Shared parenting measure advances; emotions high

The Senate Judiciary Committee this morning passed a bill that establishes statewide guidelines for judges to consider in awarding joint physical custody of children in divorce proceedings.

For years, so-called shared parenting bills have been among the most contentious that lawmakers face. This year’s effort, Senate Bill 74, is an attempt to bring compromise between the fierce shared-parenting lobby – many of whom are parents who feel the court system has alienated them from their children – and others who oppose a requirement that all child custody cases should start with a presumption that parents get a 50-50 split with their children.

How emotional is the issue? While there were no opponents to the bill, there were more than a dozen people who testified that the current custody arrangements in which one parent is often awarded only four nights a month during the school year creates conflict among the divorcing parents.

Bill sponsor Sen. Dan Lederman, R-Dakota Dunes, acknowledged Tuesday that shared-parenting supporters might be “bitter sweet” about the bill, because it doesn’t establish a presumption of equal parenting. But he said the bill provides language that can be built on in subsequent legislative sessions.

Tom Barnett, the executive director of the South Dakota Bar Association, presented the bill. That’s significant because the Bar has opposed shared parenting bills in previous years that included a 50-50 presumption.

The Bar, Barnett said, still opposes a requirement that custody cases start with a presumption of a 50-50 split. But he said judges can, and do, make such custodial arrangement when they’re deemed in the best interest of children, and he said statewide guidelines would ensure uniformity in such cases.

“We ought to have some standards so that litigants get the same treatment, and they get it no matter where they are,” he said.

The bill, which passed on an 8-0 vote, next goes to the full Senate.

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