AUSTIN, Texas - As the clock ticks on the 2021 Texas legislative session, there is a child custody bill waiting for a committee hearing.
Parents FOX7 spoke to are asking that this legislation be given the chance for a vote before it’s too late.
"I’m not just a stepmom, I’m a child of divorce, my husband is a child of divorce, my son’s mother is a child of divorce, his stepfather is a child of divorce," said SarahJae Johnston, southwest regional manager of The Fathers’ Rights Movement. "We know the ramifications from generation to generation of having these really bad archaic and misogynistic laws."
Johnston is referring to the current Texas standard possession order which defaults to a 75/25 split between parents in the event of a divorce, rather than 50/50 with the option to amend. House Bill 803, currently awaiting a committee hearing, would change the default to equally shared parenting as long as both parents are deemed capable.
"When you go in now you start at 75/25 split which increases the litigation and the fighting because if you do not annihilate that other parent in family court, you’re going to only see your child 25 percent of their life," said Johnston.
Johnston herself knows about litigation, fighting, and the financial cost. She said between her, her husband, his ex-wife, and his ex-wife’s current husband, they spent around $14,000 in legal fees to equally share parenting of their son, Jeremy, who has also been active in pushing for child custody laws to change.
"This is really about the kids," said Johnston. "What our standard possession order in our family code right now says to kids is, ‘You get your left arm all the time, but we’re only going to let you use your right arm four days a month plus four hours.’"
Johnston believes it’s also a women’s issue. According to the attorney general’s office, around 92% of custodial parents are women.
"We’re telling young girls you can do all these amazing things, you can be more than a homemaker, but if they walk into the family court we’re taking away their ability," she said. "We say, no, you’re going to be 100% responsible, you’re always going to be the one that has to do this, and it would be nice if Dad participates, but under the law, we’re just going to say he doesn’t need to."
Derek Berry, a single father of three children, is also advocating for HB 803 after his own experience with fighting for custody. "After a long, lengthy, expensive litigation process and five attorneys, I finally got a 45/55 joint managing conservatorship," he said.
His grassroots organization Texas 25.03 now exists to help families navigating the child custody process. "With shared parenting, none of this would have to be around," he said.
Right now, HB 803 has stalled. It has yet to receive a hearing in the Juvenile Justice and Family Issues Committee, chaired by state Rep. Victoria Neave (D-Dallas). Berry and Johnston, along with many other parents voicing their concerns in Facebook comments, are wondering why.
"With 21 co-sponsors and bipartisan support, we’re really scratching our heads," said Berry. "At least let’s get a vote on this."
Ultimately, Johnston and Berry believe it’s about money. "The bottom line is, in my personal opinion, is it’s about money," said Johnston. "If you take the conflict out, you’re going to lower the litigation, that’s going to lower the income that comes into lawyers for those of us that end up going back to court over and over and over again."
Other bills filed this legislative session addressing family custody issues include SB 2011, HB 2153, and HB 4240. Johnston and Berry were at the Capitol to speak at a hearing for HB 4240 on Monday. They are still waiting for a hearing to be scheduled for HB 803.
FOX7 reached out to Rep. Neave’s office on Wednesday and has not heard back.