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From Pain To Possibility

April 28, 2014, 9:55 PM by Jared Ransom

From Pain To Possibility

This past March, Governor Dennis Daugaard signed a new bill into law that will give state judges the legal discretion to consider shared parenting in custody cases.

The law doesn't officially go into effect until July 1, but there are already families planning their legal options.

"I'd like to get back into being a Dad instead of a visitor with my kids," Matt Doyle said.

That could soon become a reality for parents like Matt Doyle, who find themselves on the short end of a child visitation battle. For Doyle, the court ruled that he would only get a few days a month to see his two sons, Landon and Braxton.

"I got a divorce. It's been finalized for about a year now. To start off, I got held from my kids and it wasn't looking good at all," Doyle said.

The separation wasn't just hard on Doyle, but it took a major toll on his sons as well. Braxton, now 13 years old, knew that a divorce was coming.

"I was kind of sad, but it wasn't really working out, so it just had to be done," Braxton said.

Shortly after the split, things went downhill for the kids, especially Braxton.

"My son was put on probation. His grades went way down, his attendance in school went way down. It just really affected my kids," Doyle said.

Doyle soon got his sons back on track. He even enrolled Braxton in some mixed martial arts classes to let him exert some of his frustrations.

"I get behind in school when I'm at my mom's house, and when I'm here, I actually get my homework done," Braxton said.

They both seem more at peace, spending afternoons playing games and talking about future trips to Mount Rushmore. It's a home full of optimism thanks to a signature on March 12 from Governor Dennis Daugaard, which makes shared parenting an official custody option.

"It makes us do better because we'd see both parents more often then having more time with just one," Braxton said.

The law takes effect statewide on July 1.  For those at the controls of custody cases, like circuit court Judge Doug Hoffman, there is already a long list of factors he takes into consideration when making a ruling.

"In every custody case, we're required to at least consider those factors and look at any other relevant factors and then determine the overall best interest of the child," Hoffman said.

He considers the housing arrangement of the parents, any past criminal record, employment and any other factor that would impact the child at the center of the case.

"I always try to explain to the folks why I'm making the decision that I'm making, why I feel it's in the best interest of their children," Hoffman said.

One of the ways Hoffman and other judges gauge the best interest of the child is to introduce them to a child advocate, a person who is able to analyze how the kids are feeling about the separation. A home study may also be performed to get more information about both living situations.

"They will do an evaluation and make recommendations into what they believe is an appropriate custody arrangement," Hoffman said.

In Doyle's case, he says that never happened.

"The best interest of the kids was with my ex. There was no home study done, so how does the judge know which is the best interest of the kids when nothing was ever done to introduce me or the kids to the family court system?" Doyle said.

Hoffman freely admits that every court room is different and every judge has their own way of handling these cases.

"As lay persons, even though we're judges, we're not psychological professionals, so we weigh and consider these various options and the legislature now has expressed a policy that it's something that we should absolutely consider," Hoffman said.

That something is shared parenting.  Hoffman is becoming very familiar with what will be asked of his courtroom come July 1, but he thinks the changes initially won't be dramatic.

"From my own perspective, it doesn't really change anything. It outlines some more specific parameters with regards to considering shared parenting, or what we would call joint physical custody," Hoffman said.

It may not affect his rulings, but others may be granted a new perspective.

"I've entered decrees for shared parenting on many, many cases, but there may be some judges that were uncomfortable with it and so this bill now will give them the authority and the guidance to make those considerations," Hoffman said.

It is that guidance that has Doyle and his sons hopeful as they reflect back on their pains and look forward to a future full of possibility.

"To me, it lifted a big boulder off my shoulders. If it goes as what the judges should do, I think a lot more kids will be a lot happier with their parents," Doyle said.

Doyle says he is not alone in wanting to get back into court as soon as possible. In his time helping with the South Dakota Shared Parenting group, Doyle says he recognizes he is just one of a long list of parents weighing their legal options.

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