Wednesday, the Alabama House Committee on Children and Senior Advocacy held a public hearing on the Child Equal Access Act which would change Alabama’s rules on child custody so that the court prepares a detailed parenting plan in child custody cases and that the presumption is joint custody if both of the parents are fit.
Senate Bill 266 is sponsored by State Senator Larry Stutts, R-Sheffield, with ten Senate co-sponsors.
Senator Stutts is a practicing obstetrician in North West Alabama.
Stutts said that having a relationship with both parents is essential to a child’s life and that in his practice most of the pregnant teens he has seen over the years did not have a father in the home and did not have a strong relationship with their fathers.
“Parental equality should be the starting point for every child custody case,” Stutts said in a statement. “Ultimately, it’s about the child having a right to equal time with both of his or her mother, father, and extended family, provided that both parents are responsible adults.”
Stutts said that nothing in SB266 mandates 50/50 custody for either parent, and does not take away a judge’s discretion to award sole custody. The bill simply creates an equitable starting point and asks the judge to provide a rebuttable presumption as to why the other parent was not granted joint custody.
John Eidsmoe is a retired Judge Advocate General, a pastor and the Lead Counsel with the Foundation for Moral law. Eidsomoe said that numerous studies show that if both parents are involved in a child’s lives it generally leads to better outcomes.
Eidsmoe said that in the 17th century the father had all the parental rights. That gradually changes and in the 19th century the belief was that the nurturing ability of the mother was necessary for the development of the child. Modern studies have come to stress the importance of both parents.
Rachel Hackworth with the Alabama Coalition Against Domestic Violence spoke against the bill.
“I have concerns about this bill would have on victims of domestic violence,” Hackworth said.
“Children who have experienced domestic violence are not just witnesses but victims themselves
Stutts said that, “If there is any inkling of domestic violence this goes out the window.”
Nicole Clark is an attorney and Guardian ad Litem in Clarke County. She spoke in favor of the bill.
Clark said that currently, when you go to court the non-custodial parent only gets visitation for 48 days out of the year.
“I understand the domestic violence concern,” Clark said. “This bill addresses fit parents. If both parents are fit that is where we start. Nothing in this bill mandates that a judge has to give joint custody.”
Mike Sherman is a Judge in Mobile County.
“I have been an advocate for both parents, but I oppose this bill,” Judge Sherman said. “This is going to encourage more litigation, because you are going to have to overcome this bubble.”
Sherman said that when the state had at fault divorce attorneys would litigate trying to prove abuse or adultery in order to prove there was cause for the divorce. Sherman said that he feared that this would similarly lead to more allegations of misconduct and more litigation in child custody cases.
“This statute takes discretion away from the judge,” Sherman said. There are cases where there are two fit parents, but it is better for the child if one parent be granted custody.
Roy Davis is a retired police officer who spoke in favor of the bill.
“Children, they need a father,” Officer Davis said. “The men and boys I arrested for crimes 99 percent of them have no daddy.” Fatherless children makes more criminals.
State Representative Jim Hill, R-Odenville, is a retired Judge and the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. He came to the public hearing to speak against SB266.
Hill said that he objected to the requirement that “There shall be a rebuttable presumption.” Hill said that he opposes anything that ties the hands of judges in these cases.
“Is this bill better than the last one they presented? Absolutely,” Hill said. “Is it a good bill? Absolutely not.”
Hill said that the Alabama Law Institute (ALI) has written a bill rewriting the child custody section of the Alabama code.
Hill said, “Dr. Stutts, I will file the ALI bill, if you will introduce it in the Senate. It will not create a rebuttable presumption.”
Matt McMullen spoke in favor of the bill. “The most valuable thing is time,” McMullen said,
Kenneth Paschal is the President of the Alabama Family Rights Association (ALFRA) and a retired U.S. Army First Sergeant. ALFRA is advocating for SB266.
“The primary goal of the Alabama Family Rights Association is to educate the public and government officials concerning the importance of equal involvement of both fit parents in a child’s life,” Paschal said in a statement. “As the nation seeks answers on how best to make schools and communities safer, how to combat the increased violent crimes; ALFRA believes the long-term solution is to prevent that that includes protecting a child’s right to love both parents.”
“SB266 does not change existing laws which would be applied to provide protection to victims of abuse,” Paschal said. “We’re 100% okay with including an amendment to clarify the intent of this legislation. Such as: “a finding by the court that domestic violence and abuse, as defined in Alabama Code – Section 30-3-133 — Determination raises a rebuttable presumption that the child or children reside with the parent who is not the perpetrator.”
The bill requires the court to establish a parenting plan and enforce that plan. It “Sets the policy of this state to assure that minor children have frequent and continuing contact with parents who have shown the ability to act in the best interest of their children and to encourage parents to share in the rights and responsibilities of rearing their children after the parents have separated or dissolved their marriage. Joint custody does not necessarily mean equal physical custody.” The bill defines the various custody relationships.
“The court shall in every case consider joint custody but may award any form of custody which is determined to be There shall be a rebuttable presumption that joint custody is in the best interest of the child. This rebuttable presumption may be overcome only by evidence, set forth in written findings of fact, that joint custody is not in the best interest of the child. In determining whether joint custody is in the best interest of the child, the court shall consider the same factors considered in awarding sole legal and physical other forms of custody arrangements.”
The bill goes on to define the factors that he court may consider and the bill gives that court the authority to weigh various factors differently based on the facts presented and the best interests of the child.
SB266 has language very similar to the Shared Parenting law that was passed by the Kentucky legislature and signed by Governor Matt Bevin (R) last year.
The effort to reform Alabama’s child custody statute has received support from a number of conservative groups including the Republican Women of Shelby County and the Alabama Baptist State Convention.
“The Children’s Equal Access Act will improve family court practices making outcomes more reliably consistent with fundamental rights, with prior legislative statements of public policy, and with sociological research regarding lifetime success and happiness for children.” Attorney Austin Burdick said in a statement.
Stutts said, “This bill is not about Judges, it is about what is in the best interests of the child.”
SB266 passed the Senate with strong bipartisan support 25 to 4. In the House however powerful members of the leadership have blocked this bill in committee in the past. If the bill gets out of committee, there are questions as to whether the leadership will allow SB266 to get to the House floor, where it has broad bipartisan support.
State Representative K.L. Brown, R-Jacksonville, is the Chairman of the Children and Senior Advocacy Committee.
Chairman Brown said that the committee will vote on the bill at a meeting on Wednesday, May 22.
Former State Sen. David Burkette pleads guilty, avoids jail
Former State Sen. David Burkette will avoid jail time and be sentenced to a 30-day suspended sentence as part of a plea deal reached on Monday.
Burkette, who pleaded guilty to one count of violating the Fair Campaign Practices Act, will also have to pay a $3,000 fine and serve 12 months of probation as part of the deal. He was sentenced in Montgomery Circuit Court on Monday after being charged two weeks ago with failing to deposit more than $3,600 in contributions into campaign accounts — a misdemeanor.
He also resigned his seat in the Alabama Senate as part of the plea deal.
“I’m just happy to still be here,” Burkette told the court following his sentencing, according to multiple media reports.
The former senator suffered a stroke in 2018 and has been confined to a wheelchair since. His current health status played a role in his sentence considerations.
The charges against Burkette stem from a series of complaints filed against him with the Alabama Ethics Commission — all of them related to various issues during his time on the Montgomery City Council. The charge for which he pleaded guilty occurred in 2015.
The Ethics Commission referred numerous charges to the Alabama attorney general’s office, according to sources familiar with the investigation of Burkette, but the attorney general’s office elected to charge Burkette with only the misdemeanor as part of the deal that saw him resign.
“Candidates for public office at the state, county and municipal levels must comply with the State’s Fair Campaign Practices Act,” said Attorney General Steve Marshall. “Personally profiting from campaign funds erodes public confidence in the system and will not be tolerated.”
Former state senator arrested on charges of violating campaign finance laws
David Burkette has been officially arrested. The former state senator from Montgomery, who resigned on Tuesday as part of a plea deal with the Alabama Attorney General’s Office, was formally charged on Thursday with a single misdemeanor count of violating the Fair Campaign Practices Act.
According to a press release from the AG’s office, Burkette’s charge stems from him depositing campaign donations into his personal account instead of into his campaign accounts, as required by the FCPA. The alleged crimes occurred in 2015 and 2016 when Burkette was serving on the Montgomery City Council.
“The complaint alleged that, in 2015 and 2016 while running for the Montgomery City Council, Burkette intentionally failed to deposit $3,625.00 in campaign contributions into his campaign checking account, and instead, deposited or cashed those contributions into or against his personal bank account,” the AG’s release stated.
The single misdemeanor charge is surprising given the lengthy list of allegations against Burkette submitted to the Alabama Ethics Commission. APR obtained a copy of the original report, which was submitted in October 2018.
In addition to more than $40,000 in allegedly improperly spent council discretionary funds that were flagged by auditors for the city of Montgomery, Burkette was also accused of inappropriately donating tens of thousands more to suspect charities and two sororities, including his wife’s.
The Ethics Commission referred Burkette’s case to the AG’s Office in October 2019.
Pro-Growth Conference kicks off with Doug Jones, discussions on COVID impact and a living wage
What happens if you just give impoverished citizens $500 per month — no strings attached? Good things, it turns out. The people use that income to buy food, medicine and basic necessities for life. They take a day off work if they’re sick and actually get treatment. They quit a second, hourly-wage job that they are overqualified for and instead work towards obtaining a better, higher-paying primary job.
These are things that the city of Stockton, California, has learned in its year-long living wage program.
The program, while limited in size — only 125 people — has proven to be a larger success than city officials had hoped, and it has opened their eyes to a new, more proactive style of governance, Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs told Alabama elected officials.
Tubbs was the featured speaker on Tuesday at the first day of the Pro-Growth Policy Conference, a three-day forum for Alabama elected leaders with guest speakers from around the country offering tips and best practices.
The first day of the conference began with an opening talk from Sen. Doug Jones, who pressed the need for Medicaid expansion and how expansion has aided other red states. Jones also highlighted the need for broadband expansion and talked about a bill he has in the Senate that would create a broadband main office and dish out about $20 million in money for affordable access.
“Now (with COVID), we know how needed it really is,” Jones said. “We see the homework gap that we have. We know there’s a need for more telemedicine. My bill would consolidate in one office all of the monies for broadband … and provide affordable access.”
Jones said the current COVID pandemic has highlighted just how badly we need better access to broadband in Alabama, and a major area of concern right now is healthcare.
Highlighting that point, Brandon Garrett, the chief operating officer of the National Minority Quality Forum, and Dr. LaTasha Lee, the vice-president of social and clinical research, demonstrated the many ways in which inequality in health care and health care options is harming impoverished communities.
A number of factors play into that inequality, but a lack of access to updated means of communication and tools is one of the biggest.
“(Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) said that, ‘Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane because it results in physical death,’” Lee said. “That’s what we’re seeing currently with COVID-19 and sickle cell disease. These two diseases are affecting the minority community and causing death, and they make a great argument that such health care disparities really are a social justice issue.”
Correcting such issues was one of the goals of Stockton’s living wage experiment. Now, Tubbs said, a working person can afford to stay home or get tested if they’re feeling symptomatic, whereas before that person — scared of missing a paycheck or losing the job altogether — might come to work with the virus and infect an entire workplace.
That alone, Tubbs said, has restored dignity to a number of residents.
“This is not easy, especially with budgets the way they are,” Tubbs said. “But I don’t know how we continue to live with the status quo as it is.
“I think part of being a leader, as we are, is having the courage to do something about what we’re seeing. We have to be able to do that.”
The Pro-Growth Policy Conference will run both Wednesday and Thursday, 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. Wednesday’s round of conferences will focus on state grants, economic development around the state and what the 2021 legislative session might look like.
On Thursday, the event will wrap up with talks by the Equal Justice Initiative’s Bryan Stevenson and Alabama Congresswoman Terri Sewell.
Russell Bedsole wins Republican runoff in HD49
As of press time, it appears that Russell Bedsole has won a narrow victory over Mimi Penhale in the special Republican primary runoff election in Alabama House District 49.
At press time, Bedsole had a 166-vote lead in unofficial results on the secretary of state’s website.
“We won,” Bedsole declared on social media.
Bedsole is an Alabaster city councilman and a Shelby County Sheriff’s Department captain.
“Sadly, tonight did not turn out in my favor. Despite the loss, I feel like God truly used this opportunity to help me grow in my walk with Him, and gave me the opportunity to increase my testimony,” Penhale said. “I feel so incredibly blessed by the people I have met on this campaign and the experiences I have had. I am disappointed in the outcome, but what an honor it is to have the confidence of 1,183 people across House District 49! Thank you!!”
Russell Bedsole had 1,249 votes, or 51.36 percent, to Mimi Penhale’s 1,183, or 48.64 percent, to win the House District 49 Republican primary runoff.
There were just 2,432 votes cast in the special primary runoff election. Shelby County was the decisive factor in the election. Bedsole won Shelby County with 762 votes, or 71.42 percent, to Penale’s 305 votes.
Penhale carried Chilton and Bibb Counties, but could not overcome Bedsole’s strong performance in Shelby County.
The provisional ballots will be counted on Sept. 8, 2020, and certification of votes will occur on Sept. 16, 2020.
Bedsole will face Democratic nominee Sheryl Patton in the special general election on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020.
The vacancy in House District 49 was created when State Rep. April Weaver announced her resignation to accept a presidential appointment as a regional director in the Department of Health and Human Services.
In a statement, the Alabama Republican Party thanked “each of the candidates that qualified for offering themselves up for service in the Alabama State House of Representatives.”