Saturday, December 20, 2014

Split Decision

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Dina Romano Shacknai wants to reform child-custody laws – not just in Arizona, but nationally. And abroad.


Two years after her only son perished in a San Diego hospital room, Dina Romano Shacknai marches closer to her goal of creating a child-protection law in his name. The Parental Disclosure Act, aka “Maxie’s Law,” has a legislative sponsor, an impressive roster of well-connected backers and a compelling mandate in this era of split-custody child rearing and blended families.


Still, Shacknai doesn’t expect a slam-dunk. Recent news events and ongoing fears of government overreach have soured the zeitgeist where privacy issues are concerned, and she anticipates some resistance. “We’re providing ideas to people that they might not find intuitive,” the Paradise Valley resident admits. “So it’s very challenging.”

Shacknai launched Maxie’s H.O.U.S.E. – a nonprofit focused on child safety and parental rights – in July 2012, exactly a year after Max inexplicably fell from the staircase of his father’s Coronado mansion and lapsed into a fatal coma. Though Shacknai broadly characterizes Maxie’s H.O.U.S.E. as a “movement about creating a high priority for child safety,” its specific goals are embodied in Maxie’s Law, which Shacknai intends to present to Arizona lawmakers when the legislature reconvenes in January. Essentially, the bill is a salve for split-custody angst; following a divorce or breakup, it would create a mechanism for concerned parents to run a background check on any adult who assumes a caregiving or co-living arrangement with their children – for instance, your ex-wife’s new boyfriend.

The bill has personal resonance for Shacknai: At the time of his accident, Max was in the care of father Jonah Shacknai’s girlfriend, Rebecca Zahau, whose apparent hanging suicide two days later provoked national media attention. Dina Shacknai believes Zahau may have played a role in her son’s death. Unsuccessfully, she lobbied to have the Coronado Police Department reopen the case, disputing its finding of an accidental fall. 

Several months prior to her son’s death, Shacknai – who holds a Ph.D. in clinical psychology – ran a background check on Zahau, uncovering a Phoenix shoplifting arrest. Because Zahau was arrested under a different surname, it was a time-consuming and expensive ordeal, “a hole in the system” that could be fixed with a low-hassle rider in divorce court parenting agreements, according to Maxie’s H.O.U.S.E. spokesman Michael Chetworth. Each parent would simply swear to provide the name of any future live-in companion, and one piece of identification, to the other parent.

If the background check turned up a criminal record, the spouse could take the information to the court and lobby to have the parenting agreement amended. “It depends on what comes up. If it’s a DUI, maybe that person can’t drive the kids anymore,” Chetworth says. “If it’s a sex conviction in Kentucky, you lose custody. Currently, you have no specific right to acquire this information.”

Shacknai and her Maxie’s H.O.U.S.E. associates say they’re sensitive to privacy issues. The law will include a provision against stalking, they say. And it will be purely elective – at least for the parents. “We don’t want it to be mandatory, but we’d like it to be mandatory to have the option,” Chetworth says. “It would be something that your lawyer would be obligated to tell you about [during the divorce]. A box you check off.” 

Sponsored by State Senator Nancy Barto (R-Phoenix), the bill was authored late in the 2013 legislative session and did not make it to committee before lawmakers adjourned for the year, Shacknai says. “But that’s good because we’re working to fine-tune the bill so it would be acceptable in a nonpartisan way.”

Though Maxie’s H.O.U.S.E. has an “A-list roster” of supporters and board members, including Phoenix media attorney David Bodney and National Bank of Arizona Executive Vice President Deborah Bateman, it’s still a grassroots effort. Shacknai’s endowment efforts have included a Halloween fundraiser in her home. Ultimately, she envisions Maxie’s Law as a national phenomenon à la Amber Alert: “All the reports indicate significant underreporting of child abuse in split-custody situations. There’s no voice for those kids. And I guess by now, it’s like they’re my kids. I owe them.”

Childhood’s End
Dina Romano Shacknai hopes to grow Maxie’s Law beyond Arizona – much like these child-protection legacy laws.

Megan’s Law: The blanket name for state laws that oblige authorities to make information available to the public regarding registered sex offenders. Named after California murder victim Megan Kanka.

Code Adam: Missing-child safety protocol for businesses and office buildings, originally implemented by Walmart in 1994. Inspired by kidnapping and murder victim Adam Walsh.

Dominick’s Law: Signed into Michigan law in 2012, this heightened-sentencing measure hits child abusers with longer prison terms. Named after 4-year-old Dominick Calhoun, whose mother’s boyfriend beat him to death for urinating on a couch.

Amber Alert: The groundbreaking child-abduction alert system is now employed in nine countries. Named after Texas 9-year-old Amber Rene Hagerman, whose killer was never found.

INFO: For more information on Maxie’s H.O.U.S.E – which stands for “Health Outreach, Understanding advocacy for our kids, Safety and protection, Education and research” – visit maxieshouse.org

 

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