Is it Really Easier to Seek Forgiveness Than Permission?

A New Law Penalizes Parents Who Violate Visitation Orders

On August 21, 2012, Governor Pat Quinn signed Senate Bill 3823 into law.  The law gives judges the authority to suspend driver’s licenses, impose fines and order jail time for people who deny non-custodial parent visitation rights without having good cause.  Although the court can reinstate a license if the violating individual complies with the visitation order, most parents can ill afford to lose a driver’s license, pay a fine or serve jail time while effectively caring for one’s children.

Senate Bill 3823, otherwise known as the “Steven Watkins Bill,” resulted from the 2008 murder of a Cass County man shot by his child’s grandmother when he went to pick up his daughter for court-ordered visitation.  Although the court awarded visitation to his parents, his ex-wife moved to Florida and hasn’t delivered the child for a visitation since November of 2010.  The new law modifies Section 625 ILCS 5/7-701 of the Illinois Vehicle Code.

Section 5/607.1 of the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act, entitled “Enforcement of Visitation Order; Visitation Abuse,” discusses an expedited procedure for enforcing court-ordered visitation in cases of visitation abuse.  That statute defines visitation abuse as either denying someone else visitation specified by the Court or willfully and without justification exercising his or her visitation in a way that is harmful to the child or the child’s custodian.  This definition is different from the “good cause” showing required by the Watkins Bill.

Comparing the new law to the existing statute on enforcement of visitation orders highlights a difference in the two provisions.  The dissolution law provision contemplates that either a custodial or a non-custodial parent can perpetrate visitation abuse.  The new law deals only with those who, without good cause, deny visitation and does nothing to deal with those who abuse their visitation rights by behaving in a manner harmful to the child or the child’s custodian or ignoring requirements about when children are to be returned after visitation.

The new law gives divorced or divorcing parents another good reason to think twice about denying visitation without first seeking court approval.  Although some believe courts are reluctant to impose sanctions, the new penalties in the law go beyond the fines and jail time that can be ordered if a parent is found in contempt of court and extend to suspending driver’s licenses.  The additional penalties should motivate more parents to seek leave of court before denying visitation rights ensure that they have a court finding that denying visitation has good cause, since losing driving privileges, for example, can impact employment as well as visitation children.  Obviously, there is no case law dealing directly with the new law that parents and their lawyers can look to for guidance so wise parents will err on the side of seeking permission rather than forgiveness.

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