Doing the right thing isn’t always popular. But when it is, as it is with a current family court reform bill moving through the Michigan House, there should be no stopping us.
The latest scientific research shows that shared parenting — where children spend as much time as possible with each parent — is in the best interest of children after divorce or separation. And a recent poll conducted by the Market Resource Group showed that a whopping 84 percent of registered voters in Michigan support joint custody and equal parenting time after divorce or separation, as long as there is no history of abuse, addiction or mental illness.
This poll is a wake-up call for policymakers. The status quo is not working. Judges strip custody from one parent in over half of all divorce cases. In some counties, as many as 85 percent of divorce cases result in one parent losing custody of their children, according to county-by-county data released by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services last year.
Roughly 26,000 kids a year experience the stress of divorcing parents, according to the most recent data by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.
Each year, state family courts create over an estimated 10,000 single-parent children because of the courts’ decisions to strip custody from divorcing parents. The most common parenting plan for non-custodial parents calls for every other weekend visitation, meaning tens of thousands of Michigan children will never experience one of their two parents dropping them off at school or packing them a lunch. Those duties are assigned entirely to the other parent.
Fortunately, we have a chance to preserve children’s relationships with both parents and reform our family court system. HB 4691 changes current law by creating a starting point of joint custody and substantially equal parenting time in divorce situations.
Exceptions are created under the legislation for domestic violence, abuse, neglect or any other factor a judge may deem to materially compromise the health, safety or welfare of the child. Current law doesn’t require any finding of poor parenting in order to strip custody. They must find only that one parent is a bit “better” than the other when comparing 12 statutory factors.
What’s most remarkable about the poll is that 66 percent of voters strongly believe that having two parents share custody of their children after divorce is in the best interest of the kids. Few political issues engender such a visceral and overwhelming response. Strong support for shared parenting was evident across every geographic region of the state, both genders and roughly equally among Democrats and Republicans. Seventy-six percent of registered voters support passing a law to force judges to rule for joint custody unless a parent is unwilling or unable to provide proper care.
Joint custody, not sole custody, should be the status quo. Our laws need to better reflect what American families really look like and encourage, rather than hinder, participation of both parents. Michigan legislators have a chance to do right by our kids here. We need to make sure they do.
Linda Wright is chair of the National Parents Organization in Michigan.