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Custody changes urged

Panel wants more focus on child’s needs; urges more training for judges

Custody changes urged

Panel wants more focus on child’s needs; urges more training for judges

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The long-held presumption under Maryland law that divorced parents be given joint legal and shared physical custody of their children must be replaced with a clear focus on the best interest of the child, a state commission examining custody issues concluded in a report released Monday.

Custody decisions must address “children’s lives now as opposed to how it was 60 years ago,” said Montgomery County Circuit Judge Cynthia Callahan, who chaired the Maryland Commission on Child Custody Decision-Making. The very definition of parent has changed in many ways in recent years, with increasing numbers of same-sex parents and stay-at-home dads, Callahan said.

The commission also found “a lack of adequate training for judges and professionals involved in custody cases, inadequate access to information on the court process and available resources, and limited access for [parents] to legal assistance in protective order cases where custody determinations are made,” the report stated.

The panel recommended additional training for judges in child-development needs, cultural differences, disability issues and the trauma inflicted on children by domestic violence.

It’s time to end outdated assumptions about appropriate parental visitation — such as every Wednesday night and alternating weekends — the commission concluded. Instead, greater transparency in how custody determinations are made is needed so that non-lawyer parents who represent themselves in court know the factors a judge will be weighing.

“As a general rule, a minimum of 30 to 33 percent time with each parent is optimal when both parents are emotionally healthy and focused on the needs of their child,” the report stated. “The commission agreed that the majority of current researchers align against a simplistic approach which provides alternating weekend access as a ‘standard’ or ‘typical’ time arrangement.”

In its report, the 20-member panel called on the General Assembly to pass a “Maryland Custody Decision-Making Statute” that provides “a clear, consistent, predictable, gender-neutral process guiding custody determinations for litigants, lawyers and judges, focusing on factors that affect a child’s long-term adjustment.” These child-centered factors include “significant regular contact with each parent;” the child’s developmental requirements; the child’s need to maintain significant relationships; and the quality of the relationship between the parents.

Del. Kathleen M. Dumais, D-Montgomery and a commission member, said the model statute would essentially codify Maryland case law on judicial determination of child custody and visitation. Codification would make the standards more accessible to non-lawyers in custody proceedings, said Dumais, a family-law attorney.

For example, the statute would require judges to base custody and visitation on each parent’s ability to ensure the child’s physical safety, support his or her emotional security and promote his or her interpersonal skills and intellectual growth. The model statute would require judges to base their decisions on each parent’s ability to meet the child’s day-to-day needs regarding education, socialization, culture, religion, food, shelter, clothing and health.

The commission called for greater use of alternative resolution methods, including mediation and collaborative law, which enable the parents to reach their own custody agreements that best serve their children’s needs.

“Separating and divorcing parents and never-married parents should be provided with the tools and support they need to make decisions together for their children,” the report stated. “The commission supports the involvement of both parents in their children’s lives to the fullest extent possible given the particular facts and circumstances of each family case.”

In that vein, parents should also be required to submit a parenting plan so as not to place custody and visitation determinations solely on the judge, the commission stated.

In addition to Callahan and Dumais, commission members included family law attorneys Renee Bronfein Ades, Michele R. Harris, David L. Levy and Keith N. Schiszik; Baltimore City Community College Dean Wayne Beckles; psychologist Paul C. Berman; attorney Dorothy J. Lennig, of House of Ruth Maryland; University of Maryland professor Carlton E. Munson, a licensed clinical social worker; Kathleen A. Nardella, an attorney and licensed clinical social worker; attorney Laure Anne Ruth, of the Women’s Law Center of Maryland; Vernon E. Wallace Jr., program manager at the Responsible Fatherhood Project; attorney Lauren Young, of the Maryland Disability Law Center; Baltimore City Circuit Judges Shannon E. Avery and Videtta A. Brown; Master Richard J. Sandy, of Frederick County Circuit Court; Del. Susan K. McComas, R-Harford; and Sens. Jennie M. Forehand, D-Montgomery, and Joseph M. Getty, R-Baltimore and Carroll counties.

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