Equal time for both parents after a divorce would be the starting line in child custody cases under a bill heading to the Senate floor.
The Rules Committee cleared the measure (SB 250) on a 7-4 party-line vote on Wednesday.
The legislation, sponsored by Brandon Republican Tom Lee, creates a legal assumption that 50-50 time-sharing is in the best interest of a child.
But, as Lee pointed out, it includes a list of 22 factors that judges can consider to tip the scales, so to speak, including “amount of time to be spent traveling” between parents, the “frequency that a parent would likely leave the child in the care of a nonrelative,” and even the “reasonable preference of the child.”
Under his proposal, both parents “enter the courthouse door on equal footing,” he said.
If judges depart from the 50-50 presumption, they should explain in some detail in a written order, Lee said. But he said they should do so without disclosing details that could embarrass the child or the parents: “There’s ways to write around that.”
As the Tampa Bay Times has reported, Lee was “locked in a nearly two-year court dispute with his ex-wife to gain additional time with his children, as well as to lower his child-support payments.”
“When (legislators) fail to be specific, they leave themselves to the latitude and discretion of the courts,” he told the committee.
But several child-care professionals, including doctors and social workers, opposed the measure. Jessica Gordon, a Tampa pediatrician, said very young children need to be with their mothers, especially if they are still nursing.
State Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Jacksonville Democrat, raised concerns that “loving stepparents” would be considered nonrelatives under the bill.
And Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner of Tampa questioned why the bill was needed if,” at the end of the day, the decision will be made in the best interest of the child anyway.”
“There’s no way to mastermind a piece of legislation, especially on this issue,” she said.
In closing, Lee said judges “do have blind spots; they have bias … and courts need direction on how to apply public policy.”
He added that he appreciated the “civility” of the public comments: “It sure beats what we saw a couple of weeks ago.”
Cynthia Wheeler, a nurse and child-support activist from Palm Beach County, was ejected from the Senate Judiciary Committee when it considered the bill. She called Lee a “liar” and had to be escorted away from the microphone.
“You do not want us to speak because you do not want transparent government,” she yelled. “You’re a bunch of liars; you’re damaging families.”
A companion bill in the House (HB 553) has not yet had a hearing.
Jim Rosica (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers the Florida Legislature, state agencies and courts from Tallahassee.