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State Lawmakers Take Up Bill That Would Change How Courts Decide Child Custody Battles

DENVER (CBS4) - Domestic violence survivors say their children are being put at risk by courts who don't understand the impact of abuse on kids. They're fighting for a bill that would change how child custody battles are decided.

They say, in many cases, courts award joint custody even when there is evidence of abuse.
Rebecca Zimmerman says her case is proof of that.

"I'm scared every time I speak out."

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For eight years, she says, she lived in fear of her ex-husband. He was physically and emotionally abusive according to the judge in their custody dispute. The judge questioned her ex-husband's judgment and mental well-being, ordered him to undergo counseling for depression and anger management, and then awarded him shared custody of the couple's two little girls.

"I don't understand why someone would say this person is violent and angry and is also a good father," Zimmerman said.

Rep. Meg Froelich believes it's due, in part, to a lack of training.

"By training we're saying let's be aware of what the best science around this is."

Froelich says research shows a child's risk of abuse increases after divorces involving domestic abuse even if the child wasn't abused previously. She says the court evaluators and investigators, who judges rely on to make decisions about child custody, have no training in the impact of domestic violence on kids.

She introduced a bill that would require training on an ongoing basis and make abuse the first consideration when awarding custody.

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"The 50-50 standard of co-parenting has to be put under the microscope when abuse claims have been made."

Those opposed to the bill argue just because someone is a bad spouse doesn't make that person a bad parent. They insist kids need both parents and shared custody is what's best for the kids.

Zimmerman, whose husband has been convicted of harassment and stalking since their divorce, says abusers won't stop until they're held accountable.

"Having an educated court staff will protect children like my children. I don't want this to happen to any other survivors and any other children."

Froelich says in 90% of cases judges follow the recommendations of court evaluators or investigators, which is why, she says, it's so important that they have appropriate training. Her bill passed its first committee unanimously.

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