After experiencing the lack of protections for children in custody cases that involve domestic abuse, Jill Ainsworth, a third year law student at UMKC School of Law, decided to find a way to advocate for these children. Now, a portion of the bill Ainsworth wrote is going into effect in Kansas.
Professor Mary Kay Kisthardt’s Family Law class laid the groundwork for Ainsworth, and outside of class, she began researching custody laws across the country, especially statutes in the states immediately surrounding Kansas.
She soon discovered, in regards to custody and domestic violence, Kansas laws were far behind most of the states in the country and behind all the states surrounding it. Armed with the knowledge of other states’ custody statutes, Ainsworth began writing a new bill.
Ainsworth sought out legislators to help take on the bill and introduce it, understanding it may take overhauling the entire family law code. She found contacts in the Attorney General’s Office, the Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence, and other government offices.
Ainsworth, and a task force created by the Senator introducing the bill, proposed SB 393, a comprehensive approach to child protection laws in the Family Law Code (FLC). SB 393 would amend provisions in the Kansas FLC relating to the custody, residency, and parenting time of a child, by adding protective provisions for children when domestic abuse is a factor in a family. These provisions would ensure the determinations of the court were made in the best interests of the children.
The bill would define domestic abuse as it is used in the FLC as well as prioritize domestic abuse as a factor in deciding custody. The bill would also add a domestic abuse exception to the “friendly parent” factor; this factor helps the court decide who to award custody to, based upon the parent who is most likely to foster the child’s relationship with the other parent. Currently, this factor could render parents unable to protect themselves and their children from abuse, violence, and neglect at the hands of the other parent. Finally, with the introduction of this bill, a new provision would allow the court to require abusive parents to undergo an assessment and treatment plan from a batterer intervention program.
The bill was introduced to the Senate this past winter, and Ainsworth, along with two other private citizens and a representative from the Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence, testified in support of the bill. It passed unanimously.
When the bill reached the house, however, Ainsworth’s bill met opposition. The bill was sent to the Conference Committee and ultimately, only a portion passed.
The section of SB 393 was amended into another bill, SB 418, which states, “To aid in determining the issue of legal custody, residency and parenting time of a child, the court may order a parent to undergo a domestic violence offender assessment conducted by a certified batterer intervention program and may order such parent to follow all recommendations made by such program.”
Ainsworth says this wasn’t a defeat. “This was the most important part of the original bill. It is the provision that addresses treatment for offending parents, hopefully helping to stop the cycle of abuse in a family and ultimately, in our communities.”
SB 418, with Ainsworth’s amendment, went into effect as law on July 1, 2016.
The remainder of SB 393 was sent to the Kansas Judicial Council’s, Family Law Advisory Committee for review and next best steps. Ainsworth has been asked to speak with the committee regarding the bill and hopes it will succeed in the future.
“Multiple studies conclude that the majority of contested custody cases involve battering and domestic abuse and the effects on children who are subjected to this can be devastating,” Ainsworth said, “both in the short and long term. If we want a better future for our children and our communities then we need to put the necessary resources in place, now, to protect children.”