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Family Fights For Bill To Protect Child Visitation Rights

Illinois State Capitol

Illinois State Capitol buillding in Springfield (AP Photo)

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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (WBBM) – Supporters of a measure to increase penalties on child visitation violators say their measure will better enforce parents’ rights, but opponents say it’s not so cut and dry.

As WBBM Newsradio 780’s Alex Degman reports, the measure was inspired by Steven Watkins, a resident of the downstate town of Ashland who was murdered in 2008, while picking up his daughter for a court-ordered visitation.

LISTEN: Newsradio 780’s Alex Degman reports

Shirley Skinner, 75, was charged with Steven Watkins’ murder and is currently serving 70 years.

On Tuesday, Watkins’ family and friends made their way back to the state capitol building Tuesday to continue pushing a piece of legislation that’s been in the works for some time. But it’s unclear if the measure will see Senate floor debate before session ends this month.

HB1604, dubbed the Steven Watkins bill, aims to increase penalties on custodial parents who willfully interfere with child visitations with non-custodial parents. The increased penalties include, among other things, a six month revocation of the offenders’ drivers’ license, increased fines and possible jail time.

Penny Watkins, Steven’s mother, won visitation rights to see her granddaughter, but Jennifer, Steven’s estranged wife, skipped town – children in tow.

“The appellate courts say you’re entitled to visitation. The Supreme Court of Illinois says you’re entitled to visitation. So the custodial parent decides, she’ll just leave the state,” Penny Watkins said.

Not everyone is so sure this proposal is the best idea.

Jim Covington of the Illinois State Bar Association, for example, says the law wouldn’t do anything to help the Watkins family. Furthermore, it would likely be challenged in court.

“I’m not sure, as the legislature at this point, how we do any more,” says Covington. “For example, right now in this bill, I think it’s duplicative of current remedies. I think some of them are possibly unconstitutional.”

Another opponent, Brandon Jones of the Illinois Coalition against Domestic Violence, says this measure could do more harm than good – especially considering domestic abusers could gain easier access to their children.

“What we know about these people is that they do not hesitate to lie in court to manipulate the court system,” Jones said. “They do not hesitate to use their children as a weapon against someone who is the custodial parent. We’re concerned this law will be another weapon in their arsenal.”

Senators on the judiciary committee chided Jones for some of his comments, saying they were based on unfounded speculation.

The measure’s sponsor, State Sen. Mattie Hunter (D-Chicago) decided the bill would be heard in committee on a subject matter hearing status – which means no vote was taken. Friday is the deadline for House bills to come out of Senate committees. She doesn’t think the bill will meet that deadline, and plans to bring it back up during the fall veto session.