March 7, 2016
Michigan's 83 counties showed significant improvement in 2015 with regard to information they provide minors about an abortion rights law, when compared with University of Michigan-led research from five years ago.
The number of counties providing accurate and timely information in a helpful manner about the Parental Rights Restoration Act of 1990 more than doubled from one survey to the next, wrote students that conducted the research.
Some problems persist, however, in how judicial offices across the state respond to requests for information on the law that allows minors to seek a judge's permission to get an abortion without parental consent.
"It's a credit to those courts and the leadership there to see that these improvements actually happened," said Anna Kirkland, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and associate director of Institute for Research on Women and Gender, and associate professor of women's studies and political science.
"My students also deserve credit for the change because it was their intervention and their report that exposed the poor treatment. "
Five years ago, students in Kirkland's Advanced Gender and Law seminar made phone calls to all Michigan counties, in attempt to find out what a minor would encounter as she sought information about the law.
Using a series of questions and a rating system of 100 points, they found that 54 percent of counties failed in 2010, with 13 counties receiving scores of zero. The most common problems were ignorance of the law, inappropriate referrals, limited judge availability and multiple call transfers.
The study was repeated last year by the Michigan Organization on Adolescent Sexual Health, in cooperation with U-M and with funding from the National Institutes for Reproductive Health. Students from another of Kirkland's classes conducted the calls, using the same survey with a few revisions.
This time around 26 percent of counties received a failing grade, a considerable improvement but still a concern to one of the students that conducted the most recent research.
"I know that the last time they did this study the courts changed, so I hope this time also will result in new processes and procedures," said Erica Liao, political science student.
Overall, the judicial office personnel appeared more informed, cooperative and responsive, the research report states. The greatest obstacle in the recent survey was the need to call several courts back due to increased use of voice mail. The students also suspect that word got around that the calls were being made again, so some court employees may have brushed up on the law at the last minute.
"I conclude from the improved Michigan outcomes that our study helped create a sense of accountability," Kirkland said. "Court employees and their supervisors realized that we might be studying them and that they wanted to improve how they performed under scrutiny."