The Alabama House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hold a public hearing on two bills Wednesday that attempt to reform Alabama’s family court system and the factors that judges consider when they decide how broken families determine child custody issues.

House Bill 365 (HB365) is sponsored by State Rep. Kenneth Paschal (R-Pelham).

There is also competing legislation, House Bill 314 (HB314), by State Rep. Ben Robbins (R-Sylacauga).

Both of these bills were scheduled to have public hearings last Wednesday, but the Judiciary Committee did not hold them due to time constraints. Those bills and their public hearings were then held over to this week.

According to the synopsis for HB365, “Existing law specifies that it is the policy of this state that parents who are divorced or separated have frequent and continuing contact with their children. Existing law also specifies that joint custody does not necessarily mean equal physical custody. Additionally, existing law requires the parties in a child custody matter to submit a parenting plan only in cases where the parties request joint custody.

“This bill would provide uniform guidelines for child custody determinations consistent with social science data and research regarding child lifetime success and best outcomes and revise existing definitions consistent with terminology used in case law. This bill would specify that there is a rebuttable presumption that joint custody is in the best interest of the child, and this rebuttable presumption may be overcome only by evidence, set forth in written findings of fact, that joint custody is not in the best interest of the child.

“This bill would specify that nothing in this act shall be construed to limit the domestic or family abuse provisions provided in Article 6 of Chapter 3, Title 30, Code of Alabama 1975. This bill would establish factors for a court to consider when determining any custody arrangement other than joint custody. This bill would require the parties to submit a parenting plan in all child custody cases and authorize the court to establish a parenting plan when the parties are unable to agree upon one. This bill would specify additional remedies to a party when a parent, without proper cause, fails to adhere to the schedule set forth in a parenting plan. This bill would also specify that a court with competent jurisdiction shall enforce all child custody and child support orders.”

1819 News spoke recently with Tim Smith who is the President of the Alabama Family Rights Association.

Smith said that his group prefers HB365, the Paschal bill, over Robbins' HB314.

“Alabama Family Rights Association (ALFRA) has been working on this effort for the 22 years I have been in the group,” Smith said.  

“Note that, one, there is no rebuttable presumption that joint custody is in the best interest of the child. Social science, and common sense, shows that children develop much better with two fully involved parents. One only need look at the factors involved with teen pregnancy, teen drug abuse and teen criminal activity to know this. And two, Joint Custody is not defined as 'equal or near equal parenting time.'

“ALFRA holds that this should be the starting point of any divorce action that involves children,” Smith said.

While Smith said that he prefers HB365, “ALFRA is attempting to assure that amendments are added [to HB314] to assure the two issues listed above.”

Child custody issues are a very sensitive area in Alabama and some custody battles can cost the parties involved in excess of $30,000. There are a huge variety of approaches used by Alabama judges. Cases can drag on for years in the overworked Alabama courts. 1819 News has been made aware of one case where the mother has been denied visitation for years, despite passing mental health screenings, being gainfully employed, and having been found not to be a user of illegal drugs. There are cases where fathers have similarly been denied participation in their child’s life. Under current law, judges have nearly unlimited power in these cases and their judgments can be quite arbitrary.

The House Judiciary Committee will meet in Room 617 of the Alabama State House on Wednesday at 1:30 p.m. The Judiciary Committee customarily does not vote on legislation the same day that it holds a public hearing so the actual vote on whether or not to give either bill a favorable report will likely not be made before March 16.

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