The Michigan House Committee on Family and Children Services will soon consider a family law bill which will amend the Child Custody Act of 1970 to protect the loving bonds children of divorce share with both parents. Sadly, today Michigan family courts often allow these bonds to be needlessly damaged or destroyed.
HB 5267 is primarily sponsored by Rep. Leslie Mortimer (R-Horton), who has been joined by 10 other legislators. When parents cannot agree on custody arrangements, the bill instructs courts to order joint custody unless there is clear and convincing evidence that one of the parents is unfit, unwilling, or unable to care for his or her child. A mediator will then help the parents draft a shared parenting plan based on each parent having substantially equal time with their children. The principle behind the bill is difficult to dispute—as long as both parents are fit and there are no extenuating circumstances, they should both share in parenting their children.
While the Michigan State Bar’s Family Law Section, the Michigan National Organization for Women, Domestic Violence Escape, Inc., and others have come out against the bill, joint custody is endorsed by a growing consensus of mental health and family law professionals, and research establishes that joint custody is what’s best for kids.
According to psychologist Robert Bauserman’s meta-analysis of 33 studies of children of divorce, which was published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Family Psychology, children in shared custody settings had fewer behavior and emotional problems, higher self-esteem, better family relations, and better school performance than children in sole custody arrangements.
A Harvard University study of 517 families conducted across a four-and-a-half year period measured depression, deviance, school effort, and school grades in children ranging in age from 10 to 18. The researchers found that the children in joint custody settings fared better on these indices than those in sole custody.
NOW claims that HB 5267 "places the interests of parents over the child’s interests." Yet when researchers have examined children of divorce, and studied and queried adult children of divorce, they’ve found that most prefer joint custody and shared parenting.
For example, a study by psychologist Joan Kelly, published in the Family and Conciliation Courts Review, found that children of divorce "express higher levels of satisfaction with joint physical custody than with sole custody arrangements," and cite the "benefit of remaining close to both parents" as an important factor.
When Arizona State University psychology professor William Fabricius conducted a study of college students who had experienced their parents’ divorces while they were children, he found that over two-thirds believed that "living equal amounts of time with each parent is the best arrangement for children." His findings were published in Family Relations in 2003.
Under current law, judges decide custody cases based on the 12 factors delineated in Michigan’s Best Interest of the Child Test. Both the Michigan Bar and Michigan NOW assure us that this system is effective and should not be changed. However, the 12 factors fail to place sufficient emphasis on protecting children’s relationships with both parents. According to the Michigan Family Independence Agency, the most common parenting time schedule in Michigan allows children only 15% physical time with their noncustodial parents.
Moreover, the custody decisions based on the factors are often subjective and arbitrary. Under HB 5267 a court cannot deny requests for joint custody without stating its reasons on the record.
Michigan NOW also asserts that HB 5267 will "further impoverish children of separated or divorced parents" because in Michigan, as in most states, the amount of physical time divorced parents spend with their children and the concomitant expenses are calculated into the child support obligation. These fears are also unwarranted.
Research demonstrates that joint custody leads to higher rates of child support compliance. This isn’t surprising, since parents who are permitted little role in their children’s lives have less motivation to make sacrifices for them. Also, under the current system noncustodial parents are often forced to wage expensive court battles in order to protect their time and relationships with their children. These parents end up supporting lawyers instead of kids.
While Michigan NOW is correct that there are fathers who put their pocketbooks above their children’s best interests, they ignore the obvious converse. If a dad may seek 40 or 50% physical time with his children simply to lower his child support obligation, doesn’t it also hold that a mother may seek 85% physical time in order to increase it?
Both Domestic Violence Escape and NOW claim that the bill will put abused women in harm’s way. According to DOVE, HB 5267 "sends a clear message to battered women and children that the ’rights’ of a batterer take precedence over their safety and wellbeing." Yet under HB 5267 only fit parents are eligible for joint custody—battered mothers should and would receive sole custody.
Unfortunately NOW, DOVE and other misguided women’s advocates seem capable of recognizing only two types of divorces—ones where both spouses agree on a custody arrangement, and divorces involving domestic violence. However, the overwhelming majority of breakups fit neither profile. Instead, decent, fit parents often cannot agree on custody. In such cases, HB 5267 will ensure that children won’t see one of the two people they love the most pushed to the margins of their lives.
- Lansing State Journal5/28/06