Illinois is joining 35 other states this year attempting to give divorced couples equal parenting time. The issue is stirring debate among family law attorneys, mental health professionals, parents and others.
The proposed changes to the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act would start parents off with 50-50 custody of the children involved. Advocates say this will eliminate any preconceived ideas that one parent is better suited for parenting over the other. They say this also gives fathers the opportunity to step up and be involved, especially when courts often award custody to mothers.
Jesse West Sr. of Springfield has fought for equal parenting over his son and says the Illinois measure would benefit families if the 50-50 time is allowed as a starting point for custody, which would even out the playing field for both parents in court.
"It's not a cookie-cutter or a mandate," he says, "we have a lot of mothers in our organization, grandmothers, aunt and sisters that are also in support of this. So it's not about mothers versus fathers—it's parents."
West is part of the Springfield-based 'Dads Can Too' organization which advocates for equal parenting rights across the state.
Some opponents say equal parenting makes children live out of a suitcase and doesn't take into consideration a child's need for flexibility. Others say this would place kids at a disadvantage and be harmful if an abusive relationship exists between the parents.
Carrie Boyd, policy director for the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence, says collaboration between couples is not possible in a set-up when abuse and violence are part of the mix. "Courts should not be required to start from this presumption that 50-50 time is always in the best interest of all children everywhere."
But advocates say judges hold the final decision after listening to arguments from both parents and the 50-50 start-off time may be changed accordingly.
Representative La Shawn Ford, a Chicago Democrat, and the sponsor of the measure says discussions will continue with opponents to reach some middle ground. A follow-up hearing is scheduled to take place in the next few weeks.
Thirty-five other states across the country are also attempting to pass similar proposals this year. Other states, like Kentucky, have a 50-50 parenting law that works on a temporary basis, while final custody arrangements are decided in court.