Decision in custody, rape case prompts review, changes
Sandusky — State and Sanilac County officials are acting to prevent a recurrence of a custody decision that gave a rapist parental rights to a child born from his assault of a 12-year-old girl, but a month after the case sparked widespread outrage, answers remain elusive.
Two reviews are underway to find what went wrong — one by the county prosecutor’s office and another by the state Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Child Support.
Sanilac County Probate Judge Gregory Ross canceled an order giving Christopher Mirasolo joint legal custody of the child, an 8-year-old boy, on Oct. 17. A day later, county Prosecutor James Young fired Eric G. Scott, the assistant prosecutor who handled the case.
Scott could not be reached for comment. Young has since tightened his office’s policies for how such cases are handled.
“It’s good to hear they are taking measures to see it doesn’t happen again — any measures that can protect children need to be taken,” said Carlo Martina, a Plymouth attorney who specializes in family law.
The boy’s mother, who has asked to be identified by her first name, Tiffany, wants to know why officials signed off on granting parental rights to the man who sexually assaulted her in September 2008.
Tiffany received $260 a month in food stamps for the past three years and said she remembers identifying Mirasolo as her son’s father on one document in July. But she insists she was never asked about the circumstances surrounding her pregnancy and was excluded from any custody discussions.
Tiffany, now 21, also said she never read or signed a consent document that Mirasolo, now 27, of Brown City signed twice, along with the county prosecutor, the Friend of Court, and Ross.
“Why did he approve an order that didn’t have my signature on it? Why were they giving parental rights to a rapist? Why could they not see that a 12-year-old girl was raped?”
She added: “If they did nothing wrong, why did the judge rescind his order and why did they fire that assistant prosecutor?”
In the wake of the controversy, the Sanilac County Circuit Court has stopped accepting any agreements from the prosecutor’s office regarding custody or parenting time in paternity matters.
Ross said in court last month that he relied on information presented by the prosecutor in approving the joint custody agreement. He suggested procedures needed to be reviewed.
A ‘regrettable situation’
Young said his office is still reviewing its procedures for paternity cases but has implemented these changes already:
■Requiring DHHS to determine if a child was conceived through criminal sexual assault or nonconsensual sexual penetration before submitting paternity requests.
■Modifying an initial paternity questionnaire to ask plaintiffs the same questions as defendants.
■Requiring all consent judgments of filiation to be signed by the plaintiff.
■Mandating that all paternity referrals involving criminal sexual conduct or non-consensual penetration — including those from DHHS — be discussed with the county prosecutor or chief assistant prosecutor.
“These are immediate changes involving paternity matters we have incorporated in the Prosecutor’s Office,” Young said.
“This regrettable situation should not have happened and I hope other prosecutor’s offices take notice.”
But Bob Wheaton, a DHHS spokesman, said the state has received no notice of any policy changes from Sanilac County.
In response to an email from The News outlining the revisions that mention the state agency, Wheaton said “any such request from a local county would not meet Michigan’s child support policy requirements.”
He added: “County prosecutor’s offices have resources at their disposal to determine the criminal history of a father before granting custody to the father.”
Martina, a former chairman of the State Bar of Michigan who teaches a Custody and Parenting Time course at the Institute of Continuing Education in Ann Arbor, said the number and complexity of custody cases makes it challenging to design effective safeguards.
“On any given day, there are hundreds of cases involving custody due to mothers seeking financial assistance,” he said. “And the state and prosecutors across Michigan are trying to do their best to find if fathers are out there who should be providing financial support for children.”
Ideally, a mother facing a custody case will have an attorney who can question the father’s character — including any criminal background — before a judge decides whether joint custody and visitation are in a child’s best interest, Martina said.
“Any court, any judge, would want to have both parents before him and look at backgrounds before making a decision.
“That doesn’t appear to have happened (in the Mirasolo case),” he said. “I get the feeling because of the way it was handled, this one fell through the cracks. And that is unfortunate. If the court would have known he was a convicted criminal, he would never have even been considered. It would have been reason enough to not give any such rights.”
‘It doesn’t make sense’
Other Metro Detroit attorneys familiar with family law said the Sanilac County case should put authorities elsewhere on notice to review how they handle such cases.
“That wouldn’t happen in Oakland County, and I doubt in Wayne or Macomb either,” said attorney Robert Zivian, who served 10 years as an assistant prosecutor and juvenile division chief in Oakland County, and has been practicing family law in the three counties for the past 12 years.
“The prosecutor’s office here and elsewhere in Michigan routinely go after biological fathers for support when a mother seeks financial assistance, but if they don’t meet with the mother in question, they will not sign off on any custody agreement and just refer it to the Friend of Court for an investigation,” he said.
In Tiffany’s case, officials’ efforts to secure payment from Mirasolo shouldn’t have resulted in him being granted parental rights, Zivian said.
“If it was just a question of money, of attempting to get reimbursement for assistance, it also doesn’t make sense,” he said. “You don’t have to provide legal custody to require a biological father to pay child support.”
Zivian said that in paternity cases, it’s routine to do a DNA test first. Once paternity has been established, discussions begin on the father’s income and the appropriate amount of child support, and the case goes before a family court judge, who can rule on custody, parental rights and visitation questions.
Birmingham attorney Jeffrey Lance Abood, who has practiced family law for nine years in Oakland and Macomb counties, said it’s crucial in custody and paternity cases to ensure that all parties are involved.
“I don’t understand how something like this could occur without notification to both sides,” Abood said. “I can see how a judge might not have information about someone’s past or character. That would seem to be the responsibility of the opposing party or their attorney to bring up. But if they are excluded from the hearing for any reason, it could then be overlooked.”
Abood also questioned how Mirasolo was granted parental rights after being convicted of attempted third-degree criminal conduct in the 2008 incident and fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct in a 2010 assault on a 14-year-old girl. He served less than a year in jail in the first case and five years in the second case.
“Considering the prosecutions were handled in the same county, you would think that office would have been familiar with it,” he said.
In a court filing on Mirasolo’s behalf, attorney Barbara Yockey said her client denied raping Tiffany and claimed the pair had a romantic relationship for three months. Mirasolo has since been fired from his job “due to the publicity” of the case, Yockey said.
Yockey said Mirasolo never initiated custody proceedings and does not seek parental rights. Final termination of his rights is pending.
Meanwhile, Tiffany says the custody case and the resulting publicity has disrupted her life and caused fresh trauma. She denied having any relationship with Mirasolo, before or after the assault. Even if true, under law a minor cannot legally consent to sex.
Tiffany said she had to return to Michigan from Florida under threat of being jailed for contempt of court, and has been forced to move yet again because authorities gave her address to Mirasolo.
Tiffany said he threatened nine years ago to kill her if she ever reported the assault.
She also fears Mirasolo or his family may try to find her and kidnap her son.
“It’s all definitely been life changing and I pray every day this will all be resolved and my son will be safe with me,” she said in a phone interview.
“I’m tired of telling what happened to me over and over again,” she said. “I’m tired. This is emotionally draining and it’s anyone’s guess when it’s going to end.”