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Published June 07, 2013, 08:50 AM

North Dakota group seeks petition for new child custody law

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — A group of 25 women in northeastern North Dakota wants state residents to vote on a proposed law giving both parents equal rights and decision-making responsibilities in child custody cases.

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — A group of 25 women in northeastern North Dakota wants state residents to vote on a proposed law giving both parents equal rights and decision-making responsibilities in child custody cases.

The group on Thursday asked for state approval to circulate petitions that could put the proposed measure on the ballot next year, Secretary of State Al Jaeger said in a statement.

State law makes it difficult for one divorced parent to have an influence in a child's life, and the proposed law would ensure a child does not lose access to that parent following a divorce or separation, group chairwoman Jill Bjerke, of Park River, told The Forum newspaper.

The initiative would create a definition in state law for "equal parenting time" that would ensure equal time-sharing of a child for both parents, or require a mutually agreed upon parenting plan.

"It would eliminate the control of a child by one person," Bjerke said. "In most divorces or separations, you've got animosity and the parent that has full custody will use their power to punish the other and the child ends up suffering."

Jaeger and Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem have until June 17 to write and send Bjerke a petition title, a short statement that represents what the group wants voters to approve. The wording will be on each petition. Once it is approved, the group can start obtaining signatures.

The group must gather at least 13,452 signatures by March 12 for the initiative to be on the June 2014 primary ballot. If that deadline isn't met, the group can still get the measure on the November 2014 general election ballot if it submits the necessary signatures within one year of the petition title being approved for circulation.

Bjerke helped get a similar measure passed in Walsh County last November, with 66 percent of the county voters approving. Stenehjem has challenged the initiative, saying it usurps state authority.

Bjerke said that is helping her push the statewide initiative. She has also been inspired by her boyfriend, Mitch Sanderson, who was behind a failed ballot initiative in 2006 that sought to provide both parents in divorce cases with joint legal and physical custody of a child.

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