Enquirer Herald

Local dad pushes for new custody laws

Jeremy Walters won’t be able to do much with his own custody case, but he’s holding out hope his efforts might help someone else.

The Fort Mill carpenter is building a case for H 4095, a bill state legislators say could gain traction when debate resumes in Columbia. It deals with shared custody, an issue close to Walters following a recent divorce and child custody case.

“It’s such a touchy subject that nobody wants to touch it,” Walters said. “It’s rare for a shared parenting bill to even receive a number.”

The bill states if joint legal custody is awarded, the presumption should be parents have joint physical custody, “defined as equal time-sharing.” A petition would be needed to challenge joint custody, with the burden of proof on the petitioning a parent to show why the arrangement “would not be in the best interest of the child.”

Parents would be required to submit a parenting plan before the court hears the petition, agreeing on “matters of substance concerning the child’s education, upbringing, religious training and medical and dental care.” Parents unable to share decision-making authority impacting the child’s welfare would submit to mediation with a preselected mediator.

Walters says the bill’s passage into law would be a “major triumph,” yet still only a step toward the ultimate goal. The bill begins by qualifying “if” joint custody is awarded. Walters wants joint custody to become the starting line, the default position, for child custody cases. It’s a movement common to other areas of the country, and several advocacy groups such as American Coalition for Fathers & Children, whose mission is “shared parenting.”

Legislators recognize there is a sentiment that family court decisions don’t always start on level ground.

“As a practical matter,” said state Rep. Tommy Pope, (R-Dist. 47), “traditionally, the men in family court have always felt there was deference given to the mother.”

Pope, a partner with Elrod Pope Law Firm in Rock Hill and Lake Wylie, spoke with family court attorneys for their take on the bill. The awarding of legal custody in the new bill is “what you would hope the system is doing anyway,” Pope said. As for shared physical custody, solutions may not be simple.

“From a pure legislative standpoint, the idea of the bill is sound,” Pope said. “What can make it lose traction is in the details.”

State Rep. Deborah Long (R-Dist. 45), said short of parents rotating and the children remaining in a permanent home, she’s not sure there is an ideal shared custody arrangement accounting for the child. Long and Walters spoke previously on the bill, which she said should move forward only if it accounts for the most important factor.

“What we have to be careful of is, what’s best for the children,” Long said.

Walters says shared parenting is best for children, by keeping more fathers in the lives of their children. When he approached attorneys wanting to seek sole or even joint custody, Walters said he wasn’t encouraged.

“They just sat there and shook their heads at me,” he said. “It’s just understood, dads get every other weekend. What I learned is that, if you’re going to do anything, try to change the law.”