Robert Pedersen was devastated three years ago when a divorce judge said he could see his two children only a few days a month.
Pedersen’s divorce agreement now includes long weekends, a Wednesday overnight visit and half of summers, holidays and spring breaks with his children. It’s almost enough time to make him feel that he can provide an equal amount of parenting to his kids.
Michigan law recommends that custody decisions be based on which parent has been the primary caregiver unless it can be shown that another arrangement is more appropriate, but Pedersen and other noncustodial parents are fighting to modify the law so joint physical custody becomes the norm. They view equal parenting access as a civil rights issue, but opponents say equal time isn’t always best for children.
“With the pain of a divorce, a lot of stupid decisions are made initially as far as the kids go,” said Pedersen, who plans to ride his bike from Lansing to Washington, D.C., this summer to raise awareness of the issue. “There are different contributions that Mom and Dad make to a child, and kids need both of them.”
Noncustodial fathers think gender bias plays a role in these decisions and reduces them to visitors who pay child support. Children need both parents equally, they say.
But many custodial parents, family law attorneys and domestic violence activists oppose making joint custody mandatory.
They say every family is different, and 50-50 custody doesn’t work in every situation.
It becomes especially difficult when parents live in different school districts or one of them doesn’t want joint custody. Another factor is that mandating joint custody can sometimes disrupt a child’s stability.
“When a child’s whole world is changing, we want to keep as much stable in their lives as we can,” said Karen Sendelbach, chair of the Family Law Section of the State Bar of Michigan.
Other opponents say noncustodial parents sometimes want joint custody simply to even the score with their ex-partner or to reduce their child support obligation. A noncustodial parent’s support payments can drop by as much as 40 percent if the child stays overnight 128 times or more each year.
“The 50-50 custody split is more about people not wanting to feel the other parent has won,” said Kent Weichmann, chair of the Legislative Committee of the Family Law Section.
“It has nothing to do with the relationship with the child. It’s more about who’s winning. It also has to do with paying less child support.”
More dads join movement
But supporters say this issue is not ever going to go away, especially as more fathers join the movement, including movie stars Alec Baldwin and Denzel Washington.
“It’s a civil rights movement that is coming into its own,” said David L. Levy, CEO of the Children’s Rights Council, based outside Washington, D.C.
“It goes to the core of the right of a human being: the right to be a parent to your child, and of the children to be part of your life.”
Next to child support, child custody is perhaps the most heated issue between parents when they split up and try to restructure their lives with their children.
Michigan hasn’t kept reports on custody arrangements for several years, but the latest information, in 2003, shows that the Friend of the Court recommended physical custody of the children for mothers in 68 percent of the 14,470 cases that year, while fathers were recommended 12 percent of the time. Joint custody was recommended in 2,717 cases — about 18 percent.
While noncustodial mothers are also part of the joint custody movement, it is spearheaded primarily by fathers and appears to be gaining momentum nationally.
More than 25 states have laws regarding joint custody that are much stronger than Michigan’s, Levy said.
Since the 1990s, Michigan fathers have been trying to get the laws changed to force the courts to immediately presume equal joint custody.
A hearing was recently held on the fourth bill introduced in the Michigan Legislature, but it was not voted out of the House Judiciary Committee. It includes an exception for unfit parents.
In between the four pieces of legislation, the fathers launched a failed petition drive to put the ballot before voters and also were unsuccessful in a class action lawsuit in federal court.
Moms’ groups eclipsed
Michigan dads say their effort is growing — four new state organizations support the issue, and their ranks have grown from 5,000 to 20,000 people, said Lake Orion resident Jim Semerad, one of the leaders in Michigan’s movement.
The growth appears to be eclipsing grass-roots groups headed by custodial mothers. The Association for the Enforcement of Child Support, a national group, was founded in Toledo in 1984 by activist Geraldine Jensen. She had a base in Ann Arbor for two years, before her 2004 retirement, which galvanized a number of Metro Detroit activists.
The organization is now headquartered in Cleveland, has become more virtual and is less visible in Michigan.
ACES executive director Debbie Klein is not concerned about Michigan fathers’ activism.
They have always had more time and money to lobby lawmakers, while mothers tend to devote their time to raising the children, she said.
Joint custody simply cannot work for everyone, Klein said, because some couples are never going to be able to get along.
And it’s the conflict between the parents in broken families that is most devastating to children, not the actual divorce.
“It puts the children in a horrible situation,” Klein said. “That’s what custody should always be about; it should always be about what’s best for the children.”
‘It’s the right thing to do’
Many fathers say it’s best for children to be with both parents and that they will keep fighting until the law changes in Michigan.
“It’s the right thing to do,” Semerad said.
It’s also why Pedersen, 36, is training every morning for his 758-mile bike trek in August with five other fathers to spread the word about what they think should be the law of the land.
“Kids do best with shared parenting, as long as it doesn’t disrupt the school schedule and the parents are fit and willing,” Pedersen said.