Census Bureau: 35% of Children of Divorce Have No Contact with Non-Custodial Parent

Thirty-five percent of children with separated parents had no contact with the non-custodial parent.  That was one finding of a 2008 report by the United States Census Bureau and referred to in this article (Durango Herald, 9/22/11).

It’s a good article in a number of ways.  Principally, it eschews the usual excuse for why non-custodial parents don’t have contact with their kids, i.e. dads don’t care about their children.  Having done so, it’s free to take a (cursory) look at some real issues, like the many institutional and individual barriers between fathers and children.  (Has the author been reading this blog?)

C. J. Wood will tell you that being a father is about answering questions, going fishing and wearing out the swings at the local playground. 

But sometimes, a father”s willingness to do those things does not guarantee an ability to do them.

Wood is among a number of parents fighting for access to their children. A 2008 U.S. Census Bureau report found more than 35 percent of children whose parents live separately had no contact with their noncustodial parent in 2007. However, advocates and state researchers said it”s impossible to know how many of those cases involved parents who were denied access to their children.

Notice that the non-custodial parent is assumed to be Dad.  That of course is accurate.  About 84% of non-custodial parents are fathers, so it’s appropriate to illustrate non-custodial parents with dads. 

But according to sociologist Susan Stewart who studied non-custodial parents, mothers in that role are as likely to become “Disneyland Parents” as are fathers.  That strongly suggests it’s the system of custodial/non-custodial care that’s at fault for separating children from one parent post-divorce, not the parents themselves.

Locally, though, “it”s extremely common for us to get calls from fathers who want to be in their children”s lives more than anything, but someone, or something, is stopping them,’ said Eve Presler, director of Advocacy for La Plata, an organization that helps at-risk families and operates a fatherhood program aimed at helping dads increase their parenting time and comply with child-support agreements.

“Someone or something is stopping them.”  That puts it in a nutshell.  The “someone” is the custodial parent, usually the mother, who interferes with visitation knowing full well that the “something” – the court – likely won’t lift a finger to stop her.

But that “something” does far more to separate children from fathers than just non-enforcement of visitation.  Daily, thousands of times a day, it looks at fit fathers and consigns them to the role of visitor for the rest of their children’s lives as minors.  It does that time and again all the while waving the banner of the “best interests of the child” even though mountains of data on child well-being show it’s that very separation that harms children.

One of the ways that “something” goes about separating fathers from children is by accepting allegations of abuse or domestic violence when made by mothers virtually at face value.  It’s one of the most common stories we hear: Mom levels an allegation of abuse or violence at Dad for the first time in a custody case.  Little or no evidence of actual abuse or violence is required for a no-contact order to be issued, and so one duly is.  Dad is separated from his kids for the duration of the divorce case at the end of which time he’s consigned to the role of visitor.  Fathers know this all too well.

For Bret Burrows, who began working for the fatherhood program at Advocacy for La Plata a year ago, the situation is alarming and somewhat repetitious.

“It”s almost like every story is the same with a few details changed,’ Burrows said.

He sees parents fighting over support payments and dodging visitation schedules. Some even have kidnapped their own children, leaving the other parent to fight for months or years just to see their children…

“It”s painful,’ Wood said of the children”s absence. “They”re growing, and I”m missing it.’

Burrows said he sees both positive changes and old stereotypes playing out in courtrooms as the families sort through their concerns. Though the laws try to ensure equal rights and responsibilities for both parents, there still are times when “a knee-jerk reaction’ in the mother”s favor is apparent, Burrows said. “Fathers are not only having to fight mom for access to their kids, but they”re having to fight the system, too,’ Burrows said.

That’s pretty much the size of it.  And let’s not forget that the “system” Burrows refers to includes state legislatures, parts of the federal government and the news media that too seldom do what the Durango Herald did in the linked-to article – tell the truth about what it’s like to be a father in the family court system.

Let’s be clear.  There are over one million divorces a year in this country.  Millions of children have divorced parents.  The fact that 35% of them have no contact with their non-custodial parent is far beyond disgraceful.  It indicts the entire system of the way we handle divorce and child custody.  More than anything I can think of, that one fact fairly screams that what we are doing is morally wrong and destructive of the legitimate needs of children and fathers. 

Children need both parents.  Our system of family courts and family laws resolutely accomplishes the opposite.  That must change.

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