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The Power Of Parenting

February 4, 2014, 9:55 PM by Jared Ransom

The Power Of Parenting

In the United States alone, there is a divorce every 13 seconds. Each of these marriages end for different reasons and has its own story. Unfortunately that story could include a child.

"Right now, the kids are in a tug-of-war for who is going to get them, and that's not fair to the kids; it's not fair to the parents," Casey Wilson said.

Wilson's story is like many others. His marriage was coming to an end, and he found himself in a court battle for a chance to see his child.

"The brightest beacon for these courts is the best interest of the children, and you have to do that from a number of angles," attorney Shelly Munson said.

It's a phrase Wilson hears all too often.

"I think the best interest of the child standard creates a bias because it gives judges so much discretion and they have a bias that mom is the caregiver and dad pays for the children," Wilson said.

In Wilson's case, the judge awarded the mother primary custody, limiting how much time Wilson was able to spend with his child and re-emphasizing his belief in a bias against non-custodial parents.

Munson believes a bias in court rulings is exaggerated and that judges consider all the evidence when determining the best interest of the child.

"They come in, there's a clean slate on the board. It doesn't matter what sex you are, moms and dads are created equal. It all depends, however, on who is the primary caregiver for the child.  That's one of the big factors," Munson said.

The way the courts rule in cases like this could have more to do on the lack of clarity in South Dakota law.

"It doesn't anywhere really specify in our code book what the factors are to look for any kind of custody. It's by case law," attorney Debra Voigt said.

It's Wilson's personal situation that led him to join of other South Dakota parents to push for a change in state law. They want judges to consider shared parenting as a custody option, which would give both parents close to a 50-50 split with the child.

"The courts have not really followed, necessarily, what the current social science research has supported, which is equally involving both parents," Wilson said.

Why is this momentum for change happening now? To Wilson, it has a lot to do with the number of parents willing to speak out about their cases.  In the past that was hard to find.

"They're afraid to talk about their situation because it'll be used against them in court. So, it keeps a lot of people from talking about it.  Even me, myself, I'm afraid to talk about my case, but I do it and I'll take the blows if I have to," Wilson said.

The recent push in Pierre isn't the first time someone has tried to add shared parenting into state law. Past attempts have tried to make shared parenting a requirement in custody cases, but according to Voigt, that would create an even bigger mess.

"You have to take a look at what the history is. What if one of them is in the Pen, you know, and you have an automatic thing. What if one of them is a truck driver and you're going to automatically give him or her joint physical custody; that may not make sense," Voigt said.

This time around, Wilson feels safeguards are in place to keep that from being a problem.

"There's parental fitness factors within the bill, which have always been part of the bills. If a person is found to be abusive, there's no reason they should have equal custody of their children," Wilson said.

Even if the bill becomes state law and shared parenting is an official option, one big question remains: can it work?

"What's most important is that you be able to co-parent with that other parent, and I don't think a lot of people in shared parenting get that. So, in a lot of ways, the parents are important because that's what it takes to make it work," Voigt said.

The emotions of a bitter divorce could create an unhealthy environment for a shared parenting set-up, but that is a factor a judge would consider.

Even though his marriage didn't work, Wilson doesn't want his child to lack an important role model. Just like other people hoping for change, they just want to be the ideal parent for someone that calls them mom or dad.

"I know, in my situation, I come from an in-tact marriage. I would say, growing up, neither parent was more important; both parents were important, and why just since the dissolution of the marriage has that changed?" Wilson said.

Senate Bill 74 passed in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.

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