Ideally, couples who are separating or divorcing come up with a parenting-time schedule agreeable to all parties. But when they don't, Ohio judges might turn to their county's standard plans to determine how much time children spend with each parent.
Those standard, or default plans, vary widely by county. And too many of them — in more than 60 of 88 counties — reflect outdated approaches that allow the nonresidential parent less than 20 percent of the typical schedule, according to a report released earlier this year by the National Parents Organization.
"I'd like to ask each of the courts, 'When was the last time you reviewed your parenting-time schedule?' " said Don Hubin, one of the authors of the report. "I'm willing to bet the answer is, 'We haven't looked at this for a very long time.' "
The findings have generated discussion among judges and family-court officials throughout the state, some of whom criticized the equal-parenting advocacy group for focusing on default standards instead of the actual orders approved by the courts. Most parenting-time orders are not mirror images of the default standards, as courts work with families to adopt the schedules that work best for their children, said Judge Paula Giulitto of Portage County, president of the Ohio Association of Domestic Relations Judges.
"No matter what the standard is, whether it's 88 different ones or one, it will never be cookie cutter because life is complicated," Giulitto said. "It comes down to judges being able to, and being required to, judge the merits of every case."
Finding out how often judges do sign off on standard plans, however, is difficult. Ohio doesn't track parenting orders according to whether the approved plan is customized or the default.
"We agree that the gold standard would be to know exactly what the courts are doing," said Hubin, a board member of the National Parents Organization and chairman of its Ohio affiliate. At the same time, he said, "We think defaults matter. If they don't matter, then why are the courts publishing them?"
The organization was behind the push for a statute in Kentucky that Hubin calls "the country's strongest shared-parenting legislation ever." The law, signed by Kentucky's governor this spring, created a presumption under the law that shared parenting and equal time are in the best interests of children so long as both parents are fit.
Instead of varying defaults and standards across the state, "The shared parenting presumption is the starting point," said Matt Hale, who led the effort as chairman of the Kentucky affiliate of the National Parents Organization.
The law still allows judges to make exceptions based on considerations such as physical or mental health, domestic violence or distance between parental homes and schools.
Judge Dana Preisse of Franklin County Domestic Relations Court said that while "50-50" parenting time is a great goal, it can be difficult for many families to achieve.
"The problem with Kentucky saying that's the standard is that you'd have to justify why it should be any less," said Preisse, who is set to become the next president of Ohio's domestic relations judges association. "You have to look at every single child and every parent's work schedule."
Franklin is among a handful of counties with multiple parenting schedules for children depending on age, with no single default or standard.
The parents organization praised three Ohio counties — Ashtabula, Jefferson and Tuscarawas — for having default plans that allow equal or nearly equal time with each parent.
Elizabeth Stephenson, court administrator for the general-trial division of Tuscarawas County Common Pleas Court, said the county updated its default plan for the first time in several years and put a new standard parenting-time order into effect in January. Like previous defaults, the new standard comes into play only when parents can't agree on a schedule.
"I think we've had a positive response," Stephenson said. "I think it's probably premature to say that it's working."
She worked to get the word out in the community, announcing the change in the local newspaper, through social media and on the court's website. "I tried to get across that this is big," she said.
Several Ohio court administrators have contacted Stephenson to ask about Tuscarawas County's new standard, and the court is also hearing from parents.
"We're getting motions from people who want that 50-50," she said. "They're coming back and opening up their old case and saying, 'I want that.' "