The Alabama House of Representatives Judiciary Committee gave a favorable report Wednesday to legislation that would reform how Alabama’s judges determine child custody. The bill would set joint custody as the standard for two fit parents but would allow judges to deviate from that standard if they can explain their justification for doing so in writing.
House Bill 365 is sponsored by State Rep. Kenneth Paschal (R-Pelham).
The bill was scheduled to have had a public hearing in committee on March 2. That public hearing did not happen because the committee did not get through with its business before recessing to go into regular session. The rescheduled public hearing was held on March 9, but the committee did not vote that day, because it is the policy of the committee to not vote on the day of the public hearing.
Paschal has been working on this issue for 14 years, first as a parent who had an unpleasant experience in his own daughter’s custody hearing with the courts, then as the President of the Alabama Family Rights Association, and finally in the Legislature.
“It was a long process spanning years on the Hill educating legislators, governors, and whoever else would listen about Alabama’s unfair and lopsided custody laws and practices.” Paschal said in a statement.
Paschal said that he plans to see this bill pass into law, ensuring all Alabama’s children have the best of what the family court system has to offer - particularly "their right to love and be loved by both their fit parents.
“It's simple," Paschal told the committee. "If we want to see less violence, less criminal behavior in our communities, reduce our prison population, reduce teen pregnancy, see less behavior problems in our school, and better outcomes for all communities, let's follow the social science data.”
Paschal referenced statistics from national and worldwide studies that he claimed showed how much children benefit from strong and consistent relationships and time spent with both parents.
Paschal said in a statement that when a child is raised in a single parent or court-ordered to have one parent, the child is:
5 times more likely to live in poverty
3 times more likely to fail in school
2 to 3 times more likely to develop emotional and behavioral problems
3 times more likely to commit suicide
Paschal said that according to Alabama DHR and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, children with limited or no contact with one of their biological parents make up:
63% of youth suicides
75% of juvenile drug abuse
85% of youths in prison
71% of school dropouts
71% of teen pregnancies
90% of homeless and runaway children
“We have prison overcrowding, the need for prison reform,” Paschal said. “We have children with identity problems, teenage drug use, increased violence in our communities – We express concerns about school behavior issues in communities of color… So far, have we ever attributed these issues to our current family laws?"
Paschal claimed that current family law practices force approximately 40,000 children in Alabama to suffer the loss of one of their biological parents by choosing a parent who is deemed by the court as the favorable parent.
Paschal said that these problems are even worse in the Black community.
“Here in Alabama, our Black sons and daughters make up the majority of those children,” Paschal said. “We now know that we are partially responsible for one parent — mostly fathers — to be separated from their children. We must do something about that. This bill is a start.”
The Alabama Family Rights Association supports HB365.
"This bill will assure the Courts apply the wordage created by the Alabama Law Institute in every divorce/custody hearing by requiring ‘written findings of fact’ in evidence presented,” said ALFRA President Tim Smith. “A ‘rebuttable presumption’ that joint custody is in ‘the best interest of the child’ will also assure that children have access to a parent limited ONLY under proven circumstances.
“Hopefully, the Legislature will move quickly to place HB365 into law and require all Alabama courts ruling on custody to do so in the true 'Best interest of the child,'” Smith concluded.
HB365 is controversial because many of Alabama’s elected judges feel that it limits their discretion in these decisions.
The House of Representatives can consider HB365 when they are next in session.
The Legislature will not meet again until Tuesday, March 29 as the Legislature is taking its spring break next week. Thursday was day 23 of the 2022 Alabama Regular Legislative Session. The 1901 Constitution limits the legislative session to a maximum of 30 legislative days in a regular session.
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