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Bill would make shared custody mandatory priority for family court judges

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A new bill would require family court judges to award equal custody to both parents unless there's "clear and convincing" evidence that it isn't in the child's best interest.

When parents get divorced or split up, the biggest question is usually: Who gets the kids?

Most child custody cases are settled outside the courtroom. But when parents can’t agree, it’s up to a family court judge to decide.

A bill introduced Wednesday in the State House would issue new guidelines about how judges make those decisions.

It says that judges should start with the presumption that spending equal time with both parents is in the best interest of a child.

State Rep. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake, sponsored the bill. He said it would protect children's right to have meaningful relationships with both their parents. Right now, according to Runestad, how much time you get to spend with your child depends largely on which county you live in. 

“The outcome depends not on you, your children, your family, the love, caring, affection. The outcome depends on the judge,” he said. 

The bill has exceptions to the presumption of joint custody for cases of domestic violence or other concerns about a child’s well-being.

But it requires that the judge have “clear and convincing” evidence that shared parenting wouldn’t be in the best interest of a child before awarding one parent full or primary custody.

Rebecca Shiemke, a family law attorney with the Michigan Poverty Law Program, said that wording – “clear and convincing evidence” – raises the burden of proof for victims of abuse. And she said many won’t be able to provide the kind of evidence required by the court to meet the new standard.

“Victims often don’t contact law enforcement because they are afraid of retaliation. They don’t often tell friends or family because they are ashamed of what happened or because they’ve been isolated by their abuser so proof can be difficult,” Shiemke said.

Shiemke and other domestic violence advocates say they worry the legislation would put the wants of parents ahead of the needs of their children.

But Runestad said he thinks the changes could actually make child custody cases better for both parents and kids. By putting parents on equal footing from the start, he said, there's less incentive for adversarial custody battles.

The bill was referred to the House Judiciary Committee.