“My daughter knows me and she loves me, and little girls need their fathers, so why can’t I be a parent to her?”
Good question. This article makes a stab at answering it, but it has one glaring shortcoming (Cleveland Plain Dealer, 7/12/10). The article is headlined “Child Visitation Rights Go Unenforced, Fathers Complain.” That’s nothing new. Non-custodial fathers have been griping about the failure of family courts to enforce visitation orders for years now, but to no apparent effect. The piece’s glaring shortcoming is that in dealing with the issue of non-enforcement of visitation orders, it assumes that the only dads who face the problem are those who don’t pay child support. None others are interviewed; none others are mentioned in any way.
Still, readers with some information about family courts and family law, can tease out some important information. The article is organized around Elroy Thomas, a Cleveland barber who can’t seem to get to see his seven-year-old daughter even though he has an order saying he can. It’s the same old story – his ex puts up roadblock after roadblock. On Father’s Day, he brought a police officer along with him when he went to pick up his child. The result? Nothing. His ex said the girl didn’t want to go and the officer said it wasn’t his problem. Happy Fathers Day.
Read carefully, and you’ll see what happened to make Thomas fall behind on his child support. He was a self-employed barber. His ex is a teacher, but somehow, he owes her alimony in addition to child support. The economic downturn forced him to close his business, but he couldn’t get a court to change either amount he owed his ex-wife. So naturally, he fell behind. That got him a 12-month jail sentence. How that helped him to support his daughter, or keep him in her life is one we’ll all have to guess at. Now his ex is preventing him from seeing his daughter at all and, without money to pay an attorney, Thomas has no way to correct the situation.
There’s a diabolical logic to his story. If the goal is to separate dads from their children, the system of child custody works reasonably well. Look at it: begin with the court’s preference for maternal custody. Add a child support level that the dad is probably capable of paying as long as the economy holds, but add alimony for a woman who is herself gainfully employed at a job that should support her and a child. Then fail to provide a quick, easy and cheap way for him to modify his financial obligations to his ex when his gets laid off or has to close his business. Make it a virtual requirement that he hire an attorney at the very time he can least afford one. As an extra added insult, take away his driver’s license so that getting a job in a bad economy becomes even harder. That way, the arrearages just build up and up. Then put him in jail so that he can neither pay the mother nor see his child. If he’s there long enough, maybe the child will think he doesn’t care and will begin to forget him.
As I said, it’s all perfectly logical and perfectly calibrated to make father-child relationships as difficult to maintain as possible. Elroy Thomas has an older daughter, Ayeshia, who puts it in a nutshell.
“All this is doing is confusing my little sister, and it isn’t good for her psyche,” Ayeshia Thomas said. “She loves to be with us, and we’ve always had fun. I don’t know why it has to be so difficult.”
Ms. Thomas, it doesn’t have to be difficult. A system that respected fathers even a little would do a number of things differently than this one does. It would presume equally shared parenting after divorce. That would be the single greatest thing a state could do to ensure that fathers and children continue their relationship after divorce. It would enforce visitation orders as enthusiastically as it does child support orders. The failure to do so frankly reveals the assumption that children don’t much need their fathers, that, if the money’s there, the dad’s got nothing else to offer. It would ensure that fathers’ obligations are set and maintained at levels they are able to meet. That means that procedures to modify support levels based on inability to pay should be summary in nature and not require an attorney. Special masters would be appointed who dealt solely with that issue; forms would be provided to the public and assistance given in filling them out. Hearings would be informal and the type of evidence required for modification would be spelled out in advance.
In other words, procedures would be established that are much like those for issuing restraining orders and enforcing child support.
Enforcing visitation orders could be accomplished in a similar way – by summary procedures that don’t require an attorney. Enforcing those orders would mean that parents who violated them would pay a real price for doing so. As long as custodial parents know to a virtual certainty that they flout the court’s orders with impunity, they’ll continue to do so.
But none of that is provided to Elroy Thomas or any other father in Ohio. Indeed, very little of it is provided to any father anywhere in the country. Ohio has a system of mediation, but it’s only for the purpose of establishing a parenting order. Again, the problem with parenting orders is that custodial mothers are free to ignore them.
Officials from the county’s Department of Justice Affairs said 8,941 people walked into their office last year to seek help with visitation rights. More than 90 percent were men seeking access to their kids.
Tellingly, the article never says what happened to those fathers or to their complaints. My guess is that Elroy Thomas could tell us.
Thanks to Jane for the heads-up.