Legislators, attorneys and supporters spoke at a local event about the need for family court reform to address what is said to be a nationwide child custody crisis.

The Americans for Equal Shared Parenting Capitols for Kids tour made a stop at the Howell Opera House Wednesday night to discuss the shared parenting philosophy and related legislation. Mark Ludwig, who served as the event’s guest speaker, is on the Board of Directors for the Americans for Equal Shared Parenting. Ludwig says there is a widespread problem when it comes to child custody following the divorce or separation of parents.

According to Ludwig, the crux of the problem is Title IV-D, which regulates the child support enforcement program. Ludwig says the program began with good intentions, having been created at a time when men typically worked and women stayed at home, and offers financial incentives to states that enforce payment of child support. But as society evolved to include more women in the workforce, there became less of a disparity in incomes and therefore not as much of a need for child support. Ludwig says that’s when a shift began to occur in how custody was awarded.

Ludwig claims, “Judges aren’t giving 50/50. The reason being if they give 50/50, unless there’s a wide disparity income, there’s not a big need for child support. But if they can give one parent every other weekend, and do it to middle-class families, now there’s a big need for child support. And that’s what’s created the problem all across the country. It started out mainly affecting men, but we’re seeing a wide swing going across the country where it doesn’t matter whether it’s the man or woman. It’s whoever is earning more money; they’re going to end up getting every other weekend.”

Representative Jim Runestad of White Lake shared information at the seminar about the Michigan Shared Parenting Bill he sponsors. He feels legislative reform is needed to avoid the frequency of cases in which one parent is awarded primary custody, while the other parent is “treated as a visitor”. Runestad says what the bill does is set the starting point for two, loving, caring, fit parents at a substantially equal amount of time. Runestad says, “If there’s any evidence of domestic violence, of any unfitness, of substance abuse, mental disorder…any of those undoes the presumption.” Runestad says bill opponents and the divorce industry have said the legislation “mandates and handcuffs” those affected; a sentiment he does not agree with.

Patty Malowney, who is running for State Representative in the 77th District, attended the seminar having heard from numerous residents their struggles in trying to obtain equal parenting time. Malowney went through her own divorce, but says she and her ex were both able to amicably work things out on their own. The problem, she says, is that it was difficult to do that without Friend of the Court intervening. Friend of the Court provides services related to child support, custody and parenting time. For privacy reasons, Malowney declined to say which county her divorce case was first set in, but says her attorney advised her to take her case to a different county because it would be “nearly impossible to opt out of Friend of the Court because of people’s financial interest in your custody dispute.” Malowney says all she wanted was to have a normal divorce without someone telling her what to do with child support and parent time.

Tim Laskowski attended the seminar and says he became involved with this issue after going through his own “high conflict” divorce in which he was given 133 nights a year with his children. Laskowski says he disagreed with that, but couldn’t afford taking the case to trial. He says when he and his ex first started meeting with their attorneys, he offered to split custody, parenting time and everything in the house 50/50, and was willing to pay whatever child support the court ordered. Laskowski says, “She was against it. Said no. I only want you to have the kids every weekend.” Laskowski says that wasn’t going to happen, fought for more time and now has 168 nights a year, with equal time during the school year, and then one week on, one week off in the summer. He says he has continued to fight for equal time, but to no avail.

Howell is one of 25 cities being visited by the Capitols for Kids tour. Leaders say the events “will help effectuate legislative change and ensure children have equal access to both fit and loving parents, regardless of the marital or relationship status of the parents.” (DK)