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Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012 06:19 pm

Parents behaving badly

New dimension to custody tug-of-wars

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Shortly after this photo was taken Steven Watkins, far right, was shot to death while trying to visit his daughter Sidney, center.

After more than a year of pushing state lawmakers, the family of Steven Watkins and their supporters have a law that allows judges to revoke driver’s licenses of custodial parents who refuse to allow court-ordered visitation between children and non-custodial parents.

But critics of the Steven Watkins Memorial Act say the new statute is little more than feel-good legislation, the type of law that legislators pass, especially during election years, so they can win points with constituents.

The bill signed into law by Gov. Pat Quinn on Aug. 21 was overwhelmingly popular in the General Assembly, where it got nary a nay vote on final passage this year after stalling last year. It is named for the Chandlerville man who was gunned down in 2008 when he went to the Ashland home of his estranged wife to pick up his one-year-old daughter Sidney for a court-ordered visit.

In the months before his death, Watkins had frequently not been able to see Sidney despite a court order. His estranged wife or her relatives would typically say that the girl was sick or not on the premises, according to testimony in the 2010 trial of Shirley Skinner, Sidney’s maternal great-grandmother, who was convicted of murdering Watkins.

“It’s kind of one of those bittersweet things,” said Penny Watkins, Steven Watkins’ mother. “I’m excited about it (the new law) because I think it will help the next non-custodial parent. I just don’t think there will be the problems, because they (custodial parents) know that more things can happen.”

But the Illinois State Bar Association opposed the bill as it made its way through the legislature. Rory Weiler, a St. Charles attorney and a longtime member of the bar association’s Family Law Council, said the constitutionality of the law is questionable because there is no link between driving privileges and denial of visitation rights.

“I think it’s a terrible piece of legislation,” Weiler said. “Sometimes, emotions take over when we’re dealing with the state legislature. Obviously, it’s a tragic situation – I feel terrible for what the Watkins family has had to endure. This isn’t the right approach to take care of the situation that exists.”

The bar association wasn’t alone in opposing the bill. Secretary of State Jesse White also argued against on the grounds that driving has nothing to do with child visitation rights.

“We did issue our concerns,” said Henry Haupt, White spokesman. “Our position in general is, the suspension of a driver’s license should be a punishment used in relation to offenses that are directly or indirectly related to driving offenses.”

The new law gives judges the power to suspend driver’s licenses and issue $500 fines when custodial parents won’t allow visits. Judges already have plenty of tools to enforce visitation rights, including the threat of jail, Weiler said, but those tools often are not used.  Prosecutors can also charge custodial parents with crimes for not allowing court-ordered visitation, he said, but that rarely happens.

“It’s not a question of, ‘Are there remedies?’” Weiler said. “There are criminal remedies, there are civil remedies. It’s a question of the courts and state’s attorneys recognizing the seriousness of the situation.”

Jennifer Watkins, Sidney’s mother, spent five months in jail last year in Florida, successfully fighting extradition back to Illinois, where she faced sanctions from a judge who had ordered visits between the child and the girl’s maternal grandparents. Penny Watkins, who is continuing a legal battle for visitation with her granddaughter, said that she believes her son might not have had as much trouble visiting Sidney if the law named for him had been in effect.

While she hasn’t seen Sidney since November 2010, Penny Watkins said that she was allowed to speak with her granddaughter by telephone on the girl’s fifth birthday in June. Penny Watkins said the conversation lasted between 30 and 45 minutes and included Sidney’s older half-sister.

“I said ‘This is Grandma Penny, do you remember me?’” Penny Watkins recalled. “She said ‘Yes.’ I said I loved her, and she said she loved me.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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