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Edited Testimony in Support of Senate Bill # 60
House Judiciary Committee
Steven D. Mathis
2/19/03
(click on handout to see)
Additional Handouts in Committee Packets, not covered:
1) Email 1       2) Email 2   3) Letter 1 (not available on website) 4) Letter submitted to Senate Judiciary Committee - 1/29/03 (not included in packet to House Judiciary Committee)
Good Morning.  My name is Steve Mathis and I am the divorced father of my daughter, Age 9 and my son, Age 14.  

I am the president of the South Dakota Coalition for Shared Parenting, a grass roots group of people who are concerned for their children and the children of others after separation and divorce.  We have a special interest in “families apart”.  I also represent a minimum of 300 people across South Dakota who believe that shared parenting and maximizing time between parents, as much as practical, is in the best interest of a child unless harmful to a child.  (Given  Signatures) [signatures not provided - click for Petition wording]

Children of separation and divorce need both parents to be an active part of their lives.  A sizable body of research supports this and the clear benefit for children. I have already sent some of this information to you.

SB 60 as a shared parenting bill is about a child having two loving parents actively sharing in their lives after separation or divorce or separation.  It is about having laws that build families up instead of breaking families down.  It is about reducing the “incentives” for “getting custody”.  It is about opening the door for a mother AND a father to be their best after separation so they can better focus on the future and how they are going to take care of and provide for their children instead of fighting to “get custody”.

I will take it Section by Section:   

SECTION 1 addresses the Standard Visitation Guidelines.  HB1302 and these guidelines became law last year.  This required the UJS to establish the Standard Visitation Guidelines.  HANDOUT “A” - These are the official guidelines.  Many have said that a lot of time was spent last year passing HB 1302 and developing these guidelines.  An executive visitation Task force was established to complete this work.

Did you know the UJS already had these rules in place?  They were the unwritten law right off the internet. HANDOUT “B”.  They were called “Shared Parenting Guidelines”.  There is little “shared parenting” about them.  Unfortunately, I don't think this body ever saw these guidelines or knew of their existence last year.  I wonder if you did, would you have passed this rule-making authority to the Judicial branch of our Government.  It doesn't matter which one you look at they are the same.  

These guidelines are based on information prior to 1997, despite the fact that by 1995, many states were changing over to shared parenting laws.  

In 1998, Texas changed it parenting schedule to allow a minimum of 150 days for noncustodial parents.  SD allows 93 days.  (Handout C)

This is “what most children and parents get”.   These guidelines are not what good parenting is about.  They do not encourage a child to have and maintain a good relationship with both parents.  In fact, they isolate the noncustodial parent from their children.  

Section 1 reflects regular occurring and meaningful parenting time.  (These were taken from the Wisconsin shared parenting law).

What does that mean - regular occurring and meaningful.  Do the current SD guidelines meet those criteria.  No they do not and you can see that on page 1 of these guidelines.  Currently, if you want regular occurring, meaningful and maximized parenting time for your children, and both parents do not agree on this, one parent will have to “fight” for it.

HANDOUT “D”

Here's how Wisconsin looks at regular occurring and meaningful and maximized.

SECTION 2:

Last year, this was placed in LAW.  Basically it says at filing, the parent who has been the “primary caregiver” in the last thirty days will be given custody.  The primary caregiver was defined as the one who “makes the meals, washes the clothes and changes the diapers”.  It is flawed and full of gender bias. It disregards the collective support of both parents in the raising of their children.  

Representative Michels acknowledged this at the same time this testimony was presented.  He stated, “I'm married and I don't do this”. This is a test that most fathers in South Dakota would fail.  

As far as the 30 days prior - If your spouse right now decided to file for divorce, and you couldn't agree on the parenting schedule, you would be the noncustodial parent with 4 overnights per month and 1 or 2  “visits” per week.

One concern raised, if you don't give one parent the custody, who will take care of the children.  Simple - they both will as they always have!   

So now parents are fighting over who is the primary caregiver instead planning and working on sharing and caring for their children.  

HANDOUT "E" Home Study. (not available) Here is a typical example of what is happening in South Dakota because of this LAW.  You have the last three pages of this Home Study.  The outcome is still pending… however, I believe it is important for you to see.  You will find that the evaluator recognizes that both parents are equal, fit, have good homes and are equally bonded to their children.  The recommendation, mother has primary physical custody and the father gets the Standard Guidelines.  Each parent paid $XXXX dollars for a report that says they are fit and loving parents.  This is wrong.  This is not the South Dakota way.

HANDOUT “F” - contradiction with previous law SDCL 25-5-8.

SECTION 3:  

If you read Line 12 on Page 2, If the court deviates from standard guidelines, (assuming that the standard guidelines reflect regular occurring, meaningful, and maximized)….. This is the criterion for deviating from these guidelines.  Most of them are from the current “Timmy Law” passed last year for 3rd parties.  (HANDOUT “G” “Timmy Law”  SB No. 177)  Items circled. These make great sense and address concerns such as abuse, neglect, domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, cooperation and communication among parents, etc.  We all know parents who are what we consider or think are  “poor” parents, mother and father.  This addresses those parents.  

SECTION 4 - is basically an accountability section.  Parents want to have a clear understanding of why they can't have shared parenting with their children.  

SECTION 5.  Notice of Relocation.  

The original relocation section was based on a 1997 Model by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers.  Washington State used this model to develop their relocation laws. This section has been modified.

Hopefully, through this notice, the Judges will scrutinize this move and specifically consider the children, not only their established relationship with both parents but their relationship with their schools, their churches, their friend and relatives.

If we believe that most mothers and fathers are equally important to a child after separation and divorce and reject the notion that one parent is better than the other, then this is one way to accomplish this.

Section 6 was removed from the bill, and clearly stated the intent of SB  60 as a shared parenting bill.  We would like to see it back in the bill to send a clear message to the "Divorce System" and the people of South Dakota, what is expected in our state.  Don't we want to expect the best in our people?    I firmly believe most parents will rise to the challenge.  

Think about your children or grandchildren.  How important are they, especially when they were young?  Perhaps you are of the old school that says Mother's are most important in a child's life or Fathers of divorce should not want have equal responsibility for their children, cannot be nurturing to their children. Perhaps you are a father that was too busy to be actively involved with your children.  Have you experienced or heard about a bad divorce situation?   Maybe you think families apart should be better and have less conflict than married families?

Is your vision for what is best for children clouded by these experiences, prejudice and bias or some other reason unrelated to children?  Don't we need to open the door for good parents, both parents to be a significant part of their children's lives after separation or divorce?  Especially those that want to be and can't because one parent says “NO”?

Some people believe if a parent contests the standard guidelines parenting schedule and custody, they are a “bad” parent and “just getting back at the other parent”.  This is rarely the case.  “Good” parents (mothers and fathers) will fight, if necessary for their children to have equal time with both parents because they know it is very beneficial to their family.   They will spend great sums of money in doing so - money better spent on stabilizing their homes for the children.  Former chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court A.M. Keith recognized this by stating, “I rarely had a contested custody case in which both parents weren't good parents and that is why they were contesting custody”.

“Times are a changing”. Many Fathers and Mothers want to be involved with their children.  For most parents, children are the most important parts of their lives. Children thrive when both parents are equally involved, yet our laws and practice do not encourage this to happen.

Picture this scenario:

A family --  mother, dad, children are going along trying to do the best they can in our world today.  They are good and fit parents as most South Dakotan's are..    Eventually, things don't go so well in the marriage one person wants a divorce and files for such.  Remember, it only takes 1 person to end a marriage in our State and divorce can happen at any time.

So, each parent goes to his or her attorney.  I am told, Steve, here are the visitation guidelines, this is the best you're children are going to get if you guys can't agree on shared parenting.  That is every other weekend and one or two visits per week.  If you want to contest this, it's going to cost you a lot of money.  Emotionally it will be tough for you, your spouse and for your children.

My spouse goes to her attorney who reflects the SD Divorce System.  She is told,  if you resist shared parenting you will likely get the kids most of the time. You will win! You are going to get child support, some of the highest in the country and we are going to do our very best to get you everything you want.  After all, you are the best parent in the eyes of the Law.  It only takes one parent to say “No” to shared parenting, typically the one who has filed for divorce.

AND THE BATTLE BEGINS - the competition to see who is the best parent. It is the battle that keeps building resentment and anger for both parents for many years to come.    Some parents will reject this perverse system and work together for shared parenting.  Some will give up and leave their children because they know what the odds are and they don't want to put their children through the battle or they don't want to be secondary parents in their children's lives.   Some will “fight” because they believe their children will be better for it and some will just “fight”.

What if this scenario was turned around?  

What if both parents went to their attorneys.  Both are fearful about losing their strong relationship and bond with their children.   And the attorneys says to each of us, “Steve, you know what is great about South Dakota, they passed a law in 2003 that says if you are a good and fit parent, your children automatically get to equally share their lives with both of you because they believe it is in the best interest of most children in South Dakota.  The state really protects the rights of children to have maximal parenting time and involvement with both of their parents.  

So, you really have nothing to argue or worry about when it comes to the kids.  You just need to sit down and try to work out a schedule that provides your children with the most parenting time for each of you (as much as you practically can) and we will help or you can go to a mediator that will help.

Where did all that hostility and conflict go?  When you empower parents to cooperate and place them on an equal level, regarding the children, what is there to fight over.

Which scenario is in the best interest of the child? Which scenario is better for the families apart in South Dakota? Children will have two parents who love them, two homes where they are loved and equal time with both parents.  Children understand equal.  That is what most children want.  Parents understand equal too.

Ladies and Gentlemen.  These parents and grandparents behind me are the best parents I know in South Dakota because they are all publicly saying we are good, loving parents and we just want to share more in the care and responsibility of our sons or daughters. We have experienced the “injustices” of the custodial system as our children have.  We are passionate and we have every right to be “emotional”.  These are our children who we deeply care about and we passionately love our children.

I ask you, the House Judiciary Committee members to amend the current SB 60 with the opportunity for maximized parenting time and send this bill with a Do-pass to the House floor.  In doing so, I believe you will be giving our children a great gift.  Ladies and gentlemen, give our children their parents back, today and in the future.  
Thank you.

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