TOPEKA — The two best days in Will Mitchell’s life were the births of his sons, but he told legislators Tuesday his world was turned upside down when his divorce meant he didn’t get equal custody.
Mitchell, chair of National Parents Organization of Kansas, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in favor of a bill that could make it easier for some parents to get shared custody.
“When their mother left, I went from having a primary role in their life to a weekend visitor,” Mitchell said. “It was a very difficult time knowing my children were out there and I didn’t have the right to see them, to hold them or to tell them I love them.”
Senate Bill 257 would require divorcing parents get equal time with their children unless they reach an alternative parenting plan. Proponents, including several fathers, said the bill seeks to serve the best interests of the children involved in a divorce.
Craig Tuttle, a divorced father, spoke in favor of shared parenting. He said it can be simple to come to an agreement that works for both parties.
“The kids’ mom and I knew that if we could get shared parenting, neither one would needlessly spend money going to trial and risk being the non-custody parent,” Tuttle said.
Opponents argued the results of the bill would not necessarily be in children’s best interest.
Charles Harris, a Wichita attorney and chairman of the Family Law Advisory Committee at the Kansas Judicial Council, said judges look at plans developed by the divorcing parents, but they can alter them in the best interest of a child based on 18 factors, such as the child’s age and school location or any alleged acts of domestic violence, stalking or sexual assault.
The new bill would make it more difficult for judges to alter that plan, he said.
“The real winners from this bill are not the children of Kansas, but the lawyers who will get to litigate the facts to try to establish clear and convincing evidence to deviate,” Harris said.
Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, a Leavenworth Republican running for Congress, sponsored the bill. He said the bill starts with the right presumptions — that the parents are innocent and good until proven otherwise.
Fitzgerald acknowledged it could present a problem if a parent is not fit to have custody but there is not enough evidence to keep children from them.
“But the opposite of that situation is that you have someone who they just allege and based on that allegation, they are treated as so. So which problem do you want to have?” Fitzgerald said.