ANNAPOLIS — Maryland Delegate Kathleen Dumais, D-Montgomery, said she plans to introduce a bill about child custody decisions that would require judges to explain their decisions, expedite the process for emergency hearings, and change the rhetoric to gender-neutral, non-discriminatory language.
Dumais, who is also a family lawyer, said Thursday morning during the Commission on Child Custody Decision-Making briefing to the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, she is using almost the entirety of the recommendations from the panel for her bill, which she said she hopes to introduce by the end of the week.
The 22-person Commission on Child Custody Decision-Making, which included a state senator, judges, lawyers, educators, a psychologist and advocates from the Maryland Disability Law Center, domestic violence groups and fathers’ rights groups, first met in September of 2013 and then met a total of 90 times — including the six subcommittee meetings — to determine their recommendations for the General Assembly.
Dumais’ bill would give judges mandatory factors to consider in a custody case, as well as other possible factors, all of which would then be used in a judge’s explanation of their decision, said Keith Schiszik, chair of the commission’s statutory considerations subcommittee.
“In some cases the judges didn’t even tell them why they ruled how they ruled,” said Schiszik, who is an attorney specializing in child custody cases in Frederick.
The bill also calls for better training and education for judges who preside over such cases, because often they have no foundation in family law or children’s needs, Commission Chair Cynthia Callahan said. She volunteers her knowledge in the area to her colleagues, but lack of interest and background can create a problematic situation, explained Callahan, who is a judge for the Montgomery County circuit court.
Dumais said the bill calls for a quicker time period for emergency custody cases to be heard, requires each parent to submit a parenting plan, gives the right to counsel to both parents and states that there is no presumed schedule of parenting time, leaving discretion to the judges completely.
“We cannot make general assumptions,” Dumais said. “As we all know the composition of a family has changed dramatically over the last 50 years. … Each case is, in fact, different.”
The commission was met with many questions and some disagreement from the Senate Judicial Proceedings committee, mostly because this is an important and difficult issue, said Senator Robert Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, chair of the committee.
“This is a big bill, there’s a lot to chew on here,” Zirkin said.
He said he thinks most people agree reform is needed, but there are many differences of opinion in how custody decision should be made, said Zirkin, who also is a lawyer.
Two commission members signed a minority opinion urging lawmakers to go beyond the report and push for a presumption that parents should share custody. The panel’s report does not advocate strongly enough, said David Smith Sr., speaking for David Levy, a commission member who had died after signing the minority opinion. Both men are co-founders of Children’s Rights Fund, a shared-custody advocacy group.
“There needs to be a presumption on shared parenting,” which, Smith said, he thinks the commission’s recommendations leave out. “I don’t think (the new bill) takes us forward.”
Other senators questioned the commission about the lack of a 50/50 presumption for split parenting time, as well as about custody decisions that favor the mother, perhaps unfairly.
Dumais said she knows of three other individual bills coming to the legislature that will deal with child custody decisions, one on the legal rights of “de facto parents,” like stepparents and other important adults in a child’s life, one on grandparents’ access to a child, and one about military parents.
But for Dumais, her new bill is the answer for needed change.
“I’m in this because I want to help the people,” Dumais said, adding that state Senator Susan Lee, D-Montgomery, plans to sponsor the bill in the senate. “We need to do something that’s right for the children of our state.”