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Fighting for the Family

Fighting for the Family

By Paige Townley – Griesdorn’s story is like so many other children who have experienced divorce. Approximately 40,000 children in Alabama are subjected to child custody determination annually. In fact, the state currently ranks fourth in the country regarding number of divorces, yet 44th regarding overall child well¬being, which is based on four categories: health, education, economic well-being and family and community. These staggering statistics is what led to the formation of the Alabama Family Rights Association (ALFRA), a group committed to changing the custody laws in Alabama so that children can more evenly split time between divorced parents.
“We look at it through the eyes of a child,” says Kenneth Paschal, president of the Birmingham chapter. “The child’s birthright is to love and spend time with both mom and dad. We want to safeguard a child’s right to make sure they can be involved with both parents after a divorce. When divorce happens and you remove a fit parent from a child’s life, you place that child at a risk of failure.”
The organization originally formed in Huntsville in the late 1990s to educate society about the injustice of custody laws. “Originally, it was focused on fathers’ rights, but in less than a year the group was getting phone calls and inquiries from mothers, brothers, sisters and grandparents who were having trouble seeing their children, nieces, nephews or grandchildren after a divorce,” says Paschal. “So the founders soon realized it’s not about fathers’ rights or even mothers’ rights. It’s about the child having a right to be associated with both mom and dad and their extended family.”
Paschal started the Birmingham chapter in 2009 after going through his own divorce. Like so many others, Paschal did not realize the harsh reality of child custody laws in Alabama prior to his divorce. “Before my divorce, I just assumed the justice system promoted equality,” he says. “But when I had to walk through that court system and they told me I could only see my child every other weekend, I was immediately wondering why. I’m not a deadbeat dad. But they told me that’s just how it is in Alabama. It’s called standard visitation.”

In Alabama, primary custody is typically awarded to one parent with standard visitation given to the other parent. “Right now we have an attitude when we go in court that there has to be a winner and a loser,” says Austin Burdick, Esq. of the Burdick Law Firm. “You’re either going to win or lose primary custody. in actuality, there is no reason to look at it that way. It should be what’s best for the child, which is having a good relationship with both parents. But because of the system in place, it doesn’t work out that way very often.”

Standard visitation for the non-custodial parent usually works out to be about 80 days a year, Paschal adds, which includes two weekends a month, then usually one day during the alternating weeks and a few holidays. “That’s legal discrimination against children when it comes to parents who are no longer married or who were never married,” Paschal says. “We are taking a parent from a child because the parent is no longer living in the same household. We need to promote equality to our kids and understand that we are placing them at unnecessary risk of failure.”
The unnecessary risks ALFRA concentrates on include statistics showing that 71 percent of teen pregnancies are from a one-parent home, 85 percent of kids in juvenile detention centers are from a one-parent home and 63 percent of teen suicides are from a one-parent home. “Our association’s position is, why do we keep putting our kids at risk like this if we know it could have that impact?” says Paschal.

To preserve and protect family relationships and promote equality, ALFRA is focused on raising society’s awareness of the harmful reality many children experience by hosting monthly meetings and ultimately reforming Alabama’s family law. During the last three legislative sessions, a bill has been presented to state legislators that would require the court treat parents equally and maximize a child’s time with both mother and father unless a parent is deemed unfit.

“Equal time between parents should be the standard, the starting point, not the exception,” says Paschal. The bill, however, has yet to make it to the floor for a vote due to overwhelming opposition to family law changes. And that, stresses Burdick, is why an organization like ALFRA is so important. “This is the kind of problem that takes years and years to change,” he says. “Individuals don’t have the finances or the stamina to do it. Parents can’t necessarily go it alone. But a dedicated group like ALFRA has more staying power to fight the fight.”
Paige Townley is a freelance writer.
 The above published in Birmingham Parent Magazine January 2014 and reprinted with permission. View PDF of Article here.
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