As a mother and grandmother, I’ve witnessed firsthand the struggles wonderful fathers face while fighting for time with their children in the Michigan family court system. The cards are stacked against them.
Time and time again, fathers lose custody battles because the status quo in the courts say one parent, most times the mother, is better for the children. Why is losing one parent even a consideration? When children have two fit, willing and able parents, why not keep both? Just because the parents separate, why are the children forced to lose one of them? It’s 2017, not 1917 — gender roles are a thing of the past. If mothers want to be the primary breadwinners, they can be. If fathers want to be stay-at-home dads, more power to them.
Luckily, Michigan legislators are working on a solution for our state’s children. Before the state legislature paused for summer break, the House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee passed HB 4691, which is sponsored by Rep. Jim Runestad. The bill places Michigan in line to follow in the footsteps of states including Kentucky and Missouri, which have recently passed laws supportive of shared parenting — a flexible arrangement where children spend as close to equal time with each parent as possible after divorce or separation.
This legislation is aimed at changing the current winner-take-all landscape that forces a terrific parent, usually the father, almost completely out of the picture and into a role that more resembles a visitor.
Studies and statistics disagree with the court’s antiquated tradition of awarding sole custody a great majority of the time (U.S. Census stats show mothers receive sole custody more than 80 percent of the time). If mothers are better for singularly raising their children, why do federal statistics show that these children account for 63 percent of teen suicides? Why are we not outraged that 71 percent of kids who drop out of high school are from single-mother homes? Why should we not address the fact that 85 percent of those in prison come from fatherless homes? Why would anyone not want to fix this crisis?
Current research overwhelmingly shows children need and want both parents in their lives. Consider just one recent example: The American Psychological Association published research by William V. Fabricius of Arizona State University in the journal Psychology, Public Policy and Law titled, “Should Infants and Toddlers Have Frequent Overnight Parenting Time With Fathers? The Policy Debate and New Data.” Prof. Fabricius’ findings provide strong support for 50/50 parenting time of young children.
The simple solution is children need both their mothers and fathers. A loving father who wants to be present in his child’s life should be allowed to do so regardless of his relationship with the mother. Unless one parent is proven unfit or guilty of abuse or violence, children deserve to retain both of their parents equally.
Currently, many family courtrooms remain on autopilot, where they continue the cookie-cutter order of sole custody to the mother and every other weekend with the dad. In most cases, the goal should not be to determine which parent is the “better” parent. Rather, it should be how to enable these children to keep substantial relationships with both parents.
There is hope. More than 20 states have considered shared parenting legislation in recent years, according to the Wall Street Journal. What’s more, shared parenting is the norm in many areas outside the United States, including Sweden. Plus, research throughout the globe presented at this spring’s International Conference on Shared Parenting was overwhelmingly supportive of the two-parent model.
It’s time for parents to start thinking about what’s in the best interest of their children. It’s time for our family courts to change the norm. It’s time for Michigan’s House and Senate to pass this bill, and time Gov. Rick Snyder signs it. Sole custody of children should be the last resort, not the standard.
About the author: Linda Wright is chair of National Parents Organization of Michigan. She lives in Grand Rapids.