MARYLAND LAWMAKERS created a special commission in 2013 to study how child custody decisions are made in the state’s courts. The group met over 18 months and heard from more than 200 stakeholders, including judges, family law attorneys and mental-health professionals. It issued its final report in 2014, detailing a series of ways to improve how these critical decisions, often fraught with emotion, are made. The reforms have yet to be put in place. Let’s hope, then, that when the General Assembly convenes this month, it gives needed attention to this critical issue and follows the thoughtful direction provided by this commission.
The lack of legislative action in implementing the recommendations of the Commission on Child Custody Decision Making has been because of controversy over whether the standard that guides judges in determining custody should be changed. Under current law, Maryland courts prioritize the “best interest of the child” when making child custody decisions. Activists, including those for fathers’ rights, have pushed for a presumption of joint custody, a standard currently under consideration, as The Post’s Michael Alison Chandler reported, by a growing number of states.
The Maryland commission opted against a change to presumption and, we believe, for good cause. There are clear benefits to shared parenting, and it, in fact, is the choice of most divorcing parents. But imposing a one-size-fits-all rule that uses a count of overnights to determine fairness for a parent would undermine important protections for children. Judges must have discretion to determine what is in the “best interest of the child,” and sometimes that might mean deciding a parent — no matter how loving or well-intentioned — is ill-equipped to share custody.
That doesn’t mean, though, that there aren’t changes that should be made. The 330-page report released by the commission recommends adoption of a custody statute, currently lacking in Maryland, that provides guidance to litigants and judges about the considerations to be made in custody decisions. The report recommends requiring that parties in custody cases submit proposed parenting plans. It advocates the replacement of emotionally charged terms such as “custody” and “visitation” with “parenting time” and “decision-making responsibility.”
These are worthy recommendations that shouldn’t be collecting dust. They also shouldn’t be held hostage to a misguided effort to change the standard away from one centered on a child’s best interest.