Kathleen Parker

Bitter parents who try to block their formerly beloved's access to the couple's child(ren) following divorce might think twice in New Hampshire, where a proposed bill aims to make life difficult for uncooperative custodial parents.

How difficult? By inviting the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to investigate the offending parent for child abuse and neglect.

This relatively revolutionary move was the brainchild of Maine psychiatrist Dr. Stevan Gressitt, who has been working with legislators to put some teeth into visitation enforcement. New Hampshire HHS Commissioner John Stephens endorsed the idea, and a bill sponsored by state Rep. David A. Bickford (R) heads to committee Tuesday.

Gressitt is hoping for a domino effect if the bill passes in New Hampshire.

The idea behind such legislation is that children of divorce should continue to have access to both parents, assuming there's no reason to protect a child from one of his parents. While child visitation orders are taken seriously in theory, the legal process of enforcement is usually time-consuming, laborious and expensive. In practice, the failure to take them seriously leads to an ever-widening, and predictable, trajectory of distance between the child and visiting parent.

Bickford's bill (HB 1585) would make it easier for parents denied visitation to seek remedy, while promising grief for parents who don't cooperate.

First, the non-custodial parent would get an expedited court hearing rather than take a docket number and possibly wait three to four months. Next, if the judge determines that the custodial parent is blocking access for no legitimate reason, then the Department of Health and Human Services would be notified of a possible case of child abuse and neglect.

Gressitt contends that denying a child his parent out of vindictiveness is a form of child abuse, but Bickford, a non-clinician, says he isn't ready to go that far. He explained to me that the bill supposes some parents may block access to hide abuse and that, therefore, the case warrants investigation.

He did say, however, that should there be a finding of psychological or emotional harm - a form of abuse - then the custodial parent could be prosecuted, referred for needed treatment, or lose parental rights.

I feel your cringe. Who wants government bureaucrats breathing down parents' necks to see who got little Johnny for the weekend?

I'm happy to lead the chorus saying family matters are none of the state's concern - let the adults hash out their visitation schedules. But abuses of this mannered approach assume qualities not always present in some adults and often leave non-custodial parents (usually fathers) bereft and angry.

Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.
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