Danish Law Promotes Child Contact by Both Parents

Danish custody law promotes children’s contact with both parents post-divorce.  And this article doesn’t like it a bit (The Copenhagen Post, 9/30/11).

In 2007, Denmark passed the Danish Act on Parental Responsibility, which introduced new guidelines for determining custody rights. According to Vivian Jørgensen, a lawyer who has handled numerous custody cases, the biggest change was the emphasis placed on equal custody: judges can force the parents to work together even if, well, they can”t work together.

“In 2007 we got this new idea,’ Jørgensen told The Copenhagen Post. “Now what”s more important is not the environment or how you treat the child. The idea now is that it”s always good for the child to have contact with both parents, and it”s always good to force the parents to co-operate.’

Jørgensen added that the law does not favour men or women. Instead, it simply says that parents “must agree on significant decisions regarding the child’.

This philosophy, according to Annette Kronborg, an associate professor of family law at the University of Copenhagen, is designed to promote, and indeed force, co-operation. She said that if there is conclusive evidence of wrongdoing towards children then it is indeed a factor in custody decisions. That said, the “starting point is co-operation’.

“The idea is to make the parents co-operate,’ Kronborg said. “And the best solution is to stay out of the family and let the parents make their own solution. So according to the family law idea, the best interest of the child is what the parents agree on.’

It’s tough to fight through the thicket of anti-shared-parenting rhetoric that makes up almost the whole of the article, but if you can, you’ll find that Denmark might be on to something good. 

What Jorgenson said above is patently untrue.  The law doesn’t say that it’s “always good for the child to have contact with both parents.”

As Kronborg said, the law aims at courts’ staying out of parental decisions the better to foster cooperation between parents.  Proven wrongdoing on the part of one parent though, is a deal breaker.

As such, the Danish law looks like it has much to offer us in the United States and indeed other countries.  First, the strong preference for shared custody, significant contact for the child with both parents and shared responsibility are clearly important and, in almost all cases, in the child’s best interests.

Second, courts take a hands-off role in the decisions of parents.  That contrasts starkly with American courts that routinely involve themselves in the minutiae of everyday life, from what time the child is to be picked up to what food is to be eaten to whether the child may catch the bus near Dad’s house. 

My guess is that parents can deal with those issues themselves without the assistance of a judge.  I’d also guess that if parents knew they couldn’t go crying to the judge every time the other parent did something they didn’t like, they’d get along better.  Too often parents who act like children in custody matters run to court, not because they can’t work it out with the other parent, but to seek validation of their own point of view.  They seek a “win” on their behalf and a “loss” on that of the other parent.  Take that away, as Danish courts seem to be doing, and those parents might start acting like adults.

Third is the law’s emphasis on cooperation.  Apparently it goes so far as to insist that parents work things out between them.  The article calls this “enforcing” cooperation between parents, which of course no court can do.  The law is only four years old, so it’s impossible to know what real-world effects it’s having, but studying the matter over time would be worthwhile.  Does a court’s in effect telling parents time and again “stop bothering me and work this out on your own” result in their actually doing that?  I’d like to get a real answer to that question.  

Fourth, it appears that the law requires actual proof of domestic violence or child abuse before allowing a judge to limit a parent’s contact with his/her child.  That’s the most radical difference from court practice in this country.  Here, mere allegations of domestic violence or child abuse, particularly when made by mothers, serve to keep fathers and children separate.  Perhaps worse, pretty much anything a mother experiences as uncomfortable can qualify as “abuse” sufficient to get a no-contact order issued against her ex.  State after state places greater value on a mother’s unsupported claim of feeling “in fear” than on a child’s rights to his/her father.

Unsurprisingly, it’s that very requirement of actual proof – what Kronborg calls “conclusive evidence of wrongdoing” – that’s got some people’s knickers in a knot.  Equally unsurprising, those are the only people the article quotes on the subject.

The article deals with the cases of two American women who married Danish men.  Their marriages hit the rocks and the women are enraged that their claims of child abuse against the men weren’t sufficient to deny them contact with their children.  Of course neither the courts nor The Copenhagen Post could find any corroboration of the women’s claims, but that doesn’t stop the women from assuming that a great injustice has been done. 

One thing we’ve come to expect from articles like these is that the men will not be heard from.  When Mom says he’s a child abuser, that’s all we’re entitled to hear.  The old journalistic rule “get the other side of the story” seems not to apply when claims of abuse are leveled at fathers.  And so it is with the Copenhagen Poststory; the women are quoted at length to the effect that their ex-husbands are child abusers, but the men remain voiceless.  No boilerplate statement “calls to the ex-husband went unreturned” appears in the article, strongly suggesting that no calls were ever placed.

Now, one of the women apparently produced medical records showing bruises to one or more of the children.  But the article says there’s no corroboration of her claims of abuse, so that means there was nothing connecting the bruises to her ex.  Still, her attorney pronounces herself certain that the man is a danger to the children.  Again, the writer talked to the woman and her attorney but made no effort to get the man’s side of things. 

As the years go by, I’d like to know more about the effects of this law on Danish child custody and whether parents, secure in the knowledge that the courts won’t help them, sort out their problems on their own.  More importantly, I’d like to know about the welfare of children.  Are more of them the victims of domestic violence than before the law’s enactment?  Surely Denmark keeps records of child abuse and neglect, so you’d think we’ll be able to tell.

Indeed, you’d think we’d already have some information on that.  After all, how hard could it be to compare child abuse data from before the law’s effective date and afterward?  That wouldn’t be conclusive, but it would  give an idea of whether there was a problem or not. 

Do I have to add that the article’s writer didn’t do that?

So I’d like to know that information.  The anti-dad crowd will tell you that fathers getting custody means danger for children, so data from Denmark will either bear them out or contradict them.  I can’t wait to find out.

In the mean time, it doesn’t look like there’s the type of anti-father backlash against the Danish law that Australia is experiencing against the 2006 amendments to its Family Law Act.  That means we can expect the law to be around for at least a little bit longer, so with any luck we’ll be able to assess its actual impact on the welfare of children and their continuing contact with their fathers post-divorce.

Thanks to Jim for the heads-up.

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