OPINION: Lucrative divorce industry stands between divorced parents and kidsOne lawyer advocating against change billed $370,000 in one custody case.
By: Casey Wilson, Guest columnist
I want to thank The Daily Republic and its staff this past legislative session for covering a very tough subject: kids’ right to as much time as possible with both parents in a divorce (i.e., shared parenting) in South Dakota.
While the bill failed again this year, we hope for continued support, because this issue isn’t going away. Our current standard placement model is keeping great parents and extended family out of our kids’ lives, and the laws are out of date and creating more problems than they solve.
What will it take to bring about change? That’s tough to answer, because the divorce industry has quite a stranglehold on the Legislature.
Under current South Dakota Codified Law 25-4a-11, it says that in initial divorce filings the parent who was majority caregiver shall be named custodial parent, and the other parent shall be named noncustodial parent and given parenting time established in the South Dakota visitation guidelines. Unfortunately, these guidelines advocate for four days per month parenting time for the child with the noncustodial parent.
The State Bar Family Law Committee gives the recommendations for the visitation guidelines to the state Supreme Court. The people who should be giving these recommendations are not attorneys, but rather therapists, teachers, counselors and psychologists. Unfortunately, many noncustodial parents don’t have the money to fight these rulings made by these guidelines and many judges rule in accordance with the guidelines, because that’s what they believe the Supreme Court says is best.
Only five spoke out this year against the Kids Need Both Parents bill in committee: three attorneys, the State Bar and a domestic violence group. All of them stand to financially lose if parents are granted more equal time with their children in a divorce. The scare tactics of how terrible it would be to presume it is in a child’s best interest to have as much time as possible with both parents were atrocious, and at best were decades-old arguments that, across the nation, state by state, others are realizing couldn’t be further from the truth.
Rapid City attorney Linda Lea Viken, a member of the State Bar’s Family Law Commitee, was among those to testify against a rebuttable presumption of involving both parents equally at a time of divorce and said “the system works fine as it is.” Viken, in one custody case alone, billed more than $370,000 (Schieffer v. Schieffer) just this past year.
Why would someone who can make quite a living off conflict in a custody case thanks to our current adversarial system want anything to change? Very few parents who want equal and meaningful contact with their kids can afford $370,000.
Viken lost in Schieffer v. Schieffer, with the state Supreme Court apparently seeing the benefit of more equitable parenting time for both parents when there are two fit parents.
So, what will it take for our circuit court judges to start extending these same benefits to a family at the initial time of divorce, not after they’ve financially given up everything to fight simply for fair time with their kids? And when will the Legislature begin listening to the growing voice of their constituents asking for change, versus the few voices of a financially lucrative industry?
In South Dakota as a whole, we are good people, and generally speaking, the parents of our children are great parents, so why in divorce do we assume one parent gets four days per month as stated in the visitation guidelines? It is time to stop treating every custody case in South Dakota as if one parent is a drug-abusing child molester and start assuming we have two good, stable, loving parents and then decide what is best for the child.
Mitchell’s own Sen. Mike Vehle has argued against shared parenting, comparing some parents in South Dakota to Charlie Sheen and comparing divorce to the Middle East conflicts.
Yet there is not one study in the past 30 years that says an every-other-weekend or four-days-per-month custody schedule for noncustodial parents is good for kids, and that is what South Dakota’s system is still based upon.
— Casey Wilson, of Flandreau and formerly of Plankinton, has been a leader in the effort to pass legislation known as the Kids Need Both Parents bill.