May 19, 2013 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
The president of the Nebraska State Bar Association, Marsha Fangmeyer, responded to Dr. Les Veskrna's op-ed in support of LB 22, a bill that would promote shared parenting in the state. Fangmeyer's piece was at best an inaccurate representation of the bill, the NSBA's opposition to it and the science on family structure post divorce. It demanded the response that I gave it. Now Dr. Veskrna, who's head of the Children's Rights Council, has honored the National Parents Organization by responding to Fangmeyer on this blog.
The recent column by Nebraska State Bar Association president Marsha Fangmeyer (“Local View:Bar Association does not oppose joint custody,” May 12, 2013) presents more questions than answers. Ms. Fangmeyer says “let me be clear, the Nebraska State Bar Association does NOT oppose joint custody of children in divorce.” However, NSBA’s views regarding joint custody are still far from clear.
Until 2012, the NSBA officially opposed every joint custody bill that was introduced in the Unicameral. This year, the NSBA’s Legislative Committee and House of Delegates, its ultimate governing authority, decided to take “no position” on two joint custody bills. Despite this official “no position” stance, the NSBA leadership and its outside lobbyist actively opposed LB 22, which was one of the two bills that seemed destined to be approved by the Judiciary Committee. When asked to explain the inconsistency between the position adopted by its governing authority and the action taken against this bill, the lobbyist said “the only comments that we have made regarding LB 22 is to restate the longstanding position of the NSBA in opposition to a presumption of joint custody.” In addition, the NSBA leadership has taken active opposition toward an amendment to LB 22, which did not significantly change the bill. In doing so they again ignored the original directive of “no position” provided by the governing authority of its organization. These actions, and other numerous conflicting and inaccurate statements by the NSBA leadership, lead to a question of motive: are they really more interested in helping lawyers or kids caught in custody disputes?
Ms. Fangmeyer mischaracterizes the language of LB 22 when she says it “seems to require judges to adopt a Parenting Plan that establishes joint custody of children in all cases, instead of deciding such issues based on what is in the best interests of the children, the requirement of current law.” A lawyer with 30 years of experience in family law, as Ms. Fangmeyer describes herself, would surely recognize that LB 22 does no such thing and, in fact, directs judges toaward joint custody unless doing so is not in the best interest of children. This does not change the existing “best interest” standard, nor does it remove a judge’s discretion in ultimately determining custody if parents cannot agree. It simply specifies where the court should start when making a custody decision. If judges are capable of determining the circumstances under which a child should have one parent after divorce or separation, they should be equally capable of determining when a child should have two parents. Does Ms. Fangmeyer suggest that judges should not be trusted with this discretion?
Too many children in Nebraska are routinely denied the resources of a good parent and their extended family when their parents divorce or separate. What about this does the NSBA leadership not understand? Of course, the NSBA supports shared parenting when both parents are civil and entirely cooperative with one another – how can they not? Relatively few parents, however, are able to be or stay this way because of the extremely adversarial nature of the legal system that seeks to polarize them. Uncertainty or disagreement between parents often exists regarding parenting time and parenting responsibilities. When this occurs, both parents know that the court will intervene with a great likelihood that one parent will be given sole custody and nearly all parenting time, and the other parent will be made a mere visitor. We all know “the other parent” is usually the father. This practice, routine in most Nebraska courtrooms, incentivizes conflict. In addition, it becomes nearly impossible for “the other parent” to fairly negotiate a parenting plan – because they are unable to overcome the leverage provided to the parent who would predictably receive sole custody in the absence of an agreement. While mandatory mediation is promoted as a solution for parental disagreement, the hidden truth is neither parent can be required to meaningfully participate.
Ms. Fangmeyer says that “we should look at these studies,” which show that shared parenting provides the best outcomes for children in almost all cases. These studies also challenge or disprove many notions that have been used to discredit shared parenting, especially parental conflict. Ms. Fangmeyer neglected to disclose that the NSBA and Voices for Children were given these studies 12 months ago, and asked to engage in a dialogue to see if we could reach common ground. The NSBA was asked to make a proposal – any proposal – to help children caught in custody disputes. Again, they haven’t made any. Why are they and Voices for Children now asking for a study, after refusing to engage for the last 12 months?
While shared parenting may not be possible, or may be inappropriate, for some parents, there is no question that many more children in Nebraska would benefit from this parenting arrangement. In order for this to occur, however, the NSBA must be willing to discuss solutions rather than just offer objections and obstructions.
The National Parents Organization is a non-profit organization that is educating the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents and extended families. If you would like to get involved in our organization, you can do so several ways. First, we would love to have you as an official member of the National Parents Organization team. Second, the National Parents Organization is an organization that believes in the importance of using social media as a means to spread the word about shared parenting and other topics, and you can visit us on our Facebook Page to learn more about our efforts. Last, we hope you will share this article with other families using the many social networking sites so that we can bring about greater awareness of shared parenting. Thank you for your support.