Census: Father-Headed Households on the Rise

The rise in single-father-headed households shows a trend toward greater custody for dads.

The 2010 census shows that single-father-headed households with children increased 27% in the decade from 2000 to 2010.  That’s still a small minority of households overall – only 8% of the total, and single-mother-headed households increased as well, but only slightly.

I suspect that the increase in households headed by single mothers has a variety of causes, while those with single fathers has essentially only one – greater success in family courts.  That’s because mothers can and do bear children out of wedlock and simply keep the child from the father.  They do that via court proceedings to gain custody of course, but also through other expedients such as not telling him about the child, moving away, etc.  Fathers don’t have those options.  With a couple of minor exceptions, the only way an unmarried dad is going to get custody of a child is through proceedings in court.

So the increase in single-father households is likely a function of greater willingness of courts to grant primary custody to fathers coupled with a greater realization on the part of fathers that caring for children is something they can and want to do.

That’s certainly brought out by this article on the census data (Bloomberg, 7/25/11).

Joe Cioffi, a physician from Fairfield, Connecticut, settled for visitation rights to his son after he and the boy”s mother split up. Soon, he decided that wasn”t enough, so he spent four years struggling to win primary custody.

“Why should I be the underdog here?’ Cioffi, 59, said of his clash with his former girlfriend. “I”m a professional. I pay my bills. I”m not a criminal. I”m home at night. So we played hardball.’

As a physician, Cioffi is probably better suited than most to play hardball in family court.  Less well-heeled guys are pretty well stuck with the same old arrangement – she gets primary custody, he gets two days every two weeks visitation and pays child support. 

But Cioffi and fathers in his income bracket aren’t the only ones getting primary custody.  The 8% of single fathers with custody of children has a far more diverse demography.

“It”s time for us to stop assuming that single parents are always women,’ said Andrew Cherlin, a professor of sociology and public policy at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. “There is a visible presence now of single men caring for their kids. We didn”t see that a few decades ago.’ 

Cherlin is a highly respected sociologist who’s been studying and writing about family dynamics for many years.  And family law professor Margaret Brinig agrees with him.  Brinig has done some of the most important analyses of divorce and custody data in the country.

As fathers have gotten more involved in the lives of their children and mothers have increasingly entered the workforce, it has become less unusual for fathers to seek and gain custody.

“If the dad is really interested in getting custody and wants to have a relationship with his kids, he is far more successful than he was 20 years ago,’ said Margaret Brinig, a family law professor at the University of Notre Dame.

All that shows a small trend toward the realization by courts, fathers and mothers that paternal custody should be judged by the same standards as maternal custody.  That’s been brought about by more and more women in the workplace who often outearn their male partners and by the growing realization among men that fatherhood is both an honorable calling and one they’re good at.

But it’s just a trend in that direction.  We’re a long way from where we need to be.  Up to date data from many sources, such as that compiled yearly by Washington State, show that fathers still struggle to achieve in court what even inadequate mothers would be insulted by.  The Washington statistics show that from year to year, women overwhelmingly receive primary custody and the rate of their doing so actually goes up when men contest the matter.

Brinig apparently has recently studied what happened in Oregon in the five years after that state passed a law mandating a presumption of joint physical custody in 1997.  The results have been good – or not – depending on your point of view.

A recently published analysis of Oregon divorce records by Brinig showed that sole custody awarded to mothers dropped to 51 percent from 68 percent in the five years after the law took effect.

That’s an improvement of course, but the fact that over half of all cases still resulted in sole (i.e. in which dad has no contact) custody for mothers means there’s nothing like equality in family courts.  And keep in mind, that’s in a state with a presumption of joint physical custody.  Either the judges can’t read or the law provides ample opportunity for mothers and judges to rebut the presumption.

As I’ve said before, we can change all the laws we want, but until we change misandric mindsets, children will still go without fathers courtesy of family courts that loudly proclaim they act “in the best interests of children.”

The data that tell us there’s a trend toward greater paternal custody of children are building up.  That’s a good thing because it indicates a greater willingness of courts to honor fathers as caregivers.  But let’s not lose sight of the fact that the real goal should be equally shared parenting by mothers and fathers. 

Whichever sex has primary custody and whichever one has visitation, it’s that system that shortchanges kids.  Substituting fathers for mothers as the primary custodian still marginalizes one parent in the child’s life.  That’s not what we should be aiming for.  We need to scrap the system of primary parent/visitor in favor of keeping both parents actively involved in children’s lives post-divorce.

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