Fathers' rights advocates trying again for 'equal parenting time' legislation

Supporters of a bill to provide equal parenting time for divorcing couples include (from left) psychologist James Bedell, Illinois Fathers for Equality President Chad Loudermilk, state Rep. La Shawn Ford (D-Chicago), and American Coalition for Fathers and Children Executive Director Michael McCormick. They spoke during a House subcommittee hearing Thursday in Springfield. (Capitol News Illinois photo by Peter Hancock)

SPRINGFIELD – Fathers’ rights advocates are making another attempt this year to push for a change in Illinois family law that sparked immense controversy in 2018, “equal parenting time” legislation.

Rep. La Shawn Ford (D-Chicago) is the lead sponsor of a bill that would create a “rebuttable presumption” in divorce cases that both parties should be given equal parenting time with any children of that marriage.

It would also require that when judges in divorce cases deviate from the standard, they explain in writing why they decided one parent should have more time with the children than the other.

That would be a sharp departure from the current legal standard in Illinois, which allows judges wide discretion to assign custody and parenting time in a way that reflects the “best interests of the child.”

But James Bedell, a psychologist who practices in suburban Chicago and a proponent of the bill, said the “best interests of the child” standard is vague and flawed, and that equal parenting time actually is in the best interests of children.

“Children have a fundamental bonding attachment to each parent,” he said. “They establish that in the course of the marriage. They establish that in the course of both parents (having) fundamental and equal involvement with the child. And when divorce occurs, there is no necessary reason why a child who has equal access to both parents should suddenly not have equal access to both parents.”

A similar bill was introduced in the 2018 session but failed to make it through the House process. Rep. Ann Williams (D-Chicago), who chairs the subcommittee handling the bill, opened Thursday’s hearing by recalling the intense debate last year when, she said, supporters of the measure, “engaged in inappropriate and unprofessional behavior,” including bullying, threats and harassment of those who opposed it.

“One of the individuals who testified had photos of his children posted online on the pages of organizations supporting the bill,” she said. “Another attorney was attacked online and had to shut down his Twitter account. ... Several individuals who took a public position against the bill received ongoing threats via phone calls to the point that law enforcement was called.”

Ford also recalled that when those events happened, he and other supporters of the bill had a news conference to say they did not condone such behavior. But he insisted that supporters of the change also deserve to be heard.

“This is a very contentious bill and it deserves to have a real discussion,” he said.

While individuals on both sides indicated they hope the tone of this year’s debate will be more civil, opponents of the measure indicated they still have reservations about changing the standard on parenting time.

“It is essential that the well-being of children in custody proceedings remain focused on a child’s best interests and not on a number,” said Danielle Gomez, an attorney with the Cook County Public Guardian, an agency that represents children in highly-contested custody cases.

In particular, Gomez said, children of divorced parents would be adversely affected the most by any change.

“They are the ones who will be exposed to additional conflict if they are shuttled back and forth between their parents’ homes,” she said. “Children are keenly aware of the discord among their parents, no matter what our best attempts are to alleviate that. They know what’s going on, and they perceive that.”

The subcommittee took no action on the bill Thursday. Ford said he intends to continue working on details of the plan in hopes of crafting a bill that can pass the full House.

“We are here to get it right and do what’s in the best interests of the state,” he said. “I’m just hoping that the members of this committee will have an open mind, because I don’t know if we have a perfect law on the book today, and so what this bill tries to do is make it more perfect.”

According to information on the General Assembly’s website, as of Thursday more than 2,500 individuals had signed up as supporters of the measure, while more than 3,300 have signed up as opponents.

The legislation is House Bill 185.

PETER HANCOCK can be reached at phancock@capitolnewsillinois.com