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Hearing shows rift on custody decision-making

ANNAPOLIS — Two contrasting views of Maryland child custody law came to the fore at a Senate committee meeting Thursday, with a state commission saying the focus of judicial decisions must remain solely on the best interests of the child and several lawmakers responding that courts should begin with a presumption that the parents be given joint legal and shared physical custody of the child.

Members of the Commission on Child Custody Decision Making said they seek legislation that will provide “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.”

But Sen. C. Anthony Muse, D-Prince George’s, said he will introduce legislation to codify a presumption in favor of shared custody, saying such a law would compel courts to treat fathers and mothers equally in custody decisions. Muse was joined by Sen. Victor R. Ramirez, D-Prince George’s, a fellow member of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

The hearing before the Senate panel focused on the 20-member commission’s Dec. 1 report and its call for a statute that would have judges make custody decisions based on 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 she will soon introduce the commission-recommended bill. The legislation 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, Dumais said.

The bill, as outlined in the commission’s report, 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 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 focus should be on the children and not the parents,” Dumais told the Senate committee.

Fellow commission member Keith N. Schiszik added that Dumais’ bill would “let the judges do their job and make a decision that is child-focused.” Requiring courts to begin with a presumption of joint custody would not meet the child’s needs, as the award of joint custody could become “a rubber stamp” for judges under that standard, added Schiszik, a family-law attorney with Day & Schiszik in Frederick.

Sen. Jamin B. “Jamie” Raskin said he was “on the fence” between the two proposals.

Raskin, D-Montgomery, said he agreed the focus should be on the child. However, he noted Muse’s concern that without a presumption of joint custody, courts would favor the mothers in custody determinations.

“This might be one field where there’s an insidious and unconscious gender bias against men,” Raskin said.

Concerns over cost

Sen. Jim Brochin voiced concern with the expense of child custody proceedings, saying Baltimore County constituents have told him they have had to dip into savings accounts to pay their attorneys.

“It doesn’t take long for a bill to hit six digits,” said Brochin, a Democrat. Divorced parents are saying, “What happened to my money and what happened to my kid’s college account?” he added.

Dumais, a family-law attorney, responded that greater use of mediation, arbitration and collaborative resolution would reduce much of the expense of litigation.

She also defended herself and other family-law practitioners against what she called “spurious” accusations that they deliberately file motions and drag out litigation to increase their fees.

“Most of the lawyers and certainly me are not in this to make money,” said Dumais, of Ethridge, Quinn, Kemp, McAuliffe, Rowan & Hartinger in Rockville. “I’m in this to help people. I practice in this area because I make a difference.”