AUGUSTA, Maine — Bills aimed at lessening tensions between divorcing parents of minor children will be heard Tuesday afternoon before the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee.
Two bills would add to the “best interest of the child” standard used by courts in making custody decisions when couples divorce. Judges would be required to consider the value of having both parents involved in the child’s life, according to LD 642 and LD 346.
Both bills include exceptions in cases where domestic violence, abuse, neglect and/or drug use by a parent could be considered by a judge in determining how much time and under what circumstances children spend it with each parent.
“The basic goal of the bill is that, before anyone gets divorced, both parents get access to their children regardless of what their parenting skills are,” Sen. David Dutremble, D-Biddeford, said Monday. “Attorneys, guardians ad litem and judges step in and take the best interest of the child standard into consideration and make recommendations to the court. But how would someone who does not know your child know what the best interest of your child is supposed to be?”
Dutremble has advocated for changes in the oversight of guardians ad litem, who sometimes represent children in contested divorces, and the way the court system handles such cases.
“I think the system should start with shared parenting as a basis from which to start making decisions,” the senator, who is a firefighter in Biddeford, said Monday. “The idea is to prevent the system from pitting one parent against the other and to allow both parents access to their kids.”
What might be seen as a competing bill is LD 864, sponsored by Sen. Anne Haskell, D-Cumberland County. It would require divorcing parents with children or their attorneys to submit proposed parenting plans a judge could order be followed as the couple goes through the process of divorcing.
Haskell said Monday she put the bill in at the request of Toby Hollander, a guardian ad litem in Portland and one of her constituents.
“One of the things that happens is cases keep coming back for modification because parents didn’t have to think through what needed to be decided or how decisions would be [made],” Hollander said. “This gives parents a clear message at the start of the process that it is their responsibility to think about these things now.”
The plan would require parents to outline visitation schedules, determine how school and health issues would be handled and to outline how future decisions about the children would be made, he said.
“Most other states already have this provision,” Hollander said.
A third bill, also sponsored by Dutremble, would seek a demographic survey of litigants who represent themselves and appear pro se before judges in family court matters, according to Dr. Jerome Collins of Kennebunkport, who asked Dutremble to put in the bill.
According to court statistics, 74 percent of the adults who appear in family court do not have attorneys.
“That’s a very tough situation,” Collins, who is part of a grassroots effort to reform Maine’s family court system, said Monday. “We have no demographic data that tells us who the pro se people are or where they are around the state of Maine. Many may be representing themselves as a last resort because they’ve run out of money for a lawyer. We need a study to find out what that experience is like for people before reforms can be implemented.”
A court-sponsored Family Division Task Force in November issued a 22-page report that included recommendations intended to expand the authority of magistrate judges, who handle many but not all family matters; require coordination between probate courts and district courts when parallel cases are pending in both courts; develop better resource materials, including videos, to help people representing themselves understand the legal process; and create a volunteer courthouse assistance program so that experienced family attorneys could assist litigants without representation.
Bills addressing the greater coordination between probate and district courts, which handle many family matters, are pending before the Legislature.