N. Dakota Voters Consider Child-Custody Proposal

A North Dakota ballot initiative asks voters if they want to mandate 50-50 shared child custody in nearly all divorce cases. Supporters say it would keep courts from intruding into family life. Critics say it may prevent some children from escaping abusive parents.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick. Coming up, a disturbing story from Libya, where foreign hospital workers are on trial and accused of infecting hundreds of children with HIV.

BRAND: First though, in North Dakota, a ballot initiative would overhaul the state's family law. It would require joint custody for parents in divorce cases, among other things. The growing movement for fathers' rights is behind the initiative and they want other states to follow North Dakota's lead.

NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER: When Mitch Sanderson and his wife divorced three years ago, the Grand Forks resident thought he was a good father to his two kids and deserved a shot at custody, or at least regular visitation.

Mr. MITCH SANDERSON (Chairman, Shared Parenting Initiative): I didn't have kids just to take off like, you know, like some of the animals in the wild kingdom do. I love my kids to no end, and this system forces you out of your children's life.

SCHAPER: Sitting in a VFW hall in west Fargo, Sanderson rails against the system that he says only lets him be with his 5-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son every other weekend. He says the never-ending legal battles to try to see them take an emotional toll.

Mr. SANDERSON: I've been any place from on my knees, not knowing which end is up with the frustration, anxiety, depression. Just some days on your knees, just couldn't - you couldn't even hold yourself together. It was - all you want to do is hold your kids and tuck them into bed at night.

SCHAPER: Sanderson transformed his anger into action by launching a successful petition drive to place a binding initiated measure on next week's North Dakota ballot. It's called the Shared Parenting Initiative.

Mr. SANDERSON: What this measure does is it's got three steps in it. One, you get joint physical custody if you want it, and you cannot be denied it unless you're proven unfit.

SCHAPER: Second, the measure calls on parents to develop a shared parenting plan. And it would limit child support payments to cover only a child's basic needs. If approved, North Dakota would be the only state in the union with such a law.

But critics of the Shared Parenting Initiative say its chock full of problems, starting with putting the interest of the parent above the current law's top priority - the best interest of the child.

Ms. JANELLE MOOS (North Dakota Children's Caucus): Our main concern is really around children. That's going to put children in the middle of a very highly contentious divorce cases and really cause long-term impact on children.

SCHAPER Janelle Moos of the North Dakota Children's Caucus says while 50-50 shared parenting sounds like a good idea, it's impractical. Parents who already share parenting describe a logistical nightmare of kids ping-ponging back and forth.

And the proposal provides no exception for parents who live in different school districts, different towns or even different states. And that's just the beginning. Fargo single mom Kris Sanda(ph) worries that if the measure passes, it will reopen a custody dispute she thought was long resolved.

Ms. KRIS SANDA: This isn't about what happened between me and Cody's(ph) father. This is about how it will now - nine years later when he hasn't seen his father or heard from his father, no birthday cards, no Christmas cards, nothing - nine years later, how it will affect that child.

SCHAPER: Others worry about the provision limiting child support payments to basic needs, which the measure doesn't define. They say it will likely lead to fights over everything from braces to new shoes, and whether or not they're really needed. Not to mention who pays for piano or dance lessons or hockey gear.

In addition, opponents say the child support provision could jeopardize $70 million in federal aid for needy families because the state would be out of compliance with federal child's support laws.

And one way out of shared parenting would be to have one parent declared unfit. Divorced father Paul Shower(ph) says if that happens, all bets are off.

Mr. PAUL SHOWER: If you think divorce and custody trials are vicious now, wait until you have to prove the other parent is unfit. Then they will get truly nasty.

SCHAPER: Opponents also say the measure would expose victims of domestic violence and their children to more contact with their abuser, especially if they fail to get him or her declared unfit, another word the measure doesn't define. In fact, critics say so much of the measure is undefined that if it passes, the first result will be a big jump in litigation.

But supporters say these concerns are being overblown and any problems can be fixed later by the legislature. North Dakota's Shared Parenting Initiative is being closely watched by family law experts across the country. Similar legislation is already pending in states like Michigan and West Virginia.

If North Dakota's initiative passes, those supporting the measure say shared parenting will go a long way toward eliminating what they claim is a lingering gender bias in child custody cases.

David Schaper, NPR News.

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