Dr. Edward Kruk: ‘Is sole custody a form of parental alienation?’

Here’s Barbara Kay again with her usual lucid, fact-based piece (National Post, 6/15/11).  In it she raises a number of good points, one of which I should have raised earlier myself.  I’m delinquent for not having done so and will duly fall on my sword at the appropriate moment.

That point is simple; over the past, say, 20 years, fathers have taken on more and more of the care of their children.  That’s reflected in statistics and it’s also reflected in popular culture where we see movies, commercials, sitcoms, novels, etc. about fathers and children or at least involving them in significant roles.  But courts remain firmly stuck in the past; the overwhelming majority of child custody still goes either solely or primarily to mothers.

What that means is that children and fathers suffer as never before when parents divorce.  In the past, dad may have seen his role as exclusively the breadwinner and therefore taken little part in day-to-day childrearing.  In the event of divorce, it could be argued that separating him from his child wouldn’t be too traumatic for either.  After all, their relationship was a bit distant anyway. 

I would object to that argument, but now, with fathers bonding ever more closely to children, consigning him to the role of paying visitor is doubly bad policy.

It’s an important point and one I’ll come back to in the future, partly because the always excellent Dr. Edward Kruk makes it in his new book, to which Kay refers.

Edward Kruk, associate professor of social work at the University of British Columbia, has been studying the changing role of fathers and the problems of father absence for 30 years. His latest book, Divorced Fathers: Children’s Needs and Parental Responsibilities, illuminates the tragic toll on fathers first removed from their children’s lives by a biased legal system, and then unsupported by a social services network that is almost wholly indifferent to fathers’ rights and feelings.

Displaced fathers are overwrought at the loss of contact with their children. They are far more likely to become depressed or unemployed. Worse, suicide rates amongst fathers struggling to maintain a parenting relationship with their children are “epidemic.” Divorced fathers are more than twice as likely to kill themselves as married fathers. But since men tend to suffer in silence, the depth of their despair goes unnoticed.

Kruk calls the crisis of father absence -for both fathers and the children they are torn from -“one of the most significant and powerful trends of this generation.” Children now form primary attachments to both parents. Losing their father’s active participation in their lives is enormously consequential. Trustworthy research demonstrates that children deprived of a meaningful father role are at far greater risk of physical, emotional and psychological damage than those actively parented by their fathers. Children fare better with equal parenting even where there is conflict between the parents; it is only child-directed conflict that hurts children.

Kruk’s findings reveal that ironically, precisely because they have taken on equal responsibility for parenting before divorce, men who lose their parenting role now suffer far more grievously than they used to 20 years ago when he wrote his first book, Divorce and Disengagement. He argues for a paradigm shift, away from a rights-based discourse to a framework of “responsibility to needs,” in which both children’s needs and parental and institutional responsibilities to them would be enumerated.

Kruk rather poignantly asks: “Why are parents with no civil or criminal wrongdoing forced to surrender their responsibility to raise their children?” and “Is the removal of a parent from the life of a child, via legal sole custody, itself a form of parental alienation?”

Kay is frank about why, in the face of all the social science and the popularity of equal parenting, courts and legislatures doggedly continue to resist keeping fathers in the lives of children.

It is clear to any disinterested observer who immerses himself in the subject that almost the only opponents to equal parenting are misandric ideologues and those financially invested in the family court system itself, which would see a drastic reduction in revenue from the professional gold mine all-or-nothing custody battles represent.

If you’re a family lawyer or any of the many professionals who make their livings doing custody evaluations, you know that custody cases are the gift that keeps on giving. 

In most litigation, cases are eventually decided – over and done with.  Indeed, one of the foundations of our legal traditions is that of finality.  When a case is decided, we don’t like to revisit it time and again. 

Not so with custody cases.  In those, most courts have “continuing jurisdiction” meaning that, if an issue comes up after the order is issued, the same court hears and decides it.  That way the litigants don’t have to re-file an original action before a judge who doesn’t know what’s transpired before.

That makes sense, but, as every family lawyer knows, custody cases have the potential to be litigated time and time again.  Issues of child support, custody and visitation can be ,and often are, subject to “changed circumstances” that may necessitate a new order.

With those changed circumstances, therefore, come new motions and of course new fees for attorneys and possibly for the various other professionals who provide advice to family court judges.

The anger and heartbreak of divorce are tailor-made for attorneys to exacerbate conflict between spouses all in the service of the lawyer’s bottom line.  The presence of children at the center of that drama makes the tendency all the worse.  I’ve seen it all too often.

And of course the child support system in the U.S. is a gravy train for states.  For every dollar of child support collected by states, the federal government reimburses them a percentage.  The more support collected, the more money flowing into state coffers. 

But equal parenting holds the potential for reducing child support obligations which would mean lower collections and lower reimbursements from Washington.  And we can’t have that, now can we?

In “Bleak House,” Charles Dickens took on the travesty that was British Chancery Court (i.e. the court that litigated claims on the estates of the dead) at the time.  In the book, he described chancery as a disease that was inevitably fatal to anyone who contracted it. 

That is, if anyone actually came to believe that he would ever see a penny of the estate to which he was heir, he’d gotten the disease of chancery and he would surely die.  The reason was that the estate would take years to be resolved and that would happen only when it was completely exhausted by paying the lawyers their fees.

I wish Dickens were around today.  Maybe his book about family courts’ treatment of fathers and children would light the fire that so many of us, Barbara Kay among them, have been trying to start for so long.

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