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Murder-suicide revives custody-rights debate
An Amherst doctor who works at the V.A. Medical Center in Manchester drives to Vermont in a rental car and shoots his ex-wife's husband before killing himself.
These horrific acts of violence all had something in common: They were committed by fathers embroiled in court disputes over child support or custody.
State Rep. Jeff Oligny, R-Plaistow, submitted 13 bills dealing with parental rights and child custody issues in the last legislative session. All 13 were found inexpedient to legislate.
Oligny, an engineer and a divorced father of two teenagers, contends the system for determining "parental rights and responsibilities" - what used to be called child custody and support - is deeply flawed.
A better way, Oligny said, is "joint parenting," something he's been trying to get into New Hampshire law for several years. It's a main reason he ran for office.
"If there's no abuse or neglect, then government should not be in that family. If you force Mom and Dad to work things out ... they will."
It's not that simple, said Patricia Murphy, a Manchester attorney who has specialized in family law for 20 years. She called it "a very Pollyanna way of thinking, that all people are reasonable and all people can come up with their own solution."
She noted that RSA 461-A requires the court to determine "parental rights and responsibilities" based on the "best interests of the child." The law requires the court to consider such factors as each parent's relationship with the child, the ability of each to provide food, clothing, shelter, medical care and "a safe environment," and potential effects of changes to the child's school and community.
"The system does not create the chaos. What creates the chaos is the couple who comes to the courthouse doors," she said.
When she started practicing law, Murphy said, courts routinely awarded physical custody to mothers, and fathers got every other weekend and one night a week with their children.
But Murphy opposes making that the law of the land. "Because every case that comes before the court is as unique as the people who come before the court, and the needs of the children should trump the desires of the parents," she said.
Judge Edwin Kelly is administrative judge of the Circuit Court, which includes the Family Division. He said lawmakers created the first family courts in 1995 so that cases would be heard by judges familiar with this most difficult area of the law.There are now 32 locations statewide.
He noted all divorce cases involving children are required to go to mediation first within 30 days of filing. He estimated more than 80 percent are resolved within nine months of filing.
Kelly said it's a very small percentage of cases that are "high conflict."
He'd like to see a separate docket created for such cases, with dedicated judges and staff assigned to try to resolve them more quickly.
Oligny said he's heard the argument from other lawmakers that the system is working fine for the majority of families and it's only a minority of parents who feel the system has treated them unfairly.
"I guess what we're saying is it's OK to lose a couple of kids, it's OK to lose a couple of parents, it's OK to lose a couple of citizens because, in general, we're doing pretty well.
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