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Utah Legislature: Child custody bill draws emotional debate

Business Friday at the Capitol included a House committee hearing on Utah's child custody interference law.
Business Friday at the Capitol included a House committee hearing on Utah's child custody interference law.
Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

A bill designed to give teeth to a long-standing but rarely enforced child custody interference law received tentative approval by a House committee Friday after a lengthy — and at times emotional — hearing.

An official vote approving HB197 is all but assured, but committee members first want to add an amendment to the proposal that specifically exempts primary caregivers from prosecution if visitation is denied due to legitimate child safety concerns posed by the visiting parent.

Witnesses supporting the bill told committee members that Utah's tradition of regarding families as sacred simply doesn't apply to people hit by divorce. Laws designed to ensure that relationships between parents and children continue post-divorce have become "a total joke," particularly in high-conflict situations, a divorced-now-remarried mother said.

Child custody law applied in the real world regards money as much more important in a child's life than time with a parent, she added. A parent who gets behind on child support is tracked down by the state recovery services agency and can even be put in jail, she said. But if a custodial parent simply denies a visit, there's nothing you can do.

Worst of all, though, is how it affects children, especially younger ones who can't figure out what's going on, she said.

A father from Salt Lake's Rose Park neighborhood told panel members that, prior to his divorce, he had no criminal record. He said he has filed motions with the court that have never been addressed. "Families are supposed to be the foundation of Utah. I respect that, and I respect the law, but I'm absolutely blown away by what I've had to deal with. We've got no defense."

He and other witnesses said that even if their allegations are aired in court, their ex-spouses are merely instructed to do better and to try to get along for the sake of their children. More often than not, they continue to be used as pawns, and time with them is controlled and meted out as a kind of reward given by the primary-care parent, not by order of the divorce decree.

Another divorced father said he is kept to the minute on his parent time, and if he is more than 10 minutes late, his ex takes the kids and drives off. He said he ends every visit not knowing if he will see his kids again but completely sure that, if he didn't, there's not much he could do about it.

Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman, said although parent time disputes were the crux of hundreds of domestic dispute calls he answered as a police officer, the investigation usually only went as far as taking statements from those involved. He added that even though he has been working on strengthening the law for nearly three years, he didn't fully appreciate the extent and the emotional toll of the problem until Friday's committee meeting.

Lawmakers have tried before to offer more support to noncustodial parents and provide dispute resolutions other than telling a parent to go back to court when a parent interferes with visitation orders. A bill establishing a state agency to track parent time violations the way the Office of Recovery Services tracks parents behind on child-support payments was approved by lawmakers, but secure funding sources to operate it were never found.