Back again this year for consideration by the Kansas Legislature is a Shared Parenting Bill that establishes the norm in Kansas divorces as equal parenting among “fit” parents.

The bill follows a national trend with similar bills being considered across the country as fathers demand a change from a norm that for decades has favored mothers in child custody cases.

This equal parenting movement is being led in large part by the National Parents Organization, a not-for-profit that promotes shared parenting and the right of children to have both parents present in their daily life.

The organization, founded in 1998 by four divorced fathers, has evolved over the years, changing its name from Fathers and Families to reflect a belief in gender neutral shared parenting and parental equality, as opposed to seeking any special rights for fathers.

Shared parenting bills passed across the country have varied in their approach, with some states passing bills that simply encourage shared custody. As proposed, SB 257 would establish shared parenting as the standard for Kansas, and in the best interest of the children.

Current Kansas Law allows parents to work out their own parenting plan before coming to court, and nothing in the proposed bill would change that.

This bill would only come into play where parents cannot mutually agree on a parenting plan on their own and a judge is required to get involved.

At this point, if the bill passes, judges will begin with an assumption that an equal parenting plan is in the best interest of the children, and should only veer from that assumption if “clear and convincing evidence” of specific findings are revealed that show why equal time with each parent is not in the child’s best interest.

“Presumption of equal, what in the world would be wrong with that,” said Wichita Attorney Charlie O’Hara during a Shared Parenting Rally held late last month in the Kansas Capitol. “I don’t get any opposition to this bill. It makes sense.”

While the number of cases in which a mother is granted sole custody has been declining for years, mothers are still disproportionately favored in decisions of child custody.

“Why should moms and dads not be treated equally,” questioned O’Hara’s daughter and law partner Morgan O’Hara Gering.

Research standards seem to support proponent’s beliefs that shared custody is best for children. In January 2018, “The Journal of Child Custody” published an update on child development research surrounding what’s best for kids when parents divorce or separate. In the update, Linda Nielsen, a Wake Forest University professor of adolescent and educational psychology, analyzed 60 studies spanning multiple decades and numerous countries. She concluded that shared parenting is better for children than single parenting on almost every measure of wellbeing.

“The problem with this bill is that it’s one-size-fits-all,” said Atty. Charles Harris, who testified against the bill. “Your children are going to be different, have different needs and expectations, than my children.”

Harris was also concerned that the bill also increases the standards of proof against the other parent’s fitness from “a preponderance of evidence — meaning something’s more likely true than not true — to clear and convincing, a much more stringent level of proof.”

Family law attorney Ashlyn Yarnell said that in the high-conflict cases she sees most often, clear and convincing evidence can be a significant barrier, particularly in cases involving abused partners.

Some spouses are controlling or verbally abusive in ways that are hard to document with police reports, photographs and other evidence that would meet that clear and convincing standard.

Psychologist Wes Crenshaw says equal custody could prove a strain, especially in cases where parents who couldn’t find a way to reach a custody agreement on their own without court intervention. He said, frequent switches between parents just provides regular opportunities for conflict. Changing the law, he said, isn’t going to make that process any easier for kids.

– Contributions from Madeline Fox, reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio.

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