A measure that would create a new presumption for judges making custody decisions got approval from the full Senate Tuesday.
Under the bill, filed by Sen. Tom Lee (R-Brandon), custody discussions would start under the premise that kids spending equal time with both parents is in the best interest of the child. Lee says he’s trying to create more consistency in the system.
“You know you might have an old school judge versus a new school judge. You might have a socially conservative judge or a liberal judge. And to me it is the purview of the Florida legislature to set policy and if we believe that parents should be equally qualified to raise their children in the 21st century. Then we should say so in the statute, lest they apply their own opinion,” Lee says.
Lee told fellow lawmakers during a discussion on the Senate floor, the measure is personal for him.
“I made a promise to a couple of people that are very, very close to me that if I ever had a chance to do something to reduce the amount of litigation in our family law system, if I ever had a chance to create greater predictability based on the facts of the case and not the whims of the system, that I would do it,” Lee says.
But the measure has faced its share of opposition. Joan Younger Meek is is a pediatrician and member of the Florida Breastfeeding Coalition. She spoke during a hearing on the bill before the Senate Rules Committee and says spending a week with one parent and then the next week with another is not always in the best interest of the child—and could fact be detrimental for young children.
“Particularly in early infancy a strong attachment is particularly important for the overall growth, development and health of children,” Younger Meek says.
And Younger Meek says there’s also the issue of breastfeeding.
“It’s very difficult to use a pump, to use a pump for up to 7 days in a row. We have very few, actually 1 in 5 children who meet the requirement of exclusive breastfeeding. And this provision would essentially mean that none of those children who are affected by this would be successfully breastfed and there are significantly better health outcomes, developmental outcomes and healthcare savings associated with this,” Younger Meek says.
But Lee argues the bill gives judges plenty of leeway to decide when a 50/50 time split isn’t the best choice for a child. He says a judge would just be required to write an explanation for why they decided a different arrangement was better. And he points out there’s a provision that addresses Younger Meek’s breastfeeding concerns directly.
“Read page three of the legislation—item number eleven that talks about the demonstrated capacity or disposition of each parent to provide a consistent routine for the child such as discipline, daily schedules, for homework, meals, of which I assume breastfeeding would qualify” Lee says.
But Younger Meek says she’s worried that’s not how the legislation will be interpreted. She believes a judge would also count baby formula as a meal.
And during a floor debate on the measure Tuesday lawmakers raised many of those same concerns. Sen. Jeff Clemens (D-Lake Worth) says he worries telling judges to start with an assumption that a 50/50 split is best for a child might create its own bias.
“I haven’t seen anything that to me conclusively says that that is the best place to start. I haven’t seen anything that says we’re going to assume we’re starting with the best interest of the child at a 50/50 split, because I think these are all individual cases that can’t be given that declaration. The truth of the matter is, every one of these cases is individual.”
Despite those concerns, the measure passed. But it’s a different story in the House where the bill hasn’t not yet been heard in its first committee.