Columnist Donald Hubin, who is on the national NPO board, wrote in a column sent to the Norwalk Reflector that “children in counties like Ashtabula and Tuscarawas are subject to standard parenting-time guidelines that entitle them to seven overnights and 168 hours with each parent in a two-week period.”
Hubin is a professor emeritus of philosophy at The Ohio State University and director of the OSU Center for Ethics and Human Values. He contrasted the Ashtabula and Tuscarawas statistics with Huron County, which allows children “two overnights and 54 hours with one of their parents in that same two-week period.”
Huron County Magistrate Bradley Sales said he interpreted the column as a critical look at “the systemic issue of the way courts come up with their standard policies as opposed to targeting Huron County.”
“The concern is an understandable one. There’s a perception that one parent is always favored over another in terms of the parenting time,” he added. “In the domestic relations cases that this court deals with … when the parents agree, we certainly believe they are in the best position to determine the times that they spend with their children.”
Who can best decide how much time?
The NPO mission is improving “the lives of children and strengthen(ing) society by protecting every child's right to the love and care of both parents after (a) separation or divorce.” Sales, when asked about the organization, said there’s a good intention to “maximize the time that each child spends with each parent.”
“I think (Hubin’s column) fails to take into a couple things. First of all, divorces are just like any other lawsuit and the vast majority of them settle and that includes the cases with children. Most parents who come before this court agree on what sort of contact each of the parents are going to have with their children,” the magistrate added
“Dr. Hubin seems to treat the standard policies on parenting time as an end point — and it’s really a starting point. Parents are in a better position to know what their children’s lives are to take into account things like employment schedules, the realities of school schedules … (and) their participation in extra-curricular activities. I would agree that in the best of situations, ideally children should spend as much time with both of their parents as circumstances allow.”
Huron County Juvenile Court Judge Timothy Cardwell agreed with Sales that the guidelines are a starting point. As with divorce cases overseen by Sales, the civil cases in juvenile court start with the standard visitation schedule.
“I think the column (or) the article was based on divorcing parents. We have a different type of case in that we don’t traditionally have parents with children who ever resided together, one family unit,” said Cardwell, who handles cases in which visitation is being requested. “We do have a standard visitation schedule and we have had one for a long time, just like court here has done.”
‘Our focus is on the child’
The Huron County Bar Association developed a modified schedule in 2012. In addition, the domestic relations committee of the bar association, the coordinator for court-appointed special advocates and a school counselor were involved.
“When we modified our schedule, we looked at numerous, comparable juvenile courts around the state,” Cardwell said.
“We tweaked some parenting time. As the magistrate said, it’s our obligation to ensure the frequent and continuing contact of the children between suitable parents. But our focus is on the child and what’s in the child’s best interests. The (Ohio) Revised Code identifies 15 to 16 factors that we have to consider in making a visitation order,” the judge added. “We have to apply those 15 to 16 factors to determine in each case what’s in the child’s best interest.”
There are “a small minority of cases where this court will say and impose a standard policy — again because most cases settle,” Sales said. “In the contested cases, we do have to consider them on a case-by-case basis. Unless the parents are unsuitable, the assumption has to be that the parents are in the best positions to make the determinations of where their children spend their time.”
Not one size fits all
“The very first line of the court standard policy is the parenting times are going to take place at any times in which the parents can agree. The purpose of a standard policy on parenting time is to give the parents something to refer to in the event that they do not have an agreement,” Sales added.
In other words, the court standard policy isn’t the end-all be-all for parents and there should be flexibility.
“As long as they agree; that’s why I say it’s a starting point. Even in the best of circumstances there’s going to be a situation where the parents can’t agree even if they have perfect communication,” Sales said.
Cardwell concurred, adding “it’s not one size fits all.”
Challenge: Timing and agreement
While some parents might say “we’re going to agree to agree,” the magistrate said the court needs a default schedule. An example is when the children get older and there’s an important event involving different family member that happens on the same weekend.
“In those circumstances where they cannot agree, they have to refer to a court standard policy (and) then they have something to settle the dispute,” Sales said.
The magistrate has experienced “extremely challenging cases” where one parent is on call for work during an extended amount of time. In those circumstances, he said the court has to allow parents to adjust those schedules, “knowing there may be last-minute changes, giving the other parent the right to refuse.”
In reality, Sales said the children’s and parents’ lives will dictate the amount of time they spend with each parent.
“And as the children become older, frankly it’s not cool to hang out with either parent, so they’re going to be out with their friends or they’re going to be going to the football games on Friday nights or they’re going to be hanging out on the weekends with other people,” he added.