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September 17, 2012

Indiana judges revise ‘parenting time’ rules in custody cases

INDIANAPOLIS — After two years of review, Indiana judges have approved proposed changes to a comprehensive set of guidelines aimed at reducing conflict between parents in child custody cases.

The recommended revisions to the state’s Parenting Time Guidelines cover an array of issues that arise in custody battles, from where children spend their holidays to what happens when warring parents can’t agree on the most basic rules for visitation.

The proposed revisions to the 33-page guidelines were approved last week by the Indiana Judicial Conference, whose members include the state’s trial court judges. If approved by the Indiana Supreme Court, the revised guidelines are expected to go into effect early next year for use by courts throughout the state.

The guidelines serve as a model set of custody-related rules for courts and parents. While some of the language in the guidelines has changed, the basic premise driving them remains the same; that is, that under most circumstances, a child is best served by two actively engaged parents.

“In making any changes we tried to remember the reason for the guidelines is so children can have safe, stable, predictable parenting time with each parent,” said Steuben County Judge William Fee, who chaired a committee of judges who spent two years reviewing the guidelines that were first adopted in 2001.

Some of the changes set out rules for visitation and other matters in painstaking detail. They include, for example, specific times of the day when children can go from one parent to another, spell out what holiday celebrations take precedence over birthday celebrations, and how to evenly split up Christmas vacations that spill over into the New Year.

The revised rules include more detailed rules for how judges can handle issues involving “high-conflict” parents who are unable or unwilling to cooperate with each other or the court.

They also include language that underscores the guidelines’ larger intent: “Parents and attorneys should always demonstrate a spirit of cooperation.”

The original parenting time guidelines were developed as a way to help parents, attorneys and judges deal with the bitter custody disputes that often arise in divorce cases, Fee said.

Prior to their adoption, courts in Indiana varied significantly in how they decided custody disputes.   Visitation guidelines differed from county to county and sometimes differed from judge to judge within the same county. That led to confusion and more dispute, he said.

“There is absolutely no doubt that the guidelines reduced the amount of litigation (over custody issues), provided predictability for the children involved, and enhanced the possibility of parents settling these issues for themselves,” Fee said.

The parenting time guidelines don’t apply in cases where there is abuse, neglect, domestic violence, substance abuse or other issues.

One area that the revised guidelines don’t yet include: Rules for when a “parenting coordinator” can be appointed by a judge to work with parents who are in deep dispute about visitation and other issues. The guidelines for parenting coordinators, including how they’re trained and whether they can make binding recommendations, are still undergoing some study.

Maureen Hayden is Statehouse bureau chief for CNHI’s Indiana newspapers. She can be reached at Maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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