By KAREN HOPPER USHER
Capital News Service
LANSING – Michigan custody law should reflect the changing Michigan family.
That’s the sentiment behind a bill in the House Committee on Families, Children and Seniors that would revise the Child Custody Act of 1970 which says parents have to be “advised” of joint custody as an option. Meanwhile, a resolution, passed by the committee, would raise awareness of parental alienation.
Under the proposed “Michigan Shared Parenting Act,” courts would presume joint custody is in the best interest of the child, unless certain conditions are met. Those conditions would include the parents agreeing not to have joint custody or a judge believing the child would be “materially harmed” by joint custody.
In a letter to the committee, the Michigan Judges Association said the new version of the bill contains provisions “in direct conflict with the best interests of children.
“Parenting time depends on a variety of factors, including the distance between the parties’ houses, the parties’ work hours, the children’s ages, the presence of sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, domestic violence, substance abuse and other critical factors that are not referenced in the bill,” President Laura Baird wrote in a list of nine objections.
Other legal professionals agree that the joint custody bill being considered in committee has flaws.
It needs tweaking, said Michelle McLean, a family lawyer and partner at Bolhouse, Baar, and Hofstee in Grandville.
“You can’t say 50-50 right off the board,” she said regarding parenting time.
But McLean questions whether current law is the best that can be done for families. She supports a revision of custody laws.
The bill needs more time before it’s ready for the full chamber, said Rep. Anthony Forlini, R-Harrison Township, and additional testimony in committee is expected later this year.
“It will require more thought and detail,” he said.
One issue raised by the Judges Association was the term “parental alienation.” The organization criticized it for not defining the term.
Parental alienation is commonly understood as one parent undermining or attacking the relationship between the child and the other parent.
In the resolution, it’s the fact that the term “parental alienation” is used at all that proved contentious.
Opponents of the bill questioned the very idea of parental alienation.
Domestic violence, not parental alienation, is a more likely cause of a break in the parent-child bond, according to an article in the Michigan Family Law Journal over the summer.
The Michigan Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence opposed the resolution, and said the concept of a parental alienation syndrome was based on discredited scholarship.
The resolution, which would discourage discussing with children “inappropriate details” of their parents’ break-up, is silent on domestic violence. Asked if parents should be allowed to tell their kids that they had experienced domestic violence, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake, said yes, if doing so would protect the child.
But issues between the parents are separate from a parent’s relationship to the child, Forlini said.
Resolutions are expressions of legislative opinion but carry no legal weight.
The vote came down party lines, with Reps.Thomas Hooker, R-Byron Center, Kathy Crawford, R-Novi, Hank Vaupel, R-Fowlerville, Runestad and Forlini,voting to move the resolution to the full House, and Marcia Hovey-Wright, D-Muskegon, Alberta Tinsley Talabi, D-Detroit, and Frank Liberati, D-Allen Park, voting no.
In explaining her vote, Hovey-Wright, of Muskegon, said the testimony against the resolution was convincing.
“This is not science. This is junk,” said Hovey-Wright, who has a master’s degree in social work.
She discouraged a tendency to look at the resolution as “just a resolution,” saying it was a clear attempt to bring the “parental alienation” pattern of behavior into a court of law.
If passed by the House, the resolution would be distributed to family law courts, friends of the court and child protective services. Runestad’s goal is to raise awareness of the issue.
Hovey-Wright, however, anticipates a different result. She said she thinks lawyers will use the resolution to try to sway judges.
Tom Power, a circuit court judge in Traverse City who served in the Legislature, scoffed at the idea that the resolution would carry weight.
“A resolution like that is of no importance whatsoever,” he said.
As a judge, Power said he is already required to consider whether parents foster the parent-child relationship.
The joint custody bill is in House Families, Children, and Seniors Committee.
The parental alienation resolution was passed by the House Families, Children, and Seniors Committee.
By KAREN HOPPER USHER