The ever excellent Dianna Thompson is using her status as Executive Director of Family Reunion to go to bat for shared parenting (Family Reunion). Thompson has for many years been one of the staunchest proponents of family court reform. Put simply, she knows whereof she speaks. Everyone who cares about the impact family courts have on children should take heed.
Children are born with two parents. Children want, love and need both. No child should be separated from a parent or reduced to a mere visitor to a parent unless the court finds an important reason (e.g., child abuse).) And yet courts, out of mere expedience, allow judges to pick a winner and a loser in child custody arrangements. By doing so, it only guarantees that the child will be the loser, because that child walked into court with two parents and walked out with only one.
Bingo. The child walked into court with two parents to whom it was strongly attached and walked out with just one. This makes sense? And how did that come about? Thompson’s right again; the judge had to pick a winner and a loser.
That’s something I’ve discussed many times, but it still amazes me. Particularly in states that have adopted laundry lists of factors judges are required to consider in deciding custody, the absurdity of family court becomes all too clear. In those states, judges are required to explain which factors favor Mom, which favor Dad and which favor neither. I’ve seen countless cases in which, the overwhelming number of factors are ruled a draw with one or two favoring one parent or the other.
In a sane system, that would result in shared parenting. After all, on perhaps 14 of 16 factors, the parents are indistinguishable. How can that result in anything but a roughly equal division of parenting time, particularly since the children are bonded equally to each parent?
But those factors aren’t there to produce equal or nearly equal parenting arrangements; they’re there to pick a winner and a loser, as Thompson points out. So if there’s a tie on 14 factors and Mom wins on one, then little Andy or Jenny effectively no longer has a dad. If the Red Sox beat the Yankees 2–1, then a game goes into their win column and one goes in the Yankees’ lost column. That’s a good way to determine who’s the better team. It’s a lousy way to ensure children’s best interests, but courts throughout the English-speaking world and beyond do it anyway.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 19.7 million children, more than 1 in 4, live without a father in the home. One may ask where have all the fathers gone? Those who have gone through, or witnessed, the family court process know the answer all too well. Fathers have been placed right where the courts put them: locked out of their children’s lives with limited access and parenting time.
Government policies addressing father absence have not been effective because these policies are often based on the concept that fatherlessness is due to fathers willingly abandoning their children. The truth maintains that it’s rather the family courts that are the true cause of fathers no longer being an integral part of their children's lives.
Yes, about one in every three children in the United States lives without his/her father and has little-to-no contact with him. By any stretch of the imagination, that’s a recipe for disaster and it shows every day in data on crime, suicide, addiction, education, poor mental health and others. “He who troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind.”
And yes, office-holders and seekers are ever ready to pin the blame where it doesn’t belong, i.e. on fathers. Enter the myth of the “deadbeat dad.” He’s the one who doesn’t care about his kids, who’d rather ignore them and their needs in order to feed his juvenile pastimes. The trouble with the deadbeat dad is that, the closer we look at actual dads, the fewer deadbeats we see. At least since Sanford Braver’s 1998 book, Divorced Dads, we’ve known that fathers are passionately attached both to their children and to their self-concept as fathers. Dads routinely see parenthood as their highest calling.
Are there deadbeats out there in the world? Of course there are. There are also people who believe in the Tooth Fairy, but we don’t construct domestic policy based on them. The simple fact is that if a parent – father or mother – decides to be irresponsible toward their children, there’s little we can do to force them to behave differently. So why build family policy around deadbeat dads who in the first place are quite rare and who in any event won’t be changed by the laws we pass? Why not base policy on the far more common dads who desperately desire an active role in their kids’ lives and whose children need them?
The answer to those two questions is twofold. First, politicians love to place the problem at the feet of fathers. Second, doing so absolves the office-holder/seeker of doing anything constructive to address the problem while also trumpeting to the world (or at least the voters) his/her oh-so-passionate adherence to “family values.”
When Barack Obama first came into office, I had occasion to visit the White House website. Sure enough, there was a page devoted to children’s need for fathers. But just as surely, there wasn’t a peep about family courts and the enormous part they play in separating children from fathers. If fathers were just – you know – better people, then all would be well, the page seemed to say.
Ironically though, it contained a link to Susan Stewart’s study of divorced dads. Stewart was clarity itself. She called divorced fathers “Disneyland Dads,” because both they and their children knew to a certainty that they’d become little more than occasional entertainers of their sons and daughters. The real parent? That was Mom and everyone knew it. And of course, their status so diminished, those Disneyland Dads gradually receded from importance in their children’s lives and grew less and less engaged. In that way, children lose their fathers through the good offices of family courts.
Did Obama even notice?
But enough of me. Thompson should have the last word.
Instead of continuing to fund the billion dollar divorce industry at the expense of children and families … let us unite groups, organizations, and individuals in every state who want to work together in supporting shared parenting legislation.
Let’s make sure that children suffer as little as possible as a result of the parents’ decision to divorce or separate. The movement for a presumption of shared parenting is just and is a true reflection of the best interests of the child. Through the intense media coverage of immigration cases, we can help others understand that the same injuries happen in family law courts where secrecy and a lack of media coverage have limited public awareness and slowed the movement for reform.
Children and families need our help. The logic behind shared parenting is hard to dispute. The agony must end.
So become aware. Take action. Learn more. Join the movement.