New Missouri law pushes divorce judges to establish equal child custody time

Sunday marked the start of a new law in Missouri to essentially give fathers a more equitable starting point in divorce court.

The “shared parenting” law aims to make court-driven divorce custody decisions equal between moms and dads in terms of time spent with the children.

Overwhelmingly passed by both the House and the Senate, the law changes key phrases in how child custody is to be handled by divorce judges statewide. It forbids judges making custody decisions based on the gender of the parent, but goes further.

For example, Missouri’s law used to specify that individual judges award “significant, but not necessarily equal” periods of time with parents and gave wide discretion to individual circuit courts in how they deal with such cases.

The new law now requires the Missouri court administrator to develop statewide guidelines for judges “in order to maximize to the highest degree the amount of time the child may spend with each parent.”

The law, first championed by Rep. Kathryn Swan, R-Cape Girardeau, is the fourth of its kind nationwide, following similar recent legislation in Utah, Minnesota and Arizona, said Ned Holstein, founder of the National Parents Organization in Massachusetts. The group, which Holstein insists is not a “father’s rights” group, has been around for 20 years fighting for equal parent treatment in divorce court.

Holstein said the nonprofit group promotes newer research that suggests children do better when both parents are actively involved in parenting. Last year some 20 states engaged at some policy level to examine their divorce laws regarding shared parenting, he said.

“There has been a very marked shift in the past three, four, five years towards accepting this in the best interest of the children most of the time,” he said.