Archivist and Principle Researcher, University of Illinois
There is a Visitation Interference bill currently making its way through the legislation in Illinois. It already passed the House and is now under deliberation in the Senate. It is HB1604, or popularly known as the Steve Watkins Memorial Bill on Visitation Interference.
In a nutshell, Steve Watkins was a central Illinois non-custodial parent whose visitation was continuously being blocked by the custodial parent despite repeated legal attempts at seeking a remedy.
He was murdered while attempting to exercise visitation by a family member of the custodial parent. When visitation was granted to the parents of the deceased, the custodial parent moved to another state refusing to comply with the court order.
The issue of visitation interference extends way beyond this unfortunate case. It is pervasive, affecting approximately 6 million children nationwide.
Much of this has to do with popular beliefs regarding the relative unimportance of fathers to the well being of children other than for financial support. There is a significant disparity in remedies and sanctions available in the enforcement of visitation as compared to that available in the enforcement of child support.
As an example, HB1604 in Illinois brings remedies and sanctions for visitation interference closer to that of child support non-compliance by allowing for:
- the suspension of driver licenses
- the suspension of professional licenses
- a maximum fine of $500
- custody reversal
- the posting of a $5,000 bond
The purpose of the proposed law is to send an unequivocal message that the psychological well being of children is as important as their physical well being. Denying children the love of a parent is a form of child abuse.
Current remedies other than a slap on the wrist, if invoked, allow for make-up visitation. But offering additional time is moot if the party doesn’t allow visitation in the first place. Some remedies foster the belief that both parents are to blame and call for mediation. A review of such strategies has shown to be ineffectual.
How should visitation interference be treated? Missouri hits the nail on the head by stating (§ 452.340 note 7):
"The general assembly finds and declares that it is the public policy of this state that frequent, continuing and meaningful contact with both parents after the parents have separated or dissolved their marriage is in the best interest of the child…
In order to effectuate this public policy, a court with jurisdiction shall enforce visitation, custody and child support orders in the same manner."
There are some who say that all this seems harsh. How will the custodial parent get to work or drive the children to school with a suspended license? Who will take care of the children if incarcerated? How can this bill help women who are just trying to protect their children from abusers?
Although issues of harshness are rarely promulgated with respect to child support non-compliance this bill does allow for limited driving privileges for employment and medical purposes (HB1604 Section 607.1, c-1.1).
In regards to incarceration, please remember that there are TWO parents, not just one.
HB1604 can actually help women. The argument goes that women who are trying to defend their children are too afraid to bring charges against the other parent due to fear of retribution.
Since the court will normally seek to determine during adjudication if there is an affirmative defense because of abuse, justice is advanced without having the mother to initiate proceedings.
Of course some may argue why should visitation be considered as important as child support to the well being of children? It is beyond the scope of this article to review the literature on this topic (we'll save it for later).
Suffice for now to say that the consensus among scholars of child development and divorce studies is that meaningful contact with both parents helps children adjust to the effects of divorce, promotes the likelihood of increased life-long bidirectional financial support, and has a positive effect on children’s development.
In short, do fathers influence children’s development? Are they important? Let me count the ways.
Don’t get me wrong. This is a difficult issue. Even a state like Missouri that has one of the best visitation interference laws has problems with enforcement.
But the situation is not intractable. Dr. Ira Daniel Turkat recommended that "multidirectional" court orders be instituted. Such an order includes clearly enumerated dates, times and conditions of visitation thereby closing up as many loopholes as possible that plague current orders.
The court will present in a step-by-step manner a specific hierarchy of penalties for violating orders. The court will also give precise written authorization to law enforcement officers and other officials to execute visitation transfers, and access to school and activities.
One of the most important objectives of law is to influence behavior. How many people today even think about seat belts when driving? Most buckle up automatically.
Law (and public awareness) does affect behavior. Weak, unenforced laws send the wrong message.
My name is Robert Ferrer. I am a researcher and archivist at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Although it is in Computer Science, I also apply the same heuristic principles in my interests in child development and family law. As such I’ve been working with the Children’s Rights Council of Illinois and Illinois Fathers in providing the background information in law and child development research for various endeavors. I have been collecting, reading and pondering the wealth of information dealing with divorce and children from many perspectives, including child development, family studies and law.
I’ve been attending the sessions of the Illinois Family Law Study Committee where they are currently reviewing current statutes for massive revisions. I’ve been in communications with many of its members and have established a collegial relationship. I have attended conferences on Contemporary Families, PAS and ADR. I have written several proposals in the attempt to mitigate parental loss, more fully integrating current research with proposed policy.