LITTLE ROCK (KATV) — The state’s child custody laws may be changing soon after lawmakers passed a measure on Thursday.
SB 18, filed by Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, and co-sponsored by Rep. Jimmy Gazaway, R-Paragould, amends the current law from being in favor of joint custody to a rebuttable presumption that joint custody is in the best interest of the child.
Throughout the year, Seven On Your Side receives dozens of calls related to child custody battles – including when a parent has to prove, right off the bat, why they should be allowed to have joint custody.
Little Rock divorce attorney, Bonnie Robertson, told 7OYS while many judges favor joint custody the current law doesn’t always pan out fairly.
“There are plenty of counties, however, around the state of Arkansas where if you’re the dad you might as well just understand that you’re going to be demoted to a visitor once you get divorced,” she said. “It doesn’t matter how involved you were as a parent and it’s those smaller counties where those judges are still kind of under that old-school track.”
The legislation passed by lawmakers changes the narrative - instead of proving why parents should have joint custody, either parent would have to prove why joint custody wouldn’t be appropriate.
“Especially fathers in divorce, most of them are desperate to keep themselves in a parenting role instead of just being a weekend visitor,” said Robertson. “Frankly it’s been like that most of my practice – I’ve been practicing since 2001 – it’s just now that the law is catching up with what the reality is which that both of the parents are generally very valuable and very involved.”
Local family therapist, Dr. Elizabeth Ruggiero-Wallis, said the impact on a child’s psyche is why she supports this legislation.
“Some of the most heart-wrenching cases that I have been a part of are when that child had to go in and speak for who they wanted to live with – that’s an even deeper trauma,” she said.
“We can pretend that children of divorce are just fine but they’re not. You have two humans in your life and now all of a sudden your entire life changes, sometimes your school system changes, your friends change – you move – and then the two most important people, one of them is now relegated to being a visitor every once in a while. It impacts children, the end.”
Roberston added that some of her colleagues shared concerns on whether the judge would have as much discretion and still focus on the child’s needs. She said judges will continue to have discretion when dealing with cases where a parent has a history of abuse, addiction or mental illness or any other matter that could impact the best interest of the child.