A child custody bill supporters portrayed as placing parents on an equal playing field passed the Minnesota House April 18, but not before lengthy debate.
“This bill goes a long way in giving equal access (to their children) to both parents,” said Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, after watching her bill pass the House on a bipartisan 80 to 53 vote.
Scott’s bill creates a presumption of joint legal and physical shared parenting — “equal” defined by the bill as 45.1 percent of custodial time — for the courts to use in determining child custody.
Parents have the freedom to work out whatever custodial agreement they want, according to Scott.
But in custody cases without resolution going before the courts, judges often set a minimum 25 percent custodial time for one parent, Scott said.
It’s simply better for the health and well-being of children that both parents play equal roles in raising them, she said.
Under the bill, the burden of overcoming the presumption of joint legal custody rests on the parent challenging the presumption.
The parent must provide “clear and convincing” evidence that the other parent’s actions rise to a level of child endangerment, abandonment, physical and/or sexual abuse, or other disqualifying actions.
For a parent to make a false allegation of child abuse under the bill provides sufficient grounds for challenging the parenting time of the accuser.
Other specifications are detailed in the bill.
During House floor debate, the legislation was both slammed and praised.
Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, an attorney, called it a “radical change” of law.
According to another attorney, Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, the custody standard in the bill was too rigid.
It would either produce shared custody or have one parent win 100 percent custody, Hilstrom said.
One attempt to amend the bill created an exemption to the presumption of joint physical custody for mothers breast feeding children.
Rep. Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park/Coon Rapids, said the healthful benefits of breast feeding could be diluted by the impracticalities of separating a mother from her child.
But Scott later said many working mothers routinely deal with the issue of breast feeding.
“I just think that issue can be worked out,” she said.
The amendment failed.
Besides criticizing the legislation for showing insensitivity to spouses caught in abusive relationships — often these cases are hard to prove, said one Democratic lawmaker — the bill was also criticized for cost.
Rep. Lyndon Carlson Sr., DFL-Crystal, said fiscal notes for the bill show it costing several million dollars in a few years’ time and funding is not furnished in the legislation.
But House Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, said fiscal notes are estimates.
“Are they 100 percent correct — no,” she said. “Are they 100 percent wrong — no.”
Rep. Diane Anderson, R-Eagan, spoke in support of the bill.
“These custody battles are very harmful to a child,” she said.
“The issue here is (parenting) time.”
Speaking after the vote, Scott questioned whether her bill would actually cost as much as estimated.
In Oklahoma, with a similar law, the court cost is negligible, she said.
Companion legislation in the Senate is carried by Sen. Pam Wolf, R-Spring Lake Park.
Both Scott and Wolf recently discussed their bills with Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, a divorcee.
They took along two DFL lawmakers to show the bill had bipartisan support, Scott said.
“He’s (Dayton) up to speed,” she said. “It was a very good conversation.”
The health of children and families, said Scott in describing why she’s carrying the legislation, is really a diagnosis of the health of the state.