Missouri moves toward 50/50 child custody law, raising concerns about abuse victims
A bill awaiting the governor’s signature would establish a standard of equal parenting time in custody cases
Gov. Mike Parson could soon make Missouri one of the first states to establish 50/50 shared parenting time as the standard in child custody cases.
But the bill on his desk, passed in the final hour of the legislative session, did not include changes that some family law attorneys and domestic violence advocates worked on for months — and has raised concerns that it could make it more difficult for victims to escape abusive relationships and protect their children.
“On the one hand, it can prevent some parents from being unreasonable when taking the kid away from a good parent,” said Adam Sommer, a family law attorney in Warrensburg and host of the progressive podcast Heartland Pod.
“It also is going to — the flip side of that coin — is going to give abusers easier, quicker access to kids that I think is going to be an unfortunate byproduct of this.”
Under current law, judges decide custody cases by weighing the best interests of the child, and the idea that each parent should have “significant,” though not necessarily equal, time with the child. That contact should be “frequent, continued and meaningful.”
The legislation changes that by requiring judges start each child custody case with the presumption that “equal or approximately equal” parenting time for each parent is in the child’s best interests. A parent can rebut that presumption by presenting evidence that a 50/50 arrangement isn’t in the child’s best interests, and the judge would then consider that evidence.
After years of opposing the change, family law advocates worked with legislators on provisions updating the standards judges use to determine a child’s best interest in custody cases, including related to domestic violence.
But while the changes made their way into one version of the bill, dysfunction in the Missouri Senate killed its chances. So with less than an hour left before the 2023 legislative session adjourned, the House approved a version without the negotiated changes.
“What was passed was not what we had worked on,” said Lara Underwood, an attorney and member of Missouri Association of Family Law Attorneys.
The sponsor of the bill, Rep. Jim Murphy, R-St. Louis, said the revisions pushed for by advocates were “minor.”
“The rest of the bill was so important that not having that was not enough to stop it,” Murphy said.
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These types of equal shared parenting laws have been spurred on in recent years by advocacy groups like National Parents Organization (formerly called Fathers and Families), which argues the courts often favor mothers in custody disputes and that disadvantages fathers who want a larger role in their child’s upbringing as well as their children.
The 50/50 laws are part of a broader movement over the last several decades toward shared parenting laws.
“It’s important that children have both parents whenever possible, and that should always be the prime consideration of the court,” Murphy said in an interview with The Independent.
Joan Meier, who founded and directs the National Family Violence Law Center at George Washington University, said the 50/50 legislation could put children at risk and relies on a false premise that there is a bias against men in family court.
“We oppose these statutes because all they do is make things worse for children,” Meier said. “Because even without these statutes, things are extremely bad for children.”
In a 2019 study of over 4,000 family court cases, Meier found when mothers report child abuse or domestic violence in custody litigation, they often actually lose custody to the alleged abuser. Women lost custody 28% of the time they reported abuse, she found — potentially putting children in harm’s way.
For judges, Meier said, “the message is very clear that there are very few things that can overcome the very strong assumption that kids need to be with both parents equally,” she said — even evidence of abuse because of the court’s “very strong implicit biases.”
A 50/50 shared parenting law is just a “more extreme version,” she said, of the broader trends toward shared parenting that she has studied, which have, in practice, proven to “hurt mothers and kids.”
Meier said the idea that men often lose in family court is also not borne out by data.
Most custody cases are decided not in court but through settlement agreements, she said, where it’s true mothers often get primary custody. “But the cases that go to court, a tiny percentage of all families who break up, in those cases, fathers are preferred,” she said.
“The courts already start with a desire to reward fathers who come to custody court,” Meier said. “They all want to encourage father involvement.”
The National Parents Organization Missouri chapter director, Linda Reutzel, was unavailable for an interview.
Reutzel has previously testified that equal shared parenting “will lessen the animosity between parents.” She wrote in 2021 that groups “attempted to conflate domestic violence issues with the creation of equal shared parenting,” but actually “equality tends to lessen conflict.”
In an interview with National Parents Organization last year, she said “it’s taking an adversarial system that pits one parent against the other and saying, you guys are equal and you get equal time to your child, which is the best interest of that child.”
Those testifying in support at Missouri hearings have included divorced fathers who say they wish they had more time with their children and parents’ rights groups.
Kentucky, Arkansas and West Virginia have adopted 50/50 parenting laws over the last five years. Florida’s legislature passed such a bill this year.
Missouri’s bill passed 114-9 in the House and 30-4 in the Senate.
Rep. Sarah Unsicker, D-Shrewsbury, was one of the few lawmakers who opposed the 50/50 parenting bill this year, arguing it would limit judges’ discretion in deciding the best plan for children.
“The judge should listen to the arguments and make decisions based on evidence,” she said.
She was also concerned that the version that ended up on the governor’s desk doesn’t represent the behind-the-scenes work of advocates and family law experts.
“When there’ve been months of negotiation to work on a bill to make it better, even though it’s still bad, it could be worse,” Unsicker said. “And then at the last minute, it’s pretty disingenuous to slide the worse bill through and say it’s the same thing that people have been working on and not allow anybody to talk about it.”
With GOP infighting blocking virtually all legislative business in the Senate in the session’s final week, there was no hope of passing the bill with the negotiated language. So with time running short, the House had the choice of either passing equal custody legislation without the proposed changes or letting the entire bill die and trying again next year.
“I had to twist an awful lot of arms to get that to go through that last day,” Murphy said. “My priority was to get the presumptive shared parenting part. “That’s what I’ve been working on for years.”
Murphy said the bill was too important to wait another year. The changes that were negotiated in the Senate were “minor,” he said, and judges already take domestic violence into consideration in custody cases.
About the negotiated language, Murphy said, “it wasn’t a showstopper at all, because the judge will always, his final word will always take the best interest of the child into consideration. Domestic violence is always that consideration.”
What was missing, advocates say, were updates to the best-interest standard for judges to evaluate cases.
There are several factors judges consider when evaluating the best interest of the child, one of which is a “pattern of domestic abuse.”
Current law only restricts custody in the instance of a history of domestic violence when the court finds “visitation would endanger the child’s physical health or impair his or her emotional development.” It defines domestic violence as “abuse or stalking” committed by a family or household member.
Advocates had hoped to expand that to allow judges to consider the nature and context of the domestic abuse, as well as implications of the violence on the child’s safety and developmental needs. They also wanted the law to plainly state that abuse can be “physical, verbal, emotional or psychological.”
Even current law — which prioritizes shared custody but not equal custody — can pose difficulties to victims and cause hurdles to them leaving an abusive partner, a recent investigation by the Springfield Daily Citizen found.
Underwood said many family law judges never practiced family law themselves and “domestic violence isn’t even on their radar.”
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