Michigan family law courts are facing a crisis. As Michigan Supreme Court Justice Maura Corrigan explains, two–thirds of all the cases filed in Michigan circuit courts are family law cases. At least three million of the state’s 10 million people are currently involved in cases with open family court files. Corrigan warns that this has greatly expanded Michigan’s role in its citizens’ private lives. Moreover, the huge caseload prevents courts from handling these weighty and complex duties in anything but an assembly–line manner.
There are two main reasons for Michigan’s problem—the state’s high rate of family breakdown, and the way Michigan family courts adjudicate child custody. HB 4564, a bill which will be heard by the Michigan House Judiciary Committee on May 7, addresses the latter issue.
Under current law, judges decide custody cases based on the 12 factors delineated in Michigan’s Best Interest of the Child Test. 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, usually (but not always) their fathers. Moreover, the custody decisions based on the 12 factors are often subjective and arbitrary.
By declaring the losing party a “noncustodial parent” with little role in his or her children’s lives, Michigan family courts are generating contentious litigation. HB 4564 will help clear overcrowded court calendars by instituting a presumption of shared parenting in divorce or separation. 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. Under HB 4564, the loving bonds parents share with their children will be protected, greatly reducing the need for court battles.
Two recent studies published in the journal Child Development demonstrate the importance of keeping both parents in a child’s life. One, a study of low–income African–American and Hispanic families, found that when nonresident fathers are involved in their adolescent children’s lives, the incidence of substance abuse, violence, crime, and truancy decreases markedly. The study’s lead author, professor Rebekah Levine Coley, says the study found involved nonresident fathers to be “an important protective factor for adolescents.”
The study also found that when teens begin to slide towards delinquency, nonresident fathers increase their involvement in response. The researchers found such involvement to be effective—the impact of father involvement was the greatest on the kids who had previously been the most troubled.
Similarly, according to a long–term study conducted in the United States and in New Zealand, a father’s presence greatly decreases the risk of teen pregnancy. The study found that it mattered little whether the child was rich or poor, or black or white—what mattered was dad.
Research also demonstrates that father involvement at earlier stages of a child’s life produces similarly positive outcomes.
Unfortunately, misguided women’s advocates (such as the Michigan National Organization for Women) and special interest groups (such as the Michigan State Bar’s Family Law Section) have opposed shared parenting. In December 2006, a similar shared parenting bill was held up in committee on a 4–4 vote (one abstention).Nonetheless, some women’s advocates recognize that shared parenting helps mothers because it provides them with greater economic freedom and opportunities. Outspoken feminist advocates of shared parenting include Martha Burk and former NOW president Karen DeCrow.
A recent trend in some Michigan courts demonstrates recognition of this. In part because welfare funds are tight, some Michigan family court judges say they’ve been increasingly awarding shared parenting in custody cases involving low–income parents. Why? Dividing child care duties between mothers and fathers allows mothers more opportunity to develop careers and financial independence.
Research demonstrates that shared parenting leads to higher rates of child support compliance and fewer rancorous court cases, thus reducing the need for state involvement. HB 4564 will help Michigan’s parents and children, as well as its overburdened court system.
- Oakland Press5/5/08