Should child custody and visitation laws be more stringent?

A terrible tragedy occurred this week that some California residents may have heard about. A man burned down his home while he and his two children were inside, and all three were killed. The father carried out this tragic act during his visitation time with his children. While this situation is of course very rare, it has prompted some to question the current laws surrounding child custody in this country.

Currently, child custody laws are fairly loose and subject to a judge's discretion. Many individual states do not have specific laws that clearly define visitation time, and some people are now wondering if they should.

This father's case was likely very similar to other child custody cases that go before a judge. Judges often do their best to ensure that parents remain a part of a child's life as long as it is safe to do so. How could a judge have seen something like this coming? Had the judge suspected the father would act out in such a way, the visitation order might not have existed.

According to many legal scholars, it is important that judges be able to maintain some level of leeway because one custody case can be very different from the next. However, one group is seeking for more stringent rules surrounding this area of family law. Family law judges focus primarily and the best interests of the children when making decisions about child custody and visitation time. An advocacy group is arguing that the "best interests of the children" is not well-defined and is too subjective.

Some suggest that courts put restrictions on visitation time, including where they will take place, especially if supervised visits are ordered. Often supervised visits take place at the parent's home.

As courts continue to do their best to preserve the relationship between parent and child, it will be interesting to see if child custody laws in California and elsewhere are reshaped because of this tragedy.

Source: USA Today, "Powell tragedy sparks questions about child custody," Yamiche Alcindor, Feb. 9, 2012

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