Bill would revamp how child custody decided

A file photo of Michigan's Capitol Building in Lansing on May 25, 2016.


GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A town hall meeting Monday about proposed changes to Michigan’s child custody laws was contentious at times, with dozens voicing their opinions.

The meeting, which was held in Grand Rapids, focused on House Bill 4691. The legislation would — barring certain circumstances, like domestic violence — require judges to grant divorcing parents joint legal custody and equal time. One parent would get no more than 200 overnights in a year unless otherwise agreed upon by both sides.

The bill’s main sponsor is state Rep. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake. He’s a major critic of the current law, the Child Custody Act of 1970. At the meeting, he used slides to argue his points and said that how much time a parent gets with their children varies too much by county and by judge.

“Breaking that bond and divorcing one of the parents down to 20, 15 percent (time spent with their child) is devastating for children,” Runestad told 24 Hour News 8 at the meeting.

If passed, his bill would change the name of the current law to the Michigan Shared Parenting Act. He claims the current system too often defaults into granting one parent overwhelming custody.

Several people spoke in support of the bill, including a father who viewed the proposed changes this way: “Start with innocent until proven guilty. You’re a good father until somebody can prove you’re not — not the other way around.”

But the legislation was met with major opposition at the town hall, especially from those who work in family court. They fought back against claims that they ‘default’ when deciding on cases.

“We start with each family as a unique unit and we go from there,” one family court attorney said. “There is no ‘default’ in Kent County.”

Critics argue the legislation would shift the focus from the child’s best interest to the parent’s best interest. Kent County Family Court Judge T.J. Ackert argued that it would limit the court’s ability to examine the individual factors of each case.

“Here, we can’t even ask the question, we can’t even look at it. It’s simply determined from the get-go,” he told 24 Hour News 8. “We’re concerned that this is too much of a dramatic change and throws out 40 years of law.”

The bill’s sponsors have already made some major changes to the current write-up to improve its chances in the legislature. They’ve reworked it to lower the standard for parents to prove factors like domestic violence.

The bill has passed the House Judiciary Committee but has yet to be approved by the House at large.