When Alice Greene sang lullabies to her baby girls, she caressed their foreheads and told them "mommy will always be there for her little angels. Always."
She was wrong.
"I cry every night over my children," she says. "Every time I see kids in a park with their parents, or playing in a yard as I drive home from work, the wound is opened all over again."
Fifteen years ago, under pressure because of finances and personal problems, Greene ceded custody of her two daughters to her ex-husband. She says:
"I thought that as a noncustodial parent [NCP] I would still have the right to be a part of their lives. It was the worst mistake of my life."
The last decade and a half has been a nightmare for Greene as she has been at the mercy of an ex-husband who has disappeared with the girls for years at a time, and a vindictive stepmother who has successfully turned the girls against their mother.
Greene's anguish is experienced by hundreds of thousands of NCPs across the country. Their grievances include: blocked visitation and unenforced visitation orders; "move away" spouses who use geography as a method of driving NCPs out of their children's lives; acceptance by the courts of false and/or uncorroborated accusations as a basis for denying custody or even contact between parent and child; rigid, excessive, and often punitive child support awards; a "win/lose" system which pits ex-spouses against one another by designating a custodial and a noncustodial parent; courts which in determining custody tilt heavily towards the parent who initiates the divorce, thus encouraging each parent to "strike first"; burdensome legal costs; and judicial preference for mothers over fathers as custodial parents.
The solution to the problem now lies before the Tennessee state legislature. Tennessee HB2338 / SB2406, known as the "Shared Parenting Bill," abolishes the concept of child custody and gives equal standing to both parents in a divorce. In the event that divorcing parents are unable to agree on a shared parenting plan, the bill would instruct the courts to "order a custody arrangement with the primary residential designation alternating between parents" and would require that the residential designation "reflect a substantially equal schedule" between the mother and the father. The legislation, sponsored by state Rep. Kathryn Bowers (D-Memphis) and state Sen. Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville), allows judges to deviate from this equal arrangement only if one of the parents has committed acts which render he or she unfit, such as child abuse or domestic violence.
According to Dianna Thompson, Executive Director of the American Coalition for Fathers and Children (ACFC), the bill "will ensure that children continue to have an ongoing emotional, physical, and financial relationship with both of their parents following a divorce or separation." She says:
"Currently, we have a very adversarial court system, and destructive custody battles are largely driven by the parents' fear that they will be expelled from their children's lives. By replacing winners and losers with equals, the Shared Parenting legislation takes a lot of the anger and conflict out of divorce."
Advocates of the bill emphasize that it will lower the divorce rate, since parents won't be rewarded by the courts for being the first one to terminate a struggling relationship. In addition, they say, it encourages cooperation and even reconciliation because each parent knows that, barring proof of abuse, they will not be able to drive the other parent out of their children's lives. In fact, studies have shown that states with egalitarian custody laws have lower divorce rates than "win/lose" states like Tennessee. And because the bill leaves few legal issues for parents to fight over, instead of spending thousands of dollars on court and legal fees, divorcing parents can spend the money on their children.
Melanie Mays, a Memphis mother of two and a member of Child's Best Interest, the nonprofit group which sponsored the legislation, believes that Tennessee's children need the Shared Parenting Bill. She says:
"It's shameful what our current system is doing to our children. I see good, decent parents, usually fathers, being locked out of their children's lives. It's as if they are being thrown away. I see children who love and need both parents and can't understand why they can't see the noncustodial parent. It's a horror, and it needs to be changed."
This column first appeared in the Memphis Commercial Appeal (2/28/02).