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Fathers Stand Up For Shared Parenting Bill

Chicopee Register, April 17, 2003

CHICOPEE - Fathers and other supporters are lobbying behind a bill that would change the letter of the law assuming shared parenting rights to unwed and divorced dads.

When couples split, are not getting along and there is a child involved, it is most often mom who gets custody of the children, according to a fathers' rights advocacy group lobbying behind a bill that could add a presumption for shared custody. The bill seeks to amend the general law inserting "there should be a presumption of shared physical custody unless clear and convincing evidence is shown otherwise."

"Our legislators can pass all the laws they want, but until the judges in the Commonwealth start to apply the laws as they are written, these laws aren't worth more than the paper they are written on," said Joe Schebel, Co-Chair of the Hampden County Chapter of the Fatherhood Coalition.

The Fatherhood Coalition, an organization advocating for equal parenting rights for fathers and supporting fairness in family law, is standing firmly behind Senate Bill 1075 in hopes that legislators will sign on. The bill is currently beings sponsored by senators (Brian Lees and Mike Knapik as well) Richard Tisei, Robert Hedlund, and Jo Ann Sprague, but the coalition is looking for (additional) support in Western Mass.

State Representative Joseph Wagner (D-Chicopee) is currently signed on to a parallel bill, House Bill 940, An Act Relative to Strengthening Family Relationships Through Responsible Shared Parenting. Spokesperson Kim Haberlin said Wagner is very supportive of shared parenting as long as both parents are capable of providing proper care.

According to Mike Franco, State Co-Chair for the Fatherhood Coalition, "shared parenting" will change the language of the Massachusetts General Law to add a presumption of joint physical custody to both parents in the event of divorce or separation.

"We're working to ensure that children have frequent and continued contact with both parents," Franco said. "The bill will also afford fits parents the dignity and respect they deserve."

Currently, the law is geared toward sole custody of the child, but shared legal custody, granting legal rights to medical and school records and other legal decisions regarding the child's life to both parents. Even so, Schebel said that from experience, a non-custodial parent has to write the child's school annually in order to see records.

Fatherhood Coalition member Denis St. Laurent was never married, but has a "handshake" agreement with the mother of his children to share parenting responsibilities.

The agreement allows his son to partake in activities with his father such as scouting, karate and swimming lessons that otherwise wouldn't be possible if both parents weren't working together. A judge approved the temporary arrangement, but St. Laurent said he is uncertain what the court will decide about the arrangement in the future.

"If I was a non-custodial parent, we would have no chance to do those things. If affords me the opportunity to instill good parenting in him as well as to teach him right from wrong and to be a positive influence in his life," St. Laurent said.

According to the coalition, more than half of America's children are without their fathers for some portion of childhood. The bill would also add a "rebuttable" presumption at the time of the trial on the merits where parenting would be shared. If parents do not agree, it would be remanded back to sole custody.

"What we want is when there is a divorce, as long as neither parent is found unfit, the child should spend a fair amount of time with both parents," Schebel said. "When you enter a courtroom, you would assume there would be shared custody, but 94 to 95 percent of the time the mom gets the custody of the child."

Schebel said things can get ugly when couples separate and sometimes false allegations and false restraining orders are filed as tools to gain custody.

"Our children need the love and nurturing of both parents and don't need to be placed into a tug-of-war between their mommy and daddy," Schebel said.

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