Column: Embrace fathers who want to actively parent

Jim Runestad

As we prepare to sit down at picnic tables, enjoy time at the lake or gather at cottages across Michigan to celebrate Father’s Day, it’s time for Michigan to begin a serious dialogue on initiatives that encourage dads to be actively engaged in the lives of their children.

Nationwide, 40 percent of children today live in a home without their biological father. In our state, over a half-million children live in a home without any male presence at all. While some of this is unavoidable, the fact remains that we have a post-divorce child custody system that systematically creates thousands of fatherless households every year.

Under Michigan’s “Established Custodial Environment” legal standard, child custody determinations come down to a parental comparison contest, largely based off of who spent the most time with the kids during the marriage as a proxy for who is the “best parent.” In such a determination, there is usually a winner and a loser. In over half of all state divorce cases, family courts stripped custody from one parent.

Striking testimony presented recently before the Michigan House Judiciary Committee revealed an alarming lack of consistency across counties. For example, joint custody determinations ranged from a high of 70 percent in some counties and as low as 14 percent in others. What the committee found was that a parent’s likelihood of enjoying joint custody had little relation to their parenting skills but rather it was a function of where the parent lived and what judge they were assigned.

Statistics show that more than 80 percent of custodial parents are moms.

Once relegated to becoming a non-custodial parent, what becomes of that child-parent relationship? According to Friend of the Court “reasonable parenting time” standards adopted in many counties, non-custodial parents can expect to spend only four overnights a month with their children, including no school nights. Therefore, many dads miss out on the rites of passage of parenthood — dropping their children off at school, packing them a lunch, or helping them write papers and study for important exams.

Absent strong statewide child custody laws, the resulting patchwork of statewide custody determinations is left to the biases of individual judges and Friend of the Court referees. We see the alarming results of such a de facto child custody system, relegating tens of thousands of Michigan fathers out of substantive child-rearing responsibilities and into nearly meaningless roles. Unfortunately, we won’t be able to just ignore the dreaded consequences of a generation of families without dads.

To begin to address the fatherless generation created by the state family court system, I recently introduced House Bill 4691, which grants shared custody and substantially equal parenting time as a starting point in custody deliberations.

Despite the hue and cry from those who are responsible for the current adversarial system of divorce, and those who financially benefit from it, the new presumption would simply call upon parties who oppose shared custody to prove that such an arrangement is harmful to the children. Proving harm is not an onerous requirement, considering we are talking about parents being stripped of their most basic parental rights.

The legislation revamps the best interest factors and includes such things as an evaluation of the parents’ ability to support the children’s educational endeavors and provide health care, while weighing factors like the parents’ mental health and illegal drug use. The plan also bolsters protections for domestic and child abuse, allowing judges to forgo the best interest factors when abuse has been found to occur.

As we celebrate the important contributions dads play in our lives this weekend, let’s vow to strengthen the role good fathers enjoy in our state. Join me in supporting the proposed Michigan Shared Parenting Act.

Rep. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake, represents Michigan’s 44th district. A father of three, Runestad serves as chair of the House Judiciary Committee.