As a practicing obstetrician/gynecologist, Dr. Larry Stutts has seen an all-too familiar problem when it comes to teen pregnancies. That's why Sen. Larry Stutts (R-Tuscumbia) has introduced legislation to clarify child custody law and create a fair, uniform starting point for all child custody cases.
“My personal observation dealing with hundreds of teen pregnancies over the years is the common denominator of the uninvolved father,” Stutts said. “It crosses all racial and socioeconomic lines so my personal experience backs up what I've read in social science studies,” he added.
Stutts has introduced the Children's Equal Access Act in the Alabama Legislature this session. The bill has completed the public hearing stage and should be voted out of committee within the week, Stutts said, which means it could reach the Senate floor for a vote this month.
“This bill gives judges a starting point to say there's a presumption we start in the middle when it comes to custody and based on whatever criteria are about fitness for the particular parents, we work our way out,” Stutts said. “But you start with the presumption that two fit parents should be involved in the child's life and work from the middle out rather than from one end.”
The Children's Equal Access Act incorporates research-based recommendations from the Alabama Law Institute's Family Law Standing Committee, judicial surveys, constitutents' testimonies and research-based conclusions from 40 studies and the consensus of over 100 social scientists regarding child custody.
Stutts said custody is sometimes based on a 'race to the courthouse,' meaning the parent who files first receives an advantage through the system.
“We need uniform guidelines for child custody cases and there should be a presumption that both parents are fit to make parenting decisions and have equal time with the child unless evidence can be presented that a parent is unfit to be involved in the child's life,” Stutts said.
The legislation would clarify that joint custody includes equal physical time with the child and would create a rebuttable presumption that both parents are fit to make parenting decisions regarding their child.
“Parental equality should be the starting point for every child custody case. Ultimately, its' about the child having the right to equal time with both his or her mother, father and extended family, provided that both parents are responsible adults,” Stutts said.
Stutts was approached about the legislation last year but delayed introducing the measure in order to “look into it more and research the issue on my own. All social science data about what's best for the child is the presumption on custody starts in the middle and all data points to that,” Stutts said.
Existing Alabama law provides separated or divorced parents should have frequent and continuing contact with their children, but “frequent and continuing contact” are not defined. As a result, child custody determinations are predicated more on which judge hears a case rather than the actual circumstances of the particular case.
Stutts represents Alabama Senate District Six, which includes all or parts of Marion, Franklin, Lawrence, Lauderdale and Colbert counties.