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Parental custody sharing initiative may get second chance in North Dakota

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June 17, 2014

By Ryan Byrne

North Dakota
In 2006, North Dakotans defeated a Child Custody Sharing Initiative, known as Measure 3. Almost eight years after Measure 3, a similar initiative may be headed to the ballot after sponsors started submitting signatures to the North Dakota Secretary of State on June 16, 2014. Supporters of the 2014 Parental Rights Initiative submitted 13,521 signatures on Monday and are expected to submit about 1,500 more on Wednesday, June 18.[1] Their initiative would create a legal presumption that each parent in a child custody case is fit to parent, unless “clear and convincing evidence” demonstrates otherwise. Furthermore, the measure would give each parent in a custody case, unless one parent is proven unfit, equal parental rights and responsibilities, parenting time, primary residential responsibility and decision making responsibility of a child.[2]

Jill Bjerke, the initiative's sponsoring committee chairperson, says the measure is necessary to undermine contemporary social norms that disproportionately favor the mother in child custody battles. She stated, "It's just the norm, right now, for Mom to get custody. And when that happens, Dad is cut out of the children's lives. Fathers are both extremely important to both girls and boys. And we want to have our children grow up with parts of both parents."[3] Critics, such as attorneys Erica Shively and Lisa Benson, said that the current law regarding child custody is superior to the initiative. The current statute, they contend, places a stronger emphasis on children's rights rather than parental rights. Lisa Benson, a family law practitioner, argued, "When awarding residential responsibility (physical custody), whether split, equal or primary, the best interests of the children should be paramount, not one parent’s wishes. On its face, the measure gives more weight to one parent’s wishes than what is best for the children."[4]

At least 13,452 signatures must be deemed valid for the initiative to make the ballot. If the signature count is successful, the measure will appear on the November 4, 2014 ballot.

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