Many parents across the country find themselves in court fighting for custody of their child. In some Missouri counties though mothers are disproportionately favored over fathers in joint custody agreements. But now a new Missouri bill is hoping to equalize joint custody rights between parents. KRCU’s Marissanne Lewis-Thompson spoke with Missouri House Representative Kathy Swan about the bill.
Lewis-Thompson: Representative Swan thanks for joining me today.
Swan: Well thank you for the invitation.
Lewis-Thompson: So, first let's break down what exactly joint custody means and what rights parents have in that case in Missouri.
Swan: Probably a more explanatory term for joint custody at least for this intent is shared parenting. Meaning that we're trying to maximize the amount of time that a child can spend with each parent. Understanding that that is valuable time in the growing up process for a child to be with both parents.
Lewis-Thompson: Okay. How are joint custody cases handled in Missouri?
Swan: It may vary from county to county depending on the rules that a county might adopt or form that a county might use. So, this is part of the reason and the motivation behind this is not all custody cases are treated similarly depending on where one lives. And so, we're thinking that geography should not impact the end result in a shared parenting or a custody case. So, that became the motivation behind this particular bill that I'd been working on a couple of years.
Lewis-Thompson: So what are some of the major problems that families face in matters of trying to get joint custody of their child or children?
Swan: Well and again it depends on where one lives and what county. There are some counties that that is the default. It can be called different names. Here [Cape Girardeau] it's called the 'Schedule J' and other counties it's another particular parenting form or custody form. And it's an automatic that the father gets the one night a week and every other weekend. So rather than starting from that point, we would rather it would be started from it will be equal 50/50 and we will work from there. So, it's just a change in the thought process on the part of a court as to how they enter into this final plan that's agreed upon or the order that's issued by the court to think how can we best serve this child and maximize the amount of time the child spends not only with the mother, but spends with the father as well. So, sometimes it's a form. St. Louis County has a lengthy form of several pages that will walk one through many many questions regarding their family situation to help them determine what is the best plan for their family.
Lewis-Thompson: Now we were talking about shared parenting and that whole concept. How do you have that? How does that work? How do you create a balance where the kid is spending the weekends with their father or mother and they have equal time shared? Like how does that work, especially when they're in school? That's a lot of bouncing around.
Swan: Well I do know personally of one instance where certain nights of the week children will stay with the father. The other nights of the week they stay with the mother. They do live very close to one another. It doesn't impact--negatively impact the school situation at all. Arrangements are agreed upon as to after care program for the children. And they'll alternate weekends, so they'll alternate during the week. And it does work for the children in that particular case. So, obviously you have to look at school situations. You have to look at the age. You have to look at the geographic proximity of the residence of both parents.
Lewis-Thompson: And why is this so important right now when we're talking about joint custody?
Swan: I think it's always been important. I think it's always been important the role the father plays in a child growing up. It's not that it's any more important now, it's just that we recognize what's been happening is more and more fathers are spending less and less time with children in some courts. And that is the default mindset. The default parenting plan. The default parenting form that's being used. Maybe the rules that have been adopted by a particular circuit court that this is what happens when a mother and a father come in. Here's our normal schedule that's what we use. So rather than that being an automatic we want some thought to go into this. We want the court system to look at the work situations and the other situations of that particular family. And really to customize the outcome and the outcome of the order and that family situation rather than everything being a cookie cutter or nearly everything being a cookie cutter. The father always gets this amount of time.
Lewis-Thompson: Well thank you so much representative Swan for joining me today and talking to me about this.
Swan: Thank you for the opportunity.
The bill passed both in the house and the senate. Currently, it’s waiting to be signed by Gov. Nixon.
Editor's note: The bill would equalize joint custody rights between parents in Missouri if signed by Gov. Nixon. It hasn't been signed yet.