Shared-parenting bill aims for fewer every-other-weekend fathers

Linda Wright

Linda Wright is chair of National Parents Organization of Michigan. She lives in Grand Rapids.

As a mother and grandmother, I’ve witnessed first-hand the struggles wonderful fathers face while fighting for time with their children in the Michigan family court system. The cards are stacked against them.

Time and time again, fathers lose custody battles because the status quo in the courts say one parent, most times the mother, is better for the children. Why is losing one parent even a consideration? When children have two fit, willing and able parents, why not keep both?  Just because the parents separate, why are the children forced to lose one of them?  It’s 2017, not 1917 – gender roles are a thing of the past. If mothers want to be the primary breadwinners, they can be. If fathers want to be stay-at-home dads – more power to them.

Luckily, Michigan legislators are working on a solution for our state’s children. Before the state legislature paused for summer break, the House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee passed HB 4691, which is sponsored by Rep. Jim Runestad. The bill places Michigan in line to follow in the footsteps of states including Kentucky and Missouri, which have recently passed laws supportive of shared parenting – a flexible arrangement where children spend as close to equal time with each parent as possible after divorce or separation.

This legislation is aimed at changing the current winner-take-all landscape that forces a terrific parent, usually the father, almost completely out of the picture and into a role that more resembles a visitor.

Studies and statistics disagree with the court’s antiquated tradition of awarding sole custody a great majority of the time (U.S. Census stats show mothers receive sole custody more than 80 percent of the time). If mothers are better for singularly raising their children, why do federal statistics show that these children account for 63 percent of teen suicides? Why are we not outraged that 71 percent of kids who drop out of high school are from single-mother homes? Why should we not address the fact that 85 percent of those in prison come from fatherless homes? Why would anyone not want to fix this crisis?

Current research overwhelmingly shows children need and want both parents in their lives. Consider just one recent example: The American Psychological Association published research by William V. Fabricius of Arizona State University in the journal Psychology, Public Policy and Law titled, “Should Infants and Toddlers Have Frequent Overnight Parenting Time With Fathers? The Policy Debate and New Data.” Prof. Fabricius’ findings provide strong support for 50/50 parenting time of young children.

The simple solution is children need both their mothers and fathers. A loving father who wants to be present in his child’s life should be allowed to do so regardless of his relationship with the mother.  Unless one parent is proven unfit or guilty of abuse or violence, children deserve to retain both of their parents equally.

Currently, many family courtrooms remain on autopilot, where they continue the cookie-cutter order of sole custody to the mother and every other weekend with the dad. In most cases, the goal should not be to determine which parent is the “better” parent. Rather, it should be how to enable these children to keep substantial relationships with both parents.

There is hope. More than 20 states have considered shared parenting legislation in recent years, according to the Wall Street Journal. What’s more, shared parenting is the norm in many areas outside the United States, including Sweden. Plus, research throughout the globe presented at this spring’s International Conference on Shared Parenting was overwhelmingly supportive of the two-parent model.

It’s time for parents to start thinking about what’s in the best interest of their children. It’s time for our family courts to change the norm. It’s time for Michigan’s House and Senate to pass this bill, and time Gov. Rick Snyder signs it. Sole custody of children should be the last resort, not the standard.

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Sun, 08/27/2017 - 6:29am

Some points well taken. The courts are usually slow to move on these decisions.. Some areas don't have the investigators to look into cases where this 50-50 custody isn't working. There needs to be monitoring of alcohol and drug use of both parents. Seeing kids being torn between which place am I at this week is an issue. If two parents in an ideal world acted like adults and kept the best interest of the children as their top priority it might work. Another big factor is the age of the children and where each parent lives . What if they 10s or 100s of miles apart. Schooling is a huge challenge, not to mention childcare while parents are at work. . This is far more complicated than just 50-50. I speak to this as a grandparent and some one who was in education for over 35 years.. Love to hear others responses. R.L.

Steve Smewing
Sun, 08/27/2017 - 8:40am

I have fought and lost for the extra easy parenting time in Shiawassee County. They are extremely sex biased. Criminally sex biased. I have inches of paper to prove it.

Linda Wright
Sun, 08/27/2017 - 6:52pm

R.L. Do you suggest that there be alcohol and drug use monitoring for all married/together parents also, or just for those who are divorced or separated? I agree with you regarding the perfect parents who are able to keep the children's best interest first. However, with the current law it only takes one parent, for any number of perceived reasons, to frustrate the outcome and cause continuing litigation, stress, and turmoil. Quite often there is no real justification for this other than that one parent is unable to separate their animosity toward their former partner from the fact that the children still need and deserve both parents equally. It is often simply the parents wish to eliminate the other parent from their mutual children's lives that outweighs their ability to realize this. That one parent usually then receives sole custody which makes the children and other parent suffer. This bill has been extensively prepared and provisions are addressed and included regarding each of your concerns regarding the ages of the children and the locations of the parents homes. I also am a Grandparent. When children are denied access to one of their parents the collateral damage is often that they lose access to- as well as the love, guidance and support- of thath whole half of their family- Grandparents, Aunts, Uncles, Siblings, and Cousins. They are losing half of themselves. Sole custody should be the last resort, not the standard. This bill calls for a starting point of equal shared custody. It is not a mandate or automatic 50/50 for all as is being falsely circulated.

Steve Smewing
Sun, 08/27/2017 - 8:37am

I hope this changes things. In Shiawassee County I cannot even get them to follow the current laws. I am the discarded dad. I have so much paper proof of sex bias. I even submitted it to the Judicial Tenure Commission. They did not help or even investigate. It is such a joke. FOC does what it wants to do.
If you really want to see changes, change the grievance laws. Right now your grievance does not leave the county.
I have enough evidence of bias if it went to trial, I am certain it would settle. I would give up the money for jobs of those who are criminal.

Paul Jordan
Sun, 08/27/2017 - 10:59am

I am extremely thankful that my wife and I never had to figure out how to raise our kids in a divorce situation. However, I have known parents under the existing laws that equally split their parenting time so that both remained active and engaged parents.

Legal solutions to divorced parenting are inevitably Solomonic but, unfortunately, our legislators tend to be anything but Solomonic. (Perhaps the capital dome resembles a dunce cap for a reason...?) Would establishing a legal presumption for such shared parenting be a real improvement, or simply an attempt to impose another solution on the most challenging problem that a family can face?

Mon, 08/28/2017 - 8:46am

Very good point- 100% joint custody is possible, even though some judges pretty heavily frown upon it. While I admire this writer's efforts to assure the rights of the child to relationships with both parents, I disagree that this is a legal issue, rather than a judicial one. Having a mandate in place *might* make a difference, or it could just lead to the judges declaring more fathers unfit for arbitrary reasons.

While I am not divorced, my husband and I did talk about what we would ever do if we did split (not planning on it, but I would guess none of you were, either) and joint custody is our plan.

Now a family law issue I would like to see determined at the state level is 3rd/4th parent adoption that would allow the spouses of remarried parents to have parental rights without the other biological parent having to give up theirs. As it stands, a step parent has no rights to sign a child up for school, handle certain medical issues, etc. I would like to see that changed to acknowledge the broader scope of today's families (and it would also protect those fathers with partial custody from facing another fight if the mother gets remarried and petitions to have the parental rights terminated so her new spouse can adopt).

Our legal system is not set up to acknowledge the reality children's needs and family circumstances.

Sun, 08/27/2017 - 11:38am

Legislation accounts for ability of parents to maintain school schedules. Also legislation doesn't enable abusive parents so another false alarm from progressives. With standard visitation schedule that Friend of the Court impose on working fathers now children have short weekends, every other holiday, middle of the week dinners and few weeks during school breaks. This makes dad the vacation parent who's rarely involved with homework and projects.

Sun, 08/27/2017 - 4:51pm

I'm pretty sure this proposed change in the law is a solution in search of a problem in the majority of divorce cases. Shared or joint custody is the current legal default in practically every divorce that doesn't involve drug abuse or domestic violence by one parent or the other. However, when kids are of elementary school age, practicality almost always demands that they spend their weekdays during the school year with one parent or the other. When the family is of modest means, it may not be possible for both parents to afford homes large enough for kids to have a bedroom in each place and close by enough to let kids easily go back and forth during a week, or for the entire summer. Nor can parents who are transferred, or who must move to find work always manage to see their kids as often as they would prefer if they will also be able to contribute to their economic support.

Tue, 08/29/2017 - 4:05pm

amen, yes, it is a solution in search of a problem. And that is why it should not be made law.

Steve Smewing
Fri, 09/15/2017 - 9:32am

You both have not lived what I have lived. Not all counties have progressed. There are currently no mechanism in place to hold any FOC accountable for their actions. I can tell you that this is extremely frustrating. I get to file complaints to the very people who have ignored the law and I even cite the law. I have even communicated with the state agency that I can complain to, but all I can get out of that is the agency speaks to the FOC. The FOC in Shiawassee County in turn ignored the advice after my complaints.

John G.
Sun, 08/27/2017 - 5:07pm

Well stated article. The damage that is being done to families and children under the current biased laws and system is devastating.

For dads it's not amount money or control. It's about being an active, engaged and loving part of their children's lives.

It's unfortunate that lawyers and judges are continuing to create and feed a system that doesn't truly look at the best interests of a child, but rather take a distant 'one size fits all' approach and tries to blindly install that onto those unfortunate enough to be caught in the system. It's time that shared and equal parenting is the rule and not the vast exception.

Mike Riepen
Sun, 08/27/2017 - 5:09pm

Well spoken, Children have a protected fundamental right to be with each parent equally. As well each parent has a protected fundamental right to be with their child and direct their child's morals and values . The only instances I am aware of where the Supreme courts have ruled that the State is permitted to infringe these protected rights is if there is a finding of harm to the child or if the parent is found to be unfit. This is not the way our current system operates. I fully support equality in this nation, this includes equality in parenting.

Tue, 08/29/2017 - 5:12pm

Have you ever pondered the potential for the family unit to maintain a household for the kids where the parents take turns being there? Why do the kids have to be the ones on the move, trying to remember their belongings they need as they shuffle back and forth?

Sean K Kowalski
Mon, 11/13/2017 - 4:50pm

If only there were a law that said something like, In custody disputes between parents, the parents SHALL be advised of joint custody. At the request of EITHER parent, the court SHALL consider an award of joint custody, and SHALL state on the record the reasons for granting or denying a request. In other cases joint custody may be considered by the court. The court SHALL determine whether joint custody is in the best interest of the child.

Tue, 06/19/2018 - 7:26am

I can't believe the Bridge would publish such an inflammatory and painful article. While the statistics in here might be technically correct (although I could not find anywhere that said anywhere near 63% of teen suicides came from single parent homes) the tone and accusations against single mothers are ridiculous and completely tone deaf

Thu, 07/18/2019 - 2:32am

Well said Gabrielle. My 14 year old daughters only issues is her father. I even have her in therapy because I wanted her to work on a closer relationship with him but he still holds resentment after 9 years, and unfortunately she has to see his bitterness and even towards paying child support! That's not easy to watch being the "single mother".