Written by Rebecca T. Dickinson
Edited by Emily Weaver
Supported by Jeremy Walters
Photo courtesy of Modernmom.com
The controversy behind South Carolina joint custody legislative bill H. 4614 inspires arguments more complicated than A.P. Calculus and more emotional than a heart-grinding epic film.
The bill and its predecessors, H. 4095 and S. 373, have inspired more organizations in South Carolina to speak out. Beneath the numbers is a discussion about how language and law could offer equality to parents.
“I love the legal system,” said Camden lawyer, David Reuwer. “… I believe in the family court system. Do I believe it is broken in [the child custody] category, the answer is yes, because if we’re not talking about abuse; if we’re not talking about neglect; if we’re not talking about crime, then the beginning point ought to be shared, joint custody.”
In 2011, the U.S. Census Bureau reported 82.2 percent of custodial parents were mothers and one in six were fathers, “which were not statistically different from 1994.”
“If you look at a thousand decisions, it doesn’t mean the mother gets custody in fifty percent now and the father gets custody in fifty percent,” said long-term family court lawyer Dixon Lee III of McLaren & Lee. “The practical result is different from that, because people more commonly elect for the mother to be the homemaker and childrearer, and for the father to be the wage earner.”
Words in Motion
Jeremy Walters, a Fort Mill carpenter, represented himself in a three-year custody case at the end of which he learned he would have his son every other weekend. According to Walters, a judge claimed he did not work with the court to provide the information it needed to determine whether or not he could have a shot at joint custody. Walters’ reason: he thought he was set up by his ex-wife’s lawyer.
“Many lawyers, far too many, practice ambush law where they then try to take affidavits—which are nothing but written, signed documents that are important, but people will sign anything … sometimes—and they try to ambush the one side into declaring the other side unfit,” Reuwer said.
According to South Carolina Coalition 4 Parents and Children President Joe Carter the problem is not the lawyers, but the law itself.
Distressed by the court’s decision, Walters lobbied with Carter and the coalition for a bill known as H. 4095, written by Rep. Mike Pitts (R-Laurens) in 2011 and 2012. Sen. Vincent Sheheen (D-District 27) also introduced a child custody bill, S. 373.
“When I was debating this bill, I used ‘Mrs. Doubtfire’ when Robin Williams said, ‘Taking my children is taking the air I breathe,’ and I understand that,” Pitts said.
According to Pitts, H. 4095 addressed the time element for parents and children. Sheheen’s bill, S. 373, focused on the decision making process.
“My goal was to get a good conversation going about the family court system and how we could improve it,” Sheheen said.
The driving force for a new child custody bill is to make court hearings—particularly temporary hearings—fairer for parents and children. Noncustodial parents want to be more than a child support check and hope for more time than the cliché of two weekends a month said shared custody advocates.