Changes in custody law

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PHOENIX -- It was a phone call that made national news. Several years ago, actor Alec Baldwin berated his daughter in a telephone call, calling her among other things a “selfish little piggy.”

Baldwin went on to blame his anger on what he called parental alienation, saying ex-wife Kim Basinger turned his daughter against him, all starting with a nasty custody battle. 

On CNN Baldwin said it was complicated by the fact that you have two people who are very angry at each other fighting over the same thing, their child.

Here in the Valley, Russel Smoldon, a divorced father himself, said the very words we put into law build animosity into the system.

“And so if you are being encouraged to battle by the legal process with words like visitation, custody, those types of things. Then that is kind of the direction you are going to go," Smoldon explained.

Although Smoldon and his ex-wife shared joint custody and had a good relationship, when she moved out of state with their son, he admits it was difficult to get beyond seeing it as a battle.

“When you are thrust into a situation where you are fighting for time with your child that is a huge thing in a parent's mind," he said.

Valley attorney Norma Izzo Milner, with Jennings, Strouss and Salmon, said in fact custody is a fighting word.

“Custody has an undertone of power struggle. When you put it into divorce proceedings people feel as though they need to win or lose custody,“ stated Milner.

Milner said that is why lawmakers last year made some significant changes to the custody law.

First of all it is no longer called custody, it is “legal decision making authority." 

“What that is is a legal parent's right to make non emergency decisions related to their child's health , education, religious upbringing and personal care," explained Milner.

Also gone is parental visitation, which Milner said also signified that a parent had to fight for the right to see his or her child. It is now defined differently.

“And now time spent with a legal parent is called just that, parenting time,” said Milner.

Visitation is reserved for third parties like grandparents or step-parents.

Also new, courts can no longer base parenting agreements on gender.

And while some see the changes lawmakers made as small, Smoldon said words really do make a difference.

“And so what you want to do is get rid of the adversarial relationship and stop using terms that sound like jailhouse terms. In terms of being able to visit or have custody of your child,” Smoldon said.

Milner agrees, and said she hopes the change of terms also focuses parents’ attention where it needs to be, on the child’s best interest.

“I think by changing the language, it forces parents to be more focused on their rights and responsibilities as parents versus their rights and entitlements as parents," stated Milner.

Even though the term has changed, one parent could still be granted sole decision making authority.

But the hope is by toning down the language, parents will be able prove they are capable of working together, even after the divorce.