Hannah Mills was 15 when two strangers woke her in a hotel room. One waved handcuffs in her face while taunting her: “We’re not afraid to use them on children.”
The two strangers, who had taken Hannah from a Shiawassee County courtroom to the motel, then drove her to the Detroit airport where they held a towel over her head and escorted her to an airplane.
Hours later, she landed in California where she joined her father and younger brother at a reunification program – called Family Bridges – designed to repair Hannah’s relationship with a father she says she hated, but who was given sole custody of her after a bitter custody battle with her mother.
“They showed us dumb videos that said your mom is wrong and dad is right,” Hannah said. “They threatened to send me to a housing unit in Utah until I was 18. I was only 15. I had to say, ‘I love you, dad’ and participate. … They said if I did, I could see my mom.”
Hannah’s father, Kurt Mills, of Owosso, sees it differently. He believes the reunification program was a necessity to address “the parental alienation” tactics his ex-wife, Candy Mezey, used to poison Hannah’s attitude and feelings toward him.
Parental alienation describes a situation where a child chooses not to have a relationship with one parent because of the influence of the other parent.
Kurt Mills said the program helped his relationship with his now-17-year-old daughter. He admits that he hasn’t seen Hannah in months, because she left his home when she turned 17 and hasn’t told him where she is living.
“Candy always tells the kids bad things about me and my family,” he said, adding that comments included how his family doesn’t love the children. “The first couple years, my ex-wife denied (visitation).
“After enough brainwashing, the kids said they didn’t want to go with me. … After a while, my kids were referring to me as ‘sperm donor,’ ‘deadbeat dad,’ (and) ‘loser,’” Kurt Mills added. “The judge labeled (ours) the worst case in the courthouse.”
Michigan still follows the Child Custody Act of 1970, which puts the power of which parent receives custody in the hands of the court. The decision is determined based on what is known as “best interest” factors for the child, including financial resources and education.
But, addressing child custody in Michigan has become a hot topic button as lawmakers consider House Bill 4691, the Michigan Shared Parenting Act, which passed the House Judiciary Committee in June and is headed for the House floor in the fall.
The proposed bill establishes a presumption of shared parenting – both legal and physical – that means neither parent would have more than 200 days per year, or about 54%, with the child. If passed, HB 4691 would not make custody an automatic right as exceptions in cases of domestic violence, child abuse or unfitness would still apply, and those custody decisions would revert to the 1970 law.
Advocates of the bill say it would fix an ineffective family court system across Michigan that pits parents against one another. Opponents argue it assumes that one sort of custody is best for all families and could create more conflict that places children in the middle of their parents’ fight.
In June, Judges Kathleen Feeney and Brian Kirkham of the Michigan Judges Association wrote in testimony prepared for the judicial committee that the presumption of an established custodial environment by both parents “disregards the actual facts as to which parent provides day-to-day support, maintenance and nurturing of the child and instead substitutes mere presence of a parent.”
Linda Wright, chairperson of the Michigan chapter of the National Parents Organization, said it is difficult to ascertain who is the better parent based on the best interest factors when “a lot of custody cases” are decided after “10 minutes in front of a judge,” who cannot get an accurate picture of the family dynamics in such a short time.
“The current law is not working,” she said. “… Without there being a standard, it really doesn’t depend on who is the best parent. It depends on what judge you have and what county you’re in.
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“There is a wide discrepancy between counties on what parents may get – joint custody or equal parenting time,” Wright added.
Statewide, joint custody ranged from a high of 70% in some counties to as low as 14% in others. Livingston County ranked in the middle with mothers awarded custody in 50.4% of the cases while 7.3% of fathers receive custody, according to statistics from the NPO. Joint custody is awarded in 41.7% of the cases.
In Michigan, an estimated 85% of divorce cases involving children end with one parent receiving sole custody. Of those parents awarded sole custody, an estimated 83% are women, the NPO reports.
“That is not enough time to establish the bonds and maintain the parent role for children,” Wright said.
Candy and Kurt Mills married June 28, 2003.
According to court documents, the couple had an apparently tumultuous relationship that led to multiple filings seeking a divorce. The couple reunited several times, until December 2009, when their final judgment of divorce entered.
At the time, Candy Mills had custody of the couple’s two children while Kurt was given parental visitation rights on alternate weekends from 6 p.m. Friday to 6 p.m. Sunday and one overnight each Wednesday. The couple alternated major holidays with Kurt Mills having the children on Father’s Day and for three consecutive weeks in the summer.
However, about two months after the divorce was final, Candy Mills filed court documents alleging her former husband “has never exercised” his rights to see the children, and she asked the judge to stop the Wednesday overnight visit.
“She is doing everything possible to keep them from me,” Kurt Mills told the court, according to court records. “I have always been a good, involved dad and have always taken good care of my kids.”
That latter statement remains true today, Kurt said.
She remembers “my dad was not around a lot.” She said there “was a lot of violence and hostility” and that her father was physically and verbally abusive toward her mother. She said she witnessed her father “throw” her mother off beds and “shove her into walls.”
Hannah remembers her father would leave during the arguments, sometimes to stay at another house he owned or to travel for work. She also remembers her father telling her “you’re a mistake” and that she “should never have been born.”
“The hostility was so high,” she said.
Court records show both parents hurled accusations at the other.
Candy Mills accused her ex-husband of driving without a license with their son in the vehicle and of excessive alcohol consumption in front of the children. She also alleged Kurt Mills’s family members taught the children how to roll cigarettes, showed porn to the children and offered the children alcoholic Jello shots at a family gathering.
Kurt said a family member did roll cigarettes in the children’s presence but did not teach them. He also acknowledges there were Jello shots at a party but said none were offered to the children, and he admits “driving drunk once” when he went to Candy Mills’s home at her request.
Kurt Mills said ex-wife continually made false allegations to Child Protective Services, which could “not substantiate” Candy’s claims.
Hannah said she complained her father denied her food as punishment, but CPS gave her father a warning they would visit, which prompted him to stock the house with food. She said CPS told her that, since “he didn’t use a stick or weapons,” his treatment of her “wasn’t child abuse.”
“Obviously, you’re not going to leave your house bad if you know they’re coming,” she said.
CPS does not comment on investigations.
Court records show that Kurt’s son threatened to “break everything (Kurt) owns” if he was forced to visit his father, and Hannah told her father, “I hate you.”
Hannah, then a freshman in high school, threatened suicide and began cutting herself.
As the custody dispute, which centered on the children’s unwillingness to visit their father, raged on, the judge and CPS appeared to get frustrated.
CPS, tasked with investigating allegations of child abuse and neglect, asked the judge to force Candy Mills to give her ex-husband his parenting time, and they asked that Candy Mills receive a 20-hour community service sentence.
Kurt Mills said it was CPS who suggested “parent alienation” was at play. He said that clicked, explaining the children’s disrespect and hostility, and his ex-wife’s denial of his parenting time.
“I simply wanted to be a consistent part of my kids’ life,” Kurt said.
In August 2015, Judge Matthew Stewart had apparently had enough and awarded Kurt physical and legal custody of both children.
Hannah said she and her younger brother were told they were going to court on Aug. 10, 2015, to tell the judge their opinion about where they should live.
Instead, Hannah was ordered to go with “these people,” two strangers Hannah now refers to as “psychos.” They told her she could no longer have contact with her mother, patted her down and escorted her to a hotel.
Candy Mills had been ordered by the judge to immediately leave the courthouse and to stay 5 miles away until close of business that day. She learned her children were in California when a pharmacist called to discuss refilling a prescription for Hannah.
“I call it kidnapping,” Candy Mills said. “Two people took off with my child. They were strangers.”
In California, Hannah said she was forced to participate in the Family Bridges program operated by Randy Rand, who has since had his license as a psychologist revoked because of misconduct in Florida and California.
Programs like Family Bridges, which bills itself as a multi-day educational program, have sprung up in the past decade to address parental alienation.
Opponents argue the programs, which can cost upwards of $40,000, are shams that provide a way for lawyers, psychologists and social workers to profit from parents in a bitter custody battle. Proponents say parental alienation is psychologically damaging and reunification programs like Family Bridges are the best way to reunite an estranged parent and children.
Kurt Mills said he felt he had no choice.
“I had concerns for a year because of what was happening to my kids was absolutely horrific,” he said. “This was the only hope there was. … I was trying to open their minds up and not be tunnel vision by just what their mom said.”
Hannah said her father had pre-arranged her “escort” as he had purchased her airline ticket before the conclusion of a custody hearing. Kurt said it was necessary due to Hannah’s hostility toward him.
He believes the program helped. Hannah disagrees.
Candy Mills’s attorney, William Mollison, filed a motion in January 2016 seeking to return custody of Hannah and her younger brother their mother. The judge denied the request.
Changing the law
Kurt believes Michigan’s Legislature needs to seriously consider HB 4691.
“The laws have to change in the state of Michigan,” he said. “I would think when children are being damaged so severely someone should stand up and do something about it. … I think both parents need to put their hate and anger aside and think about the kids.”
Research shows that shared parenting is best for children. NPO reports that children without shared parenting are two times more likely to drop out of high school and four times more likely to have emotional or behavioral problems.
“That is the promise of this bill,” Wright said. “It’s to allow the children to keep both parents and both extended families. There’s a trickle-down effect to this that when one parent is eliminated … (children) also lose that whole other side of their village – the grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.”
Hannah left her father’s home at 17. She arranged with a family she met at church to live with them and attend Brighton High School.
She said she’s been advised that, as long as she emails her father at least once a month to let him know that she is OK, he cannot report her missing or as a runaway. She has denied his requests to meet for dinner at a restaurant, and she’s revoked permission for school officials to give her father information.
“Not once has he asked me to come back,” Hannah noted.
She visits her mother, but only on her mother’s court-ordered weekends because she fears, if she detours from that schedule, her mother could be accused of violating court orders.
“She went to jail for a night because we refused to visit our dad,” Hannah said. “She was threatened with 30 days. I don’t want to be the one who puts my mom in jail.”
Hannah said is waiting for the day she turns 18 so she can have her mother back in her life 100% of the time.
She works at a local Subway store to support herself and is planning a mission trip to Africa with her church. She entered her senior year of high school and has found a renewed interest in dance, which she lost when “I was taken away from my mom.”
“I’m glad he’s out of my life,” Hannah said about her father.
“I was so depressed for so long, obviously. I was cutting myself and attempting suicide, but at this point, I see the light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “I remember when I was 13 and counting the days to 18. … I can make something good out of all of this. I want to save other children.”