Op-ed: Florida legislators' proposed changes to family court will put children at risk

With all the buzz about the “Don’t Say Gay” bill backed by Governor Ron DeSantis, it isn’t surprising that Orlando Weekly hasn’t found the time to cover yet another piece of controversial legislation—one with even more dire consequences for Florida’s children than the already questionable “Don’t Say Gay Bill.”

SB 1796, a bill that deals in large part with the detailed ins-and-outs of alimony, has within it an additional section that aims to create a presumption of equal parental time-sharing for all custody cases. For most children, equal parental time-sharing is a positive thing—no child should miss time with either parent after divorce if both parents are healthy and able to provide a safe environment for their children. But for our state’s most vulnerable children—victims of parental physical, emotional, or sexual abuse— this law places children at risk of experiencing further abuse, without any safeguards that haven’t already been ascribed to law (and are seldom enforced).

Florida’s family court system already frequently defaults to equal parental time-sharing, even in cases where one parent is a convicted abuser, even without SB 1796. Family court judges are given enormous leeway in their rulings and, should SB 1796 pass, this would simply strengthen their conviction that it is in the ‘best interest’ of the child to have unsupervised time with both parents, regardless of criminal or violent history with that same child. 

Sadly, I am all too familiar with this debased view of the “in the best interests of the child” doctrine. My own daughter, who despite all odds, is a bright and affectionate third-grader, has been subjected to visitation with her abuser for her entire life, despite his being charged with child abuse and convicted of culpable negligence when she was only one year old.

Thousands and thousands of dollars in court fees have only yielded one result: he agreed to limited, but completely unsupervised time-sharing in exchange for a greatly reduced child support amount that is lower than the legal limit. The key word here is ‘agreed’ — in the eyes of the court he is entitled and would win much more time with her, including overnight stays or even out-of-state travel. The child abuse charge and negligence conviction were said to be “too long ago” to count. Had money not been an object, he likely would have prevailed.

SB 1796 codifies into law the injustices that Florida’s family courts are already practicing every day. It solidifies a dangerous precedent for our most vulnerable children. And it’s now sitting on Governor DeSantis’ desk.

In addition to SB 1796, there is another bill that seeks to remedy many of Florida’s family court’s most egregious missteps. Last year, Rep. Michael Grieco of Miami Beach and State Senator Lori Berman of South Palm Beach County introduced a bill named “Grayson’s Law.” Bravely championed by Greyson’s mother, Alison Kessler, the law seeks to create a rebuttal process that in fact abolishes the presumption of equal time-sharing in custody cases where either the parent or the child have been victims of abuse. Alison began advocating for this bill after the death of her four-year old son at the hands of his own father in a tragic murder suicide. Greyson’s death could have been avoided — Alison had for years alerted the courts to her concerns about her son’s safety to no avail. Motion after motion was denied.

Should SB 1796 be signed into law, it is unlikely that Greyson’s Law would also pass, since Greyson’s Law directly contradicts SB 1796.

With media attention comes outrage from the general public, and with rightful outrage comes change. What we need to do now is draw attention to the Florida family court system’s gross failure to protect victimized children and to raise awareness so that we can stop bad bills like SB 1796 from becoming law. 

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