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Push To Change Custody Laws: What's Best For Kids?

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Push To Change Custody Laws: What's Best For Kids?

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Push To Change Custody Laws: What's Best For Kids?

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Fathers today are spending more time than ever with their kids. But when couples divorce and contentious cases hit the courts, fathers' rights groups say too many judges fall back on tradition - primary custody for Mom; weekends and overnights for Dad. These groups are pushing for shared custody laws. A number of states are considering that change, but there's plenty of resistance. Here's NPR's Jennifer Ludden.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: In recent years, lawmakers in Arizona, Arkansas, Florida and Minnesota have passed measures favoring shared custody - though governors vetoed the last two. Other states have created a task force to study the issue. Ned Holstein heads the National Parents Organization, which started out as a fathers' group and supports joint custody. He says it boils down to equal rights for fathers, in an era of converging gender roles.

NED HOLSTEIN: We think the best legislation creates a rebuttable presumption that the kids will be with both parents, if both parents are fit and there has not been any serious domestic violence.

LUDDEN: Holstein says research shows kids do better when they see lots of each parent. And his own polling shows overwhelming public support.

HOLSTEIN: But yet it gets blocked time after time in the legislatures because there are groups that really don't want it to happen.

THOMAS BARNETT: The bar's concern was that the individual parent's interest trumped that of the children.

LUDDEN: Thomas Barnett, of the State Bar of South Dakota ,fought such legislation for several years. What if parents live far apart, he asks, or children have a slew of after-school activities? Dictating a 50-50 split could be a logistical nightmare. Plus, joint custody means divorced parents see each other more. If they don't get on well, that could be trouble.

But last year, Barnett decided to work out a compromise. South Dakota's legislation has now passed the Senate and is in the House. It does not include a legal presumption of joint custody, but it does call on judges to consider it. And it lays out a series of factors to weigh.

BARNETT: What that bill is telling the parents is, you need to get along for the benefit of the children. And if one of them is a bad actor, that's going to be held against them, as it ought to be.

MARIA COGNETTI: The younger the child, the more in sync you have to be with how they should be raised.

LUDDEN: Maria Cognetti practices family law in Pennsylvania, and heads the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. She thinks custody should be awarded case by case. She says research shows younger children, especially, need stability.

COGNETTI: I just was in court this morning on a custody case, and my client wants shared. But Mom says, the child goes to bed by, you know, 9 or 10 o'clock and you're letting him stay up until 1 a.m. And I have to tell you, I grabbed my client out in the hallway and I said, please tell me you're not doing that.

LUDDEN: Cognetti says she represents lots of dads. Even without changing the law, she says courts are much more open to granting equal custody.

COGNETTI: A good dad wins. So if what you're trying to do is help bad dads win, I can't help you.

LUDDEN: Ned Holstein, of the Parents Organization, says plenty of good dads don't get a fair shake in court. But he likens his struggle to other long-term movements for social change. Lots of defeats, until you finally achieve victory.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

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