St. Mary's Law School Hosts Senate Jurisprudence Committee
SAN ANTONIO - The Senate Jurisprudence Committee met at St. Mary's Law School in San Antonio Monday, March 6, 2000. Members of the committee include Chair Rodney Ellis of Houston, Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio, Chris Harris of Arlington, J.E. "Buster" Brown of Lake Jackson, and Jeff Wentworth of San Antonio.
After a welcome by San Antonio Senators Van de Putte and Wentworth, the committee heard invited testimony on interim Charge 1, improving the enforcement of child custody orders and studying alternative methods of enforcement to improve court time efficiency and expedite the process.
Alicia Key, General Counsel from the Child Support Division of the Texas Attorney General's office, told the committee that the Attorney General funnels federal funds to independent agencies that help with custody enforcement, but that the office itself has almost no role in enforcing custody orders.
Bree Buchanan from the Texas Council on Family Violence testified that supervised visitation facilities are needed to curb the threats, intimidation and even violence that can happen when separated parents argue during unsupervised visits at the child's home. Buchanan said it is important to stop this violence between the parents and protect children from any conflict that does occur.
Bexar County Sheriff Ralph Lopez told the committee that his office is serving from 800 to 1000 child support orders a month and that it investigates all child abuse allegations for all potential victims up to the age of 18. Lopez said those custody orders telling a parent to let a child visit a former spouse are difficult to enforce. The Sheriff says parents have all kinds of excuses for not letting a child visit the other parent.
Hugh Nations, representing the Mens and Fathers Resource Center, testified that fathers have problems as well as single mothers. Nations says non-custodial parents are indeed having trouble getting to see their children.
Lieutenant Rosanna Church-Abreo from the Department of Public Safety Missing Persons office says it is her job to see that lawful custody is not interrupted. She says that there is currently nothing in the law to keep one parent from leaving with a child before a court order is issued.
Victor Negron, a board certified family lawyer from San Antonio, testified that as a private attorney he sees the high emotional and financial cost of child custody battles. Negron says other problems include disputes over religious and moral training, discipline, and the pickup and return of children. He says the families that most need parenting classes simply do not go, that some people just cannot get along without a court acting a referee and recommends more non-adversarial family law proceedings as a way of reducing conflict.
Professor Ellen Marrus of the University of Houston Law School testified that the rights and interests of the child must be protected. This, she says, can be made easier by bringing the mother and father to parenting classes. Marrus suggests that a child have his or her own legal representative at court hearings.
Bob Green of the Texas Fathers Alliance told the members that it is important to keep the child in the same area where most of his or her family lives. As far as the courts are concerned, he says Texas needs an administrative-type hearing system that could help solve minor custody disputes outside of the District and County Courts. Green says parents need to be made aware of exactly what is expected of them and be rewarded for following those guidelines.
Judge John Specia of the 225th District Court in San Antonio testified that courts such as his should consider the wishes of a child during custody hearings, but that if the parents cannot work it out themselves that the court, not the child, has the final say on who gets custody. Specia says the parents too often focus only on themselves and not on the child's needs and that the courts should be the last resort in custody cases, saying that the judicial system has too few resources to consistently make the best decisions for the children. He also said judges need more training in family law.
Professor Ana Novoa of Saint Mary's Law School testified that the courts are often not tailored to the needs of family law and unnecessarily place children in the middle of a fight between the parents. Novoa too said that parenting classes are helpful in divorce cases. She stated that domestic violence is a sign that one parent is trying to dominate the family and that unless the underlying problem is recognized, mediation will not work.
Public testimony followed the invited testimony. The committee heard from divorced parents who have had trouble collecting child support and exercising their visitation rights. Parents told the committee that people who get divorced need to realize that there is no way out of child support and it must be paid. They also said that enforcement of court-ordered child support varies from one county to another in Texas, as local prosecutors have differing priorities. One said that Comal County simply refused to enforce her child support order, even though the other parent was making a lot of money.
The committee recessed subject to the call of the chair. Future meetings are to be scheduled for Houston and Austin.