AUGUSTA, Maine — People who feel they have been treated unfairly by Maine’s family court system Tuesday urged the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee to change how judges decide custody issues.
Two bills — LD 346 and LD 642 — would require judges to consider the value of having both parents involved in the lives of their children following a divorce. That would be an addition to the current legal standard of making decisions based on what is in the “best interest of the child.”
John Simpson, a Cumberland Foreside attorney and divorced father of two, urged the committee to recommend to the Legislature that the bills be enacted. He told the committee that his wife filed for divorce in 2013 and, initially, the couple was able to equally share the residential care of their children, now 5 and 3.
“Unfortunately, we could not agree on a permanent parenting schedule,” Simpson said. “I thought continuing with our shared schedule would be best for the children, but my wife wanted the children to live primarily with her.”
His voice breaking with emotion, Simpson told the committee that “despite clear proof that shared primary residential care was working very well for our children, the court accepted the guardian ad litem’s 1950s vintage opinion that young children should primarily reside with their mother. My children now spend twice as much time with their mom than their dad for no rational reason.”
Simpson recommended that judges who want to know what is in the best interest of the children of divorcing parents should ask the children.
About half a dozen other divorced parents echoed Simpson’s concerns and his emotional distress over the final custody decrees in their cases. Most complained about how the guardians ad litem assigned to their cases “misrepresented” the facts of their cases to judges.
Speaking on behalf of the Maine Commission on Domestic and Sexual Abuse, chairwoman Julia Colpitts opposed the custody bills. She said that neither was necessary.
Colpitts cited a 2010 study that reviewed the manner in which Maine courts addressed parental rights and responsibilities, particularly as they impacted families in domestic abuse situations.
“This study overwhelmingly supported Maine’s focus on the well being of children rather than on a presumption of the rights of parents,” Colpitts testified. “The study noted that the Legislature has already stated its public policy intent to encourage frequent and continuing contact with both parents for any minor children.”
Colpitts cited state law in her testimony that states “it is public policy of this state to assure minor children of frequent and continuing contact with both parents after the parents have separated or dissolved their marriage, and that it is in the public interest to encourage parents to share the rights and responsibilities of child rearing …”
Mary Ann Lynch, the court system’s liaison to the judiciary, did not oppose those bills but did oppose a separate bill that would require all divorcing parents to file written parenting plans with the court.
Lynch said that LD 864, intended to get parents thinking about custody issues at the beginning of the process, was not needed. She told the committee that 85 percent of divorces in Maine “are settled by the parties without acrimony and without a hearing.”
Toby Hollander, a guardian ad litem who has represented children in divorce cases, supported the bill. He said it would keep parents from going back to court over and over again for modifications to custody orders.
Committee members directed most of the questions at the sponsors of the bills rather than at the citizens who supported and/or opposed them.
A work session on the bills has not been scheduled.