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Child custody bills battle in Senate committee

ANNAPOLIS – Two contrasting child custody bills came before a Senate committee Tuesday, one saying judicial decisions must focus solely on the child’s best interests and the other stating that judges should begin with a presumption that the estranged parents be given joint legal and shared physical custody of the child.

“It shouldn’t be about who has custody or who has visitation,” said Del Kathleen M. Dumais, D-Montgomery and chief sponsor of the best-interest measure, Senate Bill 550/House Bill 1083. Custody decisions should be made without a presumption that focuses on the parents, Dumais told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

But Sen. C. Anthony Muse, D-Prince George’s, pressed for his legislation to codify a rebuttable presumption in favor of shared custody, saying such a law would compel courts to treat fathers and mothers equally in custody decisions.

“I am a firm believer that every child needs both parents equally involved in their life and by having both parents play an active role in the caring of a child, both parents feel like they are a part of the child’s life and neither one of them feels like a weekend visitor.”

But Muse’s legislation, Senate Bill 650/House Bill 888, drew strong opposition at the Senate hearing, including from the state’s judges.

“The presumption in the bill limits the ability of the court to consider the specific needs of the child and the specific abilities of the parents,” the Maryland Judicial Conference stated in written testimony to the committee. “Further, the bill directs the court to reach an outcome regarding the award of custody, and directs the court to award approximately 50/50 time for each parent in every case unless a presumption for joint custody is rebutted.”

Consideration of the two bills followed the Dec. 1 release of a report by the 20-member Commission on Child Custody Decision-Making calling for a statute, like SB 550, 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.

SB 550, reflecting the report’s recommendations, would also 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.

But two dissenting commission members, David L. Levy and Wayne Beckles, called for legislation providing for a rebuttable presumption of joint custody, as reflected in SB 650.

“Rebuttable presumption does not mean that shared or co-parenting is mandatory,” the dissenters wrote. “Rebuttable presumption only means that children are entitled to frequent and continuing contact with both divorced, separated or never-married parents as a ‘starting point’ – the normal order by a court or agreement between the parents. A variety of arrangements is possible to suit the needs of the family.”

But Lisae C. Jordan, of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said a rebuttable presumption of joint custody could have the “unintended consequence” of harming children in hard to prove child sexual abuse cases.

“A rebuttable presumption for joint custody should not be permitted to color the court’s focus on the needs of a child in these very difficult cases,” Jordan, MCASA’s executive director and counsel, stated in written testimony to the Senate committee.

“Importantly, SB 550 does not create a presumption for sole or joint custody, but maintains a best interests of the child standard as the touchstone for decision-making,” Jordan added. “Judges should have the discretion – and the duty – to consider all factors related to the best interests of a child. This child-centered focus should not be changed with a presumption.”