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Interest group seeks public rebuke of ruling

Interest group seeks public rebuke of ruling

November 16th, 2017 by Bob Watson in Local News

Missouri members of the Massachusetts-based National Parents Organization say an appeals court ruling last month ignored a 2016 law that reformed family court operations.

That law, included in House Bill 1550, was signed by then-Gov. Jay Nixon and took effect Aug. 28, 2016.

Among its provisions, the new law encourages courts to "maximize to the highest degree the amount of time the child may spend with each parent."

But the ruling by a three-judge Western District panel upheld "the lower court decision to limit a fit, loving and involved father's parenting time to one night a week and every other weekend (and) made no mention of" the new law, the NPO said in a news release.

"As a Missouri mother, grandmother and someone who worked tirelessly last year on behalf of our children to make this law a reality, I urge all state lawmakers and citizens to join me in condemning the disregard for the law," Linda Reutzel, chair of the national group's Missouri chapter, said.

"Judges Thomas H. Newton, Alok Ahuja and Cynthia Martin disregarded state law; instead of following contemporary research and state law, these judges elevated the judicial status quo above a law that protects children's best interests."

They said a St. Louis appeals court panel followed the new law in August 2016, just days after the new law went into effect.

In that case, though, the St. Louis appeals court upheld a St. Charles County Circuit Court ruling that changed the original custody arrangement in a divorce case, switching the primary custody of the minor children from the mother to the father.

The Kansas City appeals judges last month also upheld a trial judge. But in that case, the Clay County Circuit Court didn't change the original decree the mother should keep the primary custody of the children.

The 2016 St. Louis court ruling noted Missouri has a "long declared public policy that children maintain 'frequent, continuing and meaningful contact with both parents after the parents have separated,'" and the new, 2016 law changes reaffirmed that policy.

The ruling noted under the new law, courts are prohibited from presuming a parent, solely because of his or her sex, is more qualified to act as a joint or sole legal or physical custodian for a child.

The six-page Kansas City court ruling last month involved King v. King — and Jeffrey King's attorneys pointed to the St. Louis case as a reason the Clay County trial judge should have changed the original custody ruling.

But Newton, of Kansas City, wrote: "This Court finds that the trial court did not misapply (state law) and further finds that the parenting plan provides for significant, frequent, continuous, and meaningful contact between Mr. King and his children."

The National Parents Organization strongly disagree.

"Many people around the state told the legislators about children being unnecessarily separated from their (parents)," Reutzel told the News Tribune, "and requiring huge amounts of money for fathers to fight for something close to equal time with their children."

She noted the 2016 changes to the state's custody laws:

Require judges to provide an explanation in custody decisions.

Outlaw "default parenting plans" like those that allow one parent one night a week, every other weekend, and shared holidays and summer time, while the other parent has more time with the children.

Mandate the courts to create a handbook that would help to "maximize to the highest degree the amount of time the child may spend with each parent."

She noted both of the cited cases began before the law change — but the St. Louis court noted it in 2016, while the Kansas City court didn't mention the law change more than a year later.

"Instead, the Western District wanted to go back to the way things were before House Bill 1550 and rely on the 'plethora' of cases or case law prior to (the new law) and Morgan case," Reutzel said.

She also pointed to a footnote in the King case, where Newton wrote the Kansas City court had considered and "specifically refused to follow" the previous ruling.

Reutzel said: "The Western District Court judges ignored the people of the state of Missouri's desire for change reflected in the almost unanimous passage of House Bill 1550 acted like (the new law) was irrelevant a waste of time and meant nothing."

Jeffrey King's lawyer asked the state Supreme Court on Oct. 25 to hear the case. The court has not announced what it will do.