BOSTON — It’s been more than two decades since Daniel Sabbatelli was locked in a contentious divorce that ended with him getting limited access to his three daughters. The emotional toll hasn’t diminished.

“The courts don’t treat both parents equal,” he said. “It’s winner-take-all.”

Sabbatelli, a Woburn electrical contractor, is one of dozens of advocates now arguing that parents should be entitled to equal custody of their children.

Groups like the Boston-based National Parents Organization, to which Sabbatelli belongs, have thrown support behind legislation that requires family court judges to consider “joint custody” in most divorce cases, unless a parent is deemed unfit, along with a raft of other proposed changes to custody laws.

The legislation is backed by more than 40 state lawmakers including Reps. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, D-Gloucester; Ted Speliotis, D-Danvers; Diane DiZoglio, D-Methuen; and Brad Hill, R-Ipswich.

But the changes have plenty of critics, including divorce lawyers and domestic violence advocates, who say custody laws should be flexible, not one-size-fits all, in order to put the children first.

“Every case is different,” said Fern Frolin, a divorce attorney with the firm Mirick, O’Connell, DeMallie and Lougee. “And this isn’t a battlefield between moms and dads, it’s about what’s in the best interests of the children.”

With women comprising an estimated 80 percent of custodial parents, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, the debate over reforming child custody laws is often framed as a battle of the sexes.

Ned Holstein, founder of National Parents Organization, said courts traditionally grant custody to mothers, requiring little of fathers other than alimony and weekend visits.

Gender role changes

But gender roles have shifted since most custody laws were put on the books in the 1950s, he said, with more men now acting as caretakers.

He said the law should reflect equality between parents heading into court to work out custodial arrangements — not a system where one gets custody instead of the other.

“The system encourages bitter custody battles,” Holstein said. “Whoever wins the battle gets sole custody of the kids, a boatload of child support and alimony payments. And that’s the worst possible thing for the kids.”

He said studies have shown that shared parenting reduces conflict and domestic violence and allows both parents to “pursue their careers and social lives without the burden of singlehandedly raising a child.”

“That breakdown of gender roles has been very slow to come to family probate courts,” he said.

‘No evidence’

But Patricia Levesh, managing attorney of the family law unit of Greater Boston Legal Services, an advocacy group that works with low-income families, disagreed that the deck is stacked against fathers in custody cases.

“There’s absolutely no evidence to suggest that,” Levesh said. “In fact, when it comes to low-income domestic violence cases, there is plenty of evidence that mothers often end up with the short end of the stick.”

The legislation elevates the interests of the parents over their children in divorce cases, she said. By eliminating language in existing law, it would result in more legal challenges.

The proposal, which emerged from a special committee established in 2012 under former Gov. Deval Patrick, would, if approved by the state Legislature, require judges to consider shared parenting arrangements when issuing temporary orders. Those orders, establishing initial custody, are often a first step in divorce proceedings.

“The litigation will go through the roof,” Levesh said. “This would allow parents to use their kids as pawns.”

In 2011, Patrick pushed through a sweeping overhaul of alimony laws that set guidelines for payments and limited their duration, ending so-called “lifetime alimony” ordered by judges in some instances.

But Patrick took no action on shared parenting before leaving office in January.

Massachusetts is one of 17 states weighing legislation on shared parenting arrangements, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Others included Maine, Vermont and New York.

Mandates

The proposals range from mandating that child custody is split evenly to rewriting guidelines for judges to consider when granting joint physical custody.

Martin Healy, chief operating officer and legal counsel for the Massachusetts Bar Association, said states across the country are wrestling with the “emotional issue,” but Massachusetts’ law is unique because it focuses solely on the child’s well-being.

Because of that, Healey said the bar wants to uphold the state’s existing laws.

“Both parents are deemed to be fit at the outset, but there isn’t a presumption of that going into the courtroom. You have to prove it,” he said. “What It really comes down to is what is in the best interests of the child.”

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for the North of Boston Media Group, including the Gloucester Daily Times. He can be reached at cwade@cnhi.com

 

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