in on a little secret - non-custodial parents whose visitation isn't obstructed are far more likely to pay child support on time and in full (see, Sanford Braver, Divorced Dads, Shattering the Myths
, Taucher/Putnam, 1998). So enforcing visitation isn't just good for non-custodial parents and their children, it's good for custodial parents and the child support enforcement wing of state government. You might think that would be important to the very office charged with child support enforcement, but no.
Of course none of this would be necessary if family courts would just do what they should have been doing all along - using the power they already have to enforce the orders they issue. The only reason there's a special bill before the Illinois legislature is the abject failure of courts to effectively enforce the visitation rights of non-custodial parents.
So let's give a big shout-out for the Illinois bill that seeks to take visitation as seriously child support. With luck and a few principled votes, Stephen Watkins won't have died in vain.