The Children’s Rights Council (CRC) has selected seven new state initiatives that strive to protect children through reforming the often-hostile divorce process. 2001 marks the second year that CRC has presented these awards. This year, we are pleased to announce that Connecticut, Maryland, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia have been singled out as having the best state initiatives for helping children and families. Connecticut will be receiving top honors as the “Best of the Best.”
The basis for choosing the recipients of these awards focuses on a state’s willingness to provide support and resources to families struggling with divorce and related situations. Divorce is often a bitter experience, and it is children who suffer the most in the midst of their parents’ battle. CRC is dedicated to demilitarizing the divorce process and protecting children’s rights to involved parenting by both parents. These seven states have passed new laws, developed new programs or implemented new initiatives that show a dedication to providing shared parenting options and helping families remain families.
Connecticut now requires parenting education programs for separated and divorced parents to raise awareness concerning the impact of divorce and restructuring of families on children.1 The program includes discussion of child development stages, adjustment of children after parental separation, conflict management, visitation guidelines, stress reduction for children and cooperative parenting.2
In further efforts to promote parenting, Connecticut has passed a law requiring parents under eighteen years of age to live with a parent or legal guardian while raising their child(ren).3 This law helps encourage responsible parenting, providing support for young parents, and promoting family values.
Connecticut is receiving an award for the second year in a row. The Children’s Rights Council gave Connecticut an award in 2000 for having one of the highest rates of shared parenting in the U.S. at 41.2%.4
Ray was a teenage father when he went to jail on a felony conviction for 17 years. By the time he was released two years ago, he owed the state of Maryland $14,000 in child support to defray the cost of welfare for his children and their mothers.
Today, Ray, which is not his real name, is part of a pilot program started by Maryland child-support officials to ‘leverage’ his $14,000 debt. Under the program, Ray had to graduate from a community-based program that teaches job readiness or responsible fatherhood, get a job and make child-support arrangements for six months. In return, the state erased 25 percent of Ray’s debt. According to Teresa Kaiser, Maryland’s child support director, if Ray participates in the program again, and remains responsible, all of his state debt could be gone.
Child-support debt is supposed to be unforgivable. Under a federal law championed by former Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey, judges are forbidden from retroactively reducing or forgiving child-support.
While this law was intended to stop judges from unilaterally wiping out debt based on parents’ sob stories, it also had the unintended consequence of creating a debt meter that couldn’t be stopped. This applies even to parents who are hospitalized for months, given long prison sentences, or taken hostage in foreign countries.5
Maryland’s initiative helps parents in these situations get back on track and remain part of their children’s lives.
This packet has been approved by the Minnesota Conference of Chief Judges. The packet is used by parents, judges, attorneys, and guardian ad litems to aid in resolving custody disputes. Minnesota’s work exemplifies an understanding of the importance of the parent-child relationship as a life-long process, emphasizing the necessity of a child’s access to both parents.6
New Hampshire now requires that both parents engage in mediation as an attempt to reach a mutual agreement in divorce cases.7 New Hampshire also encourages parents to participate in a mediation process to design a parenting plan.8 In creating such a plan parents are encouraged to share the rights and responsibilities of raising their children.9 The courts may allocate the costs of such mediation in certain circumstances.10 New Hampshire’s initiatives help ensure that each child maintains a frequent and continuing relationship with each parent, regardless of marital status.
Tennessee has recently enacted six new laws dealing with divorce designed to help protect children and families. The legal terms “custody” and “visitation” will be replaced with “shared parenting” and “parental responsibilities”.11 These changes demonstrate the courts’ commitment to joint parenting. Divorcing parents may be able to participate in mediation programs where they may produce parenting plans to aid them in establishing their responsibilities as parents. Under another new law, blocking court-ordered parenting time may result in the loss of recreational and/or professional licenses.12 This illustrates a commitment to keeping parents involved in their child(ren)’s lives, rather than placing the emphasis solely on financial support. Tennessee has also granted grandparents the right to sue for the right to visitation and being a part of their grandchild’s life.13 Another new law provides non-custodial parents a right to access the medical records of their child(ren), unless forbidden by the courts. The Parents’ Bill of Rights has also been expanded, adding three new rights: 48 hour notification of any events to which parents are normally invited to participate, non-custodial parental involvement in all school activities, and contact information when either parent leaves the state for two or more nights with a minor child.14 Finally, Tennessee has created a state Commission on Responsible Fatherhood to make recommendations to the legislature on future issues regarding children and families.15
Texas deserves praise for the creation of new visitation and exchange centers that allow parents to transfer children from one parent to the other for the weekend.16 Centers such as these help ensure that children have a right to see both parents in a safe, secure atmosphere. Texas has also developed an outstanding network of online child support information. The user-friendly and informative Web site, titled, The Child Support Program of Texas, offers information on interactive support, child support evaders, parental rights and responsibilities, resources for single parents, outreach and volunteer programs, as well as why children need legal fathers.17 Publishing these resources in an easily accessible format helps parents help their children with changing family structures.
Virginia’s Parental Education for Divorcing Parents law requires parents involved in custody and access (visitation) cases to attend parenting classes.18 These classes address the issues of parental and financial responsibilities and conflict resolution tips.19 This bill helps promote shared parenting by educating parents on how they can both remain in their children’s lives.
In addition to parenting seminars, Virginia provides mediation in custody or access (visitation) disputes paid for by the state funds.20 Once again, mediation as a method for negotiating divorce cases deserves praise as it reduces the hostility of a long, drawn-out court battle, and thus protects children from the hurt inflicted by such a battle. By assuming the cost of the mediation, Virginia has demonstrated a dedication to helping families and children.
1 Connecticut General Statutes – CGS Titles 46b-69b
2 Connecticut General Statutes – CGS Titles 46b-69b
3 Connecticut General Assembly – Public Act 97-2, Jobs First Welfare Reform Act.
4 Children’s Rights Council Newsletter, Summer 2000 Issue, Pg. 4. Based on statistics from the US National Center for Health Statistics, an agency of the Dept. of Health and Human Services.
5 Excerpted from an article by Cheryl Wetzstein appearing in the Washington Times, June 13, 2001.
6 All information obtained from “A Parental Guide to Making Child-Focused Visitation Decisions” and accompanying memorandum from Sue Dosal, Court Administrator for the Minnesota Supreme Court.
7 New Hampshire Legislature – HB 706 of the 2001 Session.
8 New Hampshire Legislature – HB 447 of the 2001 Session.
9 New Hampshire Legislature, HB 447 of the 2001 Session.
10 New Hampshire Legislature, HB 447 of the 2001 Session.
11 See Children’s Rights Council Newsletter Fall 2000/Winter 2001. Also see www.legislature.state.tn.us
12 See Children’s Rights Council Newsletter Fall 2000/Winter 2001. Also see www.legislature.state.tn.us
13 See Children’s Rights Council Newsletter Fall 2000/Winter 2001. Also see www.legislature.state.tn.us
14 See Children’s Rights Council Newsletter Fall 2000/Winter 2001. Also see www.legislature.state.tn.us
15 Tennessee Legislature HB 2591/ SB2813
16 Texas Legislature HB 3403
17 See www.oag.state.tx.us/child/faq.htm
18 Children’s Rights Council Summer 2000 Newsletter, see also Virginia Legislature HB 1178 at www.legislature.state.va.us
19 Children’s Rights Council Summer 2000 Newsletter, see also Virginia Legislature HB 1178 of 2000 Session at www.legislature.state.va.us
20 Virginia Legislature S 127 of 2000 Session at www.legislature.state.va.us