So last session, I was assigned to a House Judiciary subcommittee on House File 345, which seeks to create a “legal presumption” in favor of joint physical care (i.e., 50-50) in custody disputes. And since I handled the bill for the Dems in subcommittee, I was expected to stand up and state my position on the House floor when the bill came up for a full vote — which I did, and for the reasons set out below, I recommended that my colleagues vote no.
But as I knew at the time, and as everyone voting on the bill knew, the outcome of the vote was a foregone conclusion, since the House leadership doesn’t run a bill unless they know they have the votes to pass it. And as expected, all of the Republicans voted yes on the bill, and quite a few of the Democrats voted yes as well — final vote was 68-26.
Which was OK — I didn’t agree that the change in the law proposed by the bill was necessary/appropriate, so I voted no; a lot of people liked the bill, and voted yes, the bill passed — that’s how democracy works. To be honest, I didn’t give it much thought; since I’m in the minority party, if I took it personally every time the House passed a bill I don’t support, I’d be spending a lot more time crying in the bathroom.
But unfortunately, despite the fact that the bill passed, some of its supporters took the fact that I had dared to recommend a no vote VERY personally, and they started a bizarrely vicious campaign to brand me as the number 1 enemy of Iowa fathers everywhere, accusing me of bias against fathers, and of not caring about Iowa’s children, and of voting as I did for financial gain (huh?). They put nasty photo-shopped pictures of me on their Facebook pages, and threatened me repeatedly with annihilation in the next election.
And you know, last year was my first session, and I had never dealt with this level of irrational vitriol, so I was kind of freaked out. “But wait!” I told them (I’m paraphrasing here) “you must not realize: I’m an attorney, and I’ve represented many many fathers in contested custody trials over the years, and in most of those trials, my client was awarded either joint or primary physical care of his children over the objection of the mother. And hey, some of those rulings were appealed by the mother, and were affirmed on appeal,and those appellate rulings are public record, so you can check them out.”
“In fact,” I pointed out, “I’m sure that I’ve represented more fathers in contested custody cases, and helped more fathers win joint or primary physical care of their children, than any other legislator in the entire Iowa General Assembly — maybe in the history of the Iowa General Assembly. And while we’ll have to agree to disagree on the need for HF 345, perhaps there are things we can agree on — there are several glitches in Iowa’s family law statues that I’d like to correct, and perhaps we can work together on some of those.”
But while I assumed that my record of helping lots of parents of both genders get through nasty divorces with good results would speak for itself, apparently, as far as these folks are concerned, my no vote on one bill trumps twenty years of representing fathers in custody disputes. Which is patently ridiculous, and I wouldn’t have wasted your time with any of this had this group not posted a bunch of nasty comments on the Clinton Herald’s Facebook page last week. Since they did, and since I’m sure some of you were wondering what the heck was going on, I appreciate this opportunity to set the record straight, on the record, once and for all.
Why I voted No on House File 345
The short answer (well, shorter than the long answer, believe it or not) is that Iowa’s current custody law, which requires a judge to place the child in the custodial arrangement that the judge finds is in the child’s best short and long terms interests based on all of the evidence presented at trial, is gender neutral, and that any disparity in custody awards is due to factors that cannot be legislated away. Judges make mistakes, and there may even be judges out there that secretly believe that little kids belong w/their moms, but neither of those problems can be fixed with legislation –education and attrition are better suited to target these problems.
Under current law, a judge basically has three choices when determining physical care — primarily w/dad, primarily w/mom, or 50-50. HF 345 assumes that joint physical care is the best custodial arrangement, and requires that the Court do the same, but there’s no empirical evidence to back up the bill’s premise. That’s because custody cases are by their nature fact specific, and thus the “best” custodial arrangement for any given child depends on all the circumstances of that child’s particular situation.
Sometimes those circumstances come together in a way that supports a joint physical care arrangement, and that’s great; unfortunately, the problems that blow marriages apart and trigger a custody dispute in the first place are often the same problems that can render joint physical care unfeasible. If parents hate each other, or have totally different views on parenting, or are unwilling/unable to communicate and cooperate with each other, or don’t respect each other, or don’t trust each other, or have a history of violence towards each other, then realistically, joint physical care probably won’t work. It can be a great option, but it is one of at least three options available to judges, and they need the legal flexibility that current law provides in order to ensure that the best interests of the child remains the overriding priority.