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Senator Stalls Child Custody Bill

A state senator is holding up a bill that supporters say would make major changes in the way child custody cases are handled in South Carolina.

After the Senate Judiciary Committee on April 18 passed the bill (H. 4614), Sen. Phil Leventis, D-Sumter, placed his name on the legislation indicating that he “desires to be present” if the bill is debated on the Senate floor – a powerful procedural move that effectively delays, if not kills, consideration of a proposal.

The bill hasn’t been debated since and remains stuck on the Senate calendar. Under Senate rules, it can be placed on the "special order," or priority, calendar if two-thirds of the chamber agrees to do so.

Contacted Wednesday by The Nerve, Joe Carter, founder of a family-court reform organization known as the S.C. Coalition 4 Parents & Children, said Leventis, who is not on the Judiciary Committee and wasn’t involved with the drafting of the bill, told him recently that he “just wants to make sure we’re doing the right thing,” but didn’t get into specifics.

“We’ve never really gotten the reason why he’s doing it,” said Carter, a divorced father of three who lives in Columbia. “We don’t have a clue.”

Efforts Wednesday to reach Leventis were unsuccessful.

The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, was approved by the House Judiciary Committee about a week after it was introduced in January and received unanimous second and third readings in the House on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1, respectively.

A Senate Judiciary subcommittee chaired by Sen. Vince Sheheen, D-Kershaw and an attorney, held several public hearings on the bill before amending it – essentially rewriting it – and sending it to the full committee, which made further changes to one section.

Carter, who is not an attorney, said despite the rewriting of the bill, several family law attorneys have told him that the Senate Judiciary Committee's version, though it adds some provisions, is not a big departure from the House-passed version.

The bill would define joint and sole custody for the first time in the S.C. Code of Laws – something which family law attorneys told The Nerve for a February story  has varied depending on the family court judge hearing a case. A judge would be required to consider “all custody options,” including joint custody, if either parent seeks joint custody, under the legislation.

Carter’s organization, for example, believes that “equal, shared parenting time or joint custody is the optimal custody situation”; and that the “best parent is both biological parents,” according to its mission statement.

Besides defining joint and sole custody, the amended bill also would:

  • Require each parent in contested custody cases to submit a “parenting plan” for temporary-order hearings, which would reflect “parental preferences, the allocation of parenting time to be spent with each parent, and major decisions, including, but not limited to, the child’s education, medical and dental care, extracurricular activities and religious training.” Parents also could elect to submit a joint parenting plan;
  • Provide family court judges with 17 factors in issuing custody orders, including such things as the preferences of each child, the “manipulation by or coercive behavior of the parents in an effort to involve the child in the parents’ dispute,” and whether one parent has relocated more than 100 miles from the child’s primary residence in the past year; 
  • Give each parent equal access to their children's medical and educational records; and
  • Create the South Carolina Family Court Study Committee, which would examine the “feasibility of tracking the outcome of contested custody proceedings.”

Carter said he is concerned that the proposed parenting-plan requirement will be stripped out of the bill.

“I think it’s going to help parents really see the future of their children and really talk about it,” he said about the provision.

Because the Legislature is on a two-year bill cycle, if the child-custody bill isn’t passed this year, it would have to be re-introduced next year; and the process would start all over.

There were 3,372 child custody and visitation cases filed statewide last fiscal year, which ended June 30, plus another 987 cases in which modification of child custody or visitation was sought, according to S.C. Judicial Department records.The outcome of those cases was unknown.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org.

 

 

General Assembly Judiciary Legislation

S.C. Coalition 4 Parents & Children Rep. Mike Pitts Sen. Phil Leventis Joe Carter