Minimum time with noncustodial parent proposed

Guidelines for care plans for children of divorced and separated parents would be created by legislation heard by the Judiciary Committee March 12.

Under LB437, introduced by Crete Sen. Laura Ebke, courts would be required to create parenting plans for parents who cannot agree on a plan. Courts could award no less than 35 percent of parenting time to a noncustodial parent, unless reasons are found to terminate or limit custody rights.

Ebke said that noncustodial parents in Nebraska receive an average of only 17 percent of total parenting time with their children. This creates a public health issue, she said, because research shows children without shared parenting arrangements have more health- and stress-related problems. The bill is not designed to mandate equal parenting time, she said, but would encourage judges to put more emphasis on joint custody, which has proven benefits for children.

North Platte attorney James Bocott testified in support of the bill, saying judges across the state rarely deviate from awarding noncustodial parents four or five days of custody per month. Changing the minimum parenting time to 35 percent would stop judges from taking an apparent “cookie cutter” approach to parenting time, he said.

Justin Thompson, a noncustodial parent, also spoke in support of the bill. Children who are allowed to visit a parent only four times a month also are being denied relationships with that parent’s extended family, such as grandparents, he said.

“Thousands of children are unfairly punished by an unfair system,” Thompson said.

Lindie Catlin of Humboldt also testified in favor of the bill, saying it would provide judges better guidance in determining custody disputes. Children gain valuable gender-specific experiences when they spend time with both mothers and fathers, she said.

“Each parent has a unique and specific role in a child’s life … and they should have equal time,” Catlin said.

Robert Sanford, legal director for the Nebraska Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence, testified in opposition to the bill. He said that mandating a minimum parenting time percentage could put victims of domestic violence in abusive situations. Family situations vary greatly, Sanford said, and judges should have the flexibility to evaluate each case individually.

Family law attorney Mary Kay Hansen also spoke in opposition to the bill. She said parents who know that 35 percent of parenting time is guaranteed might not seriously participate in parenting plan negotiations.

“This will have a chilling effect on mediation,” Hansen said.

The committee took no immediate action on the bill.

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