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Push goes on for changes to custody laws in state

The shared parenting movement is progressing in South Dakota.

Although supporters of updated joint custody laws didn't reach their goals last legislative session, a Mitchell-area native is encouraging other parents to push the Legislature for further action.

"I'm not sure people realize how behind the other states we are," said Casey Wilson, a Plankinton native who now lives in Flandreau. "We are fighting the state bar association, who does not want to let things change. More fighting over kids means more money for them."

Wilson is a divorced father of three. He said his ex-wife makes it difficult for him to communicate with and see his children, even though they have joint physical custody.

In February, the state House and Senate passed and the governor signed House Bill 1055, which explicitly gave judges authority to order joint physical custody of children after a court awards joint legal custody. Prior to that, judges were able to award joint physical custody, but many were confused by the law and felt restricted by the way it was written, said Joel Arends, a Sioux Falls attorney who helped author bills about shared parenting in recent years.

"We need to create a statutory system that provides kids with both parents when both parents are otherwise fit," he said. "The current system penalizes children."

Arends said HB 1055 did not fix the problem, because most custodial proceedings still begin with the presumption that a child should be with one parent or the other, rather than a presumption of shared physical custody.

This legislative session, which begins Tuesday, Wilson and others will support legislation requiring physical custody discussions to start with the possibility of equal custody.

Troy Wanner, 47, of Dell Rapids, is a high school teacher in Sioux Falls and is among those backing the legislation. He testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee in February on the subject and plans to testify again this year. In a recent interview with The Daily Republic, Wanner said his ex-wife asked for a divorce the day they were to move into their new home in May 2011 and received full custody of their then-3-year-old daughter.

"I got involved with the courts and the law to understand what I need to do to get shared custody," he said. "I've talked to people who have been through it and it became a passion of mine. Research showed there's an unfairness in the system."

Wanner said his ex-wife got their daughter simply because she'd already raised three children, while he was a first-time father. As a teacher, Wanner said he's seen the negative effect alienation from one parent can have on children. He wants to change that.

Wanner and Wilson said noncustodial parents, whether they are a mother or father, are targeted and the children are affected. Wanner has found the Supporters of South Dakota Shared Parenting Facebook group to be useful and encouraging.

"It's not a father's group," he said. "By percentages, yes, we are more. Pt doesn't exclude females for a variety of reasons -- the law now affects grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and more."

He said the law is outdated, because more fathers are nurturing their children and more mothers are working than in past decades.

Although Wanner considers himself one of the lucky parents -- he sees his now 4-year-old daughter two times a week for about nine hours and gets her overnight two weekends a month -- there are many noncustodial parents in the state who barely see their children once per week, he said. But he still feels his daughter is missing out on being nurtured by her father.

"It bothers me," he said. "The issue is, I want to enjoy nurturing moments more than every other weekend."

The goal of Wanner's and Wilson's crusade is to gain equality for noncustodial parents.

"I'm more afraid my daughter will grow up thinking that she was cheated from being with her dad -- from having a really solid father relationship," Wanner said. "Statistics say that girls who don't have a solid father relationship have a higher truancy rate, get caught up in drugs and alcohol and sex. I know that's never going to happen because I'm going to be there for my daughter."

Sen. Dan Lederman, R-Dakota Dunes, has supported improved legislation for shared parenting in the past and plans to co-sponsor a bill this year to make child custody laws more fair.

"We've got enough constituents reaching out with issues in the judicial system and that have grievances with the way the child custody system is run," he said. "I would like to see more fairness. It's important for children to have both parents in their lives. That's the main thing -- children need both parents."

Lederman hopes to introduce legislation within the first or second week of the legislative session.

"I think I'm hopeful it'll pass this year," Lederman said. "I think legislators understand the outcry and have a lot of support to change the policy to change custody cases in South Dakota to benefit children.

"When the court system deprives children of interaction with their father or mother, there are higher rates of issues with the children as they grow older."

For Wanner, his fight to get more time with his daughter has gone to a new level. He has a parent coordinator to help keep his visitation on schedule.

Should he have issues with his ex-wife, the court-ordered coordinator is able to help sort it out. It's been a huge help, he said. He hopes the same situation can be set up in every divorce situation.

"I hope someday I will get my daughter half the time. I also hope for fathers and mothers not to go through what I've gone through in the last few years," Wanner said. "There's so much injustice."