When the family court judge decided how often Griffan Reutzel would see his 3-year-old daughter after his divorce, Reutzel felt punched in the gut.
"What just happened?" he thought. "It was surreal."
Reutzel, 35, had expected to share parenting 50/50 with his ex-wife after their 2014 divorce. Instead, he got a visitation schedule of one day during the week, every other weekend and every other week in the summer. He said he had been involved with his daughter's life since birth. Now, it felt like his daughter had been taken away from him.
"At the end of the day, (others) don't know how bad that feels," he said.
He didn't have the tens of thousands it could cost for an appeal, which he may not have won, anyway. Reutzel, who works at FGR Mechanical and Liberty Teeth Armory in southeast Missouri, says he felt depressed and discouraged. His mother, Linda Reutzel, decided to investigate why the court seemed to favor the mother in the case. She says she discovered a system of institutionalized gender bias that led her to take on the family court system through the state legislature.
Linda Reutzel, who lives in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, began driving to state capital Jefferson City every week to meet with lawmakers. She connected with the National Parents Organization (NPO), an advocacy group fighting for family court reforms such as shared parenting legislation. They armed her with research suggesting that children fare better, emotionally and behaviorally, when they spend more than a third of their time with each parent.
Ned Holstein, founder and chairman of NPO, says the standard custody agreement is out of touch with how families have changed. Increasingly, both parents work in the paid labor force. Fathers today are more involved in daily child care than previous generations. In the past legislative session, about 20 states considered some form of shared parenting legislation, Holstein said. The issue is picking up steam in the media and state houses.
In Missouri, the Reutzels helped get a bill passed by the House and Senate, which is awaiting the governor's signature. The bill creates guidelines for parenting plans that "maximize to the highest degree the amount of time the child may spend with each parent." It requires courts to disclose why shared parenting wasn't awarded and provide written findings and conclusions in custody cases. It also prohibits courts from establishing their own rules, such as having a default parenting plan.
In other states, bar associations have objected to bills that may have put victims of domestic violence at risk or limited judicial discretion. The Missouri Bar Association is not taking a position on this bill, which does not apply in cases of domestic violence or abuse.
One legislator questioned Reutzel about whether children would feel the stability of a "home" if they were constantly shuttling between residences. Others have criticized these types of legislative measures as a way for men to avoid paying as much child support. Would a new standard shift the focus away from the best interest of the child to the best interests of the parents?
Holstein counters that shared parenting is in the best interest of the child. Research shows that fathers pay more child support, and more willingly, when they have more access to their children. He fears that lawyers who benefit financially from drawn-out, expensive custody battles are the ones who oppose changing the system.
"The fact of the matter is that most fathers desperately miss their kids" after a divorce, he said.
Linda Reutzel is more blunt in her criticism. All her son wanted was more time with his child, she said. The custody arrangement reduced him from a parent to a visitor.
"Men and women are obviously different," her son said. "But the feelings for a child are as deep on both sides."
It makes sense for the courts to consider that.