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July 24, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

In Massachusetts, the push to enact SB 834 has begun. SB 834 is one bill to result from the two years of work by the Working Group on Child-Centered Family Laws convened by Governor Duval Patrick in 2012. The National Parents Organization was honored to be a part of that working group.

SB 834 is a shared parenting bill. It announces the public policy of the state regarding parenting of children post-divorce.

Public Policy Statement. It is the policy of the Commonwealth to promote the best interest of children by supporting safe, healthy, and meaningful relationships between children and their parents... The Commonwealth encourages shared parental responsibilities and parenting plans that prioritize the unique needs and evolving maturity of each child consistent with the safety and well-being of the child.

Having stated that shared parenting is encouraged by the law, it goes on to define the term.

A child shall have periods of residing with and being under the care and responsibility of each parent; provided, however, that such periods shall be shared by the parents in such a way as to assure a child frequent, continued and developmentally appropriate contact with both parents and in accordance with the best interest of the child. Time with each parent may but shall not necessarily be equal. Unless the parents agree or the court determines otherwise, a child shall reside one-third of the time or more with each parent.

The bill goes on to enumerate the issues a court is to decide in deciding whether to grant shared custody.

In determining parental responsibilities, both at the time of entry of temporary orders and judgment, the court shall be guided by the best interest of the child, and shall consider both G. L. c. 208, § 31A1, if applicable, and the following factors:

1. The relationship of the child with each parent.

2. The reasonable wishes of the child, if the child is of sufficient age, capacity, and understanding. When considering the child’s wishes, the court shall also give due consideration to factors which may have unduly influenced the child’s preference.

3. The ability of each parent to communicate and cooperate with the other parent and participate in making joint decisions concerning the child.

4. The present and expected physical, emotional, and geographical availability of each parent.

5. The present interest, desire, and abilities of each parent to fulfill caregiving functions, as well as the history of caregiving functions provided by each parent. Caregiving functions are tasks that involve direct interaction with the child or arranging and supervising the interaction and care provided by others.

6. The ability of a parent to foster a positive relationship and frequent and continuing physical, written, electronic, telephonic, and other contact between the child and the other parent.

7. Any other additional factors the court deems relevant.

The phrase “history of caregiving functions provided by each parent” is troubling. It suggests that only hands-on parenting is “real” parenting. Stated another way, the person who puts the diaper on the baby is a parent, but the person who earns the money to pay for the diapers isn’t. Sadly, that is utterly at odds with the best interests of children. They form emotional attachments to parents very early in life and who goes to work and who stays home isn’t part of their calculus. For children, there is no hierarchy of parents. That the bill attempts to impose one ignores the science on children’s well-being.

Still, the requirement that each parent communicate and cooperate with each other regarding the child and that each parent foster a positive relationship between the child and the other parent are both important aspects of any sensible parenting law.

Any award of temporary sole decision-making responsibility shall be supported by a written rationale.

This requirement is far more significant than it looks at first glance. Requiring a judge to make written findings supporting an order of sole decision-making responsibility strongly encourages courts to order shared responsibility. The simple truth is that judges don’t like to do that work, so in cases in which the issue of shared vs. sole decision-making is close, they’re likely to err on the side of the easier of the two.

Meanwhile, if parents submit a parenting plan that’s adopted by the court, and one fails to abide by its terms, consequences follow.

Upon a finding of contempt for noncompliance with a parenting plan, as additional remedies, the court may order any of the following:

1. Adjustment of the parenting plan as informed by any such failure of a parent to comply with the parenting plan;

2. Reimbursement for any of the following incurred as a result of the other parent’s failure to comply with the parenting plan:

a. reasonable child care and related expenses;

b. reasonable travel and related expenses; or

c. lost wages.

3. Attendance at an appropriate parenting education course; or

4. Award of counsel fees and costs.

Massachusetts SB 834 is not a perfect bill, but its positives far outweigh its negatives. Importantly, it has the backing of the major players in the state as evidenced by their presence in the Working Group. The Working Group in turn had the backing of the Governor’s Office. That all means the powers that be are taking this bill seriously and that it’s riding the wave of similar efforts in 20 states this year.

That may be why it already has the backing of over 50 Commonwealth lawmakers as this article reports (WWLP, 7/22/15).

The Boston-based National Parents Organization believes the state’s child custody law is outdated and does not fit the modern family. The overhaul bill would allow children to spend more time with the non-custodial parent, typically the father.

President of the National Parents Organization Ned Holstein told 22News, “It decreases hostility and bitterness between parents. It treats them more fairly. It encourages judges to favor a parent who is cooperating with the other parent.”

SB 834 is now before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary. The time is now! Everyone in Massachusetts who supports family court reform must call, email or write their representative and senator and urge them to support SB 834. Too much work has been done and too many parties are on board with this effort to see it fail for lack of grass-roots support. Do it today!

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National Parents Organization is a Shared Parenting Organization

National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Along with Shared Parenting we advocate for fair Child Support and Alimony Legislation. Want to get involved?  Here’s how:

Together, we can drive home the family, child development, social and national benefits of shared parenting, and fair child support and alimony. Thank you for your activism.

#sharedparenting, #familycourtreform, #DevalPatrick

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