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.
Common sense tells us what we seem to need studies to demonstrate - that children need two parents and manage divorce best when they have equal access to both.
While family courts are increasingly trying to ensure that children have that access by awarding joint or shared custody, emotionally distraught humans don't always follow directions.
Meanwhile, courts and the state historically have been more effective in enforcing child support than visitation such that we have entire bureaucracies built around support collection tied to federal incentives. For every dollar that states put up to collect child support monies, for example, the federal government matches with two dollars. Other incentive funds are also available to reward collections.
While fathers' organizations long have pushed for stronger visitation enforcement, there are also some 3 million non-custodial mothers in the U.S., according to David Levy, CEO of the Children's Rights Council, a nonprofit group that advocates for shared custody. Levy applauded the New Hampshire bill, saying that the proposed bill codifies the idea that it's important for children of divorce to continue to have both parents.
But the proposed bill is not without critics. As with any law related to personal relationships, this one could be tricky to enforce. Imagine a HHS social worker knocking on your door to ask why you didn't let Johnny see his daddy last weekend.
Such well-intentioned laws also could backfire. As one close observer put it in an e-mail exchange, "Getting (HHS) involved is usually the worst thing to do. They usually side with the 'Mom who is concerned about letting the kids go to their father' and, they (investigators) may decide that neither parent is fit. And take custody of the kid(s)."
Such is the mess we have made of our lives.
In the best and least of all worlds, the deterrent effect of such a scenario would make visitation abuses less common and enforcement unnecessary. That way, only the bad guys lose. Or gals, as the case may be.