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'50/50' custody bill gets big changes in committee as ‘compromise’ with bill critics

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'50/50' custody bill gets big changes in committee as ‘compromise’ with bill critics

Nov 29, 2023 | 4:45 am ET
By Susan Tebben
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’50/50′ custody bill gets big changes in committee as ‘compromise’ with bill critics
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Photo by Getty Images.

After receiving criticism from legal organizations including the Ohio Judicial Conference, a bill to change custody agreements in the state went through some changes in legislative committee this week.

House Bill 14, sponsored by Republican state Reps. Rodney Creech and Marilyn John, originally set out to establish a 50/50 parental custody agreement as the standard in Ohio “to the greatest degree possible.”

With that standard in place, the bill would require a parent who objected to the “equal decision-making rights and responsibility or equal parenting time” to “bear the burden of proof” as to why 50/50 custody would be “detrimental to the children,” according to the bill’s language.

An analysis of the bill by the Legislative Service Commission says the court deciding if a parental agreement shouldn’t include equal custody is required “to consider whether a parent has intentionally misled the court, made false allegations of the other parent harming the child, or communicated false information to gain a tactical advantage.”

A stated goal of the bill, according to the analysis, is assuring children have “frequent associations and a continuing relationship with” both parents after separation, divorce or annulment, “or in situations in which the mother is unmarried.”

After the bill was introduced in March, various “parents organizations,” both in and out of the state of Ohio, testified in support of the bill.

Among the supporters was Arkansas attorney Brian Vandiver, who said he was a part of Arkansas Advocates for Parental Equality, which worked on a similar bill in that state which passed in 2021. Vandiver supported the inclusion of a higher evidence standard in the bill, one that requires “clear and convincing” evidence of the need for an agreement other than 50/50 custody.

“The higher burden of proof is appropriate to protect the fundamental rights of children and parents,” Vandiver told the Ohio House Families and Aging Committee in March.

But among those opposing the bill were domestic violence advocates and legal coalitions throughout Ohio. This included Paul Pfeifer, former Ohio Supreme Court justice and executive director of the Ohio Judicial Conference, who called the bill “a hot mess,” and the idea of 50-50 custody “unnatural.”

Nicole Rutter-Hirth, representing the Ohio Bar Association, also criticized the bill, saying it “sounds well-intentioned but could have destructive consequences.”

“Mandating equal time and equal rights may place a child in equal care of a parent with a drug or alcohol addiction or mental health issues,” Rutter-Hirth told the committee. “It may force a victim of domestic violence to co-parent with their abuser.”

Since the bill was introduced, the bill’s sponsors have been working to make the bill more acceptable to the bar association and others, according to state Rep. Monica Robb Blasdel, R-Columbiana County, who presented the changes to the bill in Tuesday’s committee meeting.

“(The sponsors) believe that this is a good bill that addresses the concerns previously brought up in committee,” Robb Blasdel said.

The changes, which were approved as part of a substitute bill, remove that “clear and convincing” evidentiary standard to a “preponderance,” the minimum standard allowed in court cases.

The substitute bill also requires a court to “ask each parent if they wish to enter a shared parenting agreement and to put findings in writing if the court’s rule otherwise,” Robb Blasdel explained.

The court can also consider other factors in parenting agreements, and “equal parenting time and rights” has been changed to “substantially equal in time and decision-making rights” in the new bill language.

The bill will now be up for further public comment at committee hearings.