In Europe, Rising Unemployment, Family Court Practices Impoverish Many Fathers

June 1st, 2012 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
The economic crisis in Europe may be of fairly recent origin, but its effects on fathers will be all too familiar to dads in the United States.  This article says that divorced and separated fathers are increasingly living on the ragged edge of poverty due to child support and alimony payments that are set too high for them to make, or support themselves if they can make them (New York Times, 5/26/12).  In short, European countries like Italy, Spain and Greece are seeing dramatic increases in the number of fathers living on the streets or in shelters due to the combination of job loss and child support and alimony payments.

If that all sounds like old news, in those countries it’s a fairly recent phenomenon.  For one thing, the three countries mentioned have a long history of stable families that, until recently supported their members through thick and thin.  But no longer.  The incidence of divorce is rising and mothers there apparently have figured out what mothers here have – that they can divorce their husbands, keep the kids and still receive his support.  In the U.S., that means that 70% of divorces are filed by women.  Researchers Douglas Allen and Margaret Brinig found that the fact that mothers know they won’t lose their children is the factor that “swamps all others” in explaining why it’s women who file for divorce.

While the Times article doesn’t go into that,  it seems likely that the same phenomenon holds true in Europe as in the U.S.  After all, even though Italian law calls for joint custody, overwhelmingly mothers are given primary custody and fathers are given the bill.

Even though a 2006 law made joint custody of children the norm when parents split, Italian courts continue to make mothers the primary caregivers while fathers bear the financial brunt of the separation. Critics say the law, as it is applied, favors women, whose participation in the work force has steadily grown, reaching 46.5 percent, according to Istat (the Italian statistical agency). Still, more than half of women who are separated also see a decline in their economic conditions, Istat said.

So I wouldn’t be surprised to find that there as here, it’s overwhelmingly women who file for divorce.

And there as here, support payments seem calculated by judges who consider all financial factors except whether the father can keep himself alive on what he has left over after child support and alimony payments are made.

When Umberto Vaghi, a sales manager in Milan who was divorced last year, split from his wife in 2004, for example, he was ordered to pay her 2,000 euros, or about $2,440, each month for upkeep on their home and support for their children, then 10 and 8. Each month, Mr. Vaghi was earning 2,200 euros, or about $2,680.

“I was attacked by the Italian justice system,” said Mr. Vaghi, 43, a board member of the Papa Separati Lombardia movement, a nonprofit that assists single fathers and lobbies to improve Italian family law legislation.

“Society is changing, and with it the roles of the father as the breadwinner and the mother as homemaker,” he said. “Legislation should take that into consideration.”

Unfortunately, “there isn’t much will to change things,” he added. He and others attribute the resistance in part to the still-powerful influence of the Catholic Church in Italy, as well as the fact that Parliament is filled with lawyers who have little interest in reducing litigation.

With the exception of the role of the Catholic Church, there’s not a word of that that couldn’t have been said by any of millions of fathers in the United States, Canada, The United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, etc.

In Spain, court filings against fathers who have not paid child support have risen sharply since the start of the economic crisis. Recent news reports in places like Navarra and Galicia describe fathers who have been jailed for failing to support their children. In April last year, a Barcelona judge denied parental custody to a divorced father, citing the fact that he had lost his job.

Poverty among single parents is “a rising phenomenon,” said Raffaella Saso, who wrote on the “new poor” – separated fathers and single-parent families – for the annual report of Eurispes, the Rome-based research institute.

Homelessness, too, is growing. In Greece, Klimaka, a charity group, estimates that the number of homeless has increased by 25 percent in the past two years. The trend is a concern in a country where traditionally strong family ties have usually averted such phenomena. A third of those who had registered as homeless were divorced or separated, and mostly men, according to a study published in February by the National Center for Social Research.

In Italy, charities say that a growing number of those using soup kitchens and dormitories of churches and other agencies are separated parents. “An uncomfortable reality but easy to believe, considering that 80 percent of separated fathers cannot live on what remains of their salary,” Ms. Saso, the researcher, wrote.

The Rev. Clemente Moriggi, who oversees the Brothers of St. Francis of Assisi, a Milanese Catholic charity, said that in the past year separated fathers, ages 28 to 60, occupied 80 of the 700 beds in the foundation’s dormitories, which do not house children. That is more than twice the number of just a few years ago.

“These men earned average salaries that only left them tears to cry once they paid their alimony and mortgages,” Father Moriggi said. “They are the people who come to us. But this is not a situation where family life can prosper. They feel ashamed to see their children in these structures, and this makes them suffer. And makes relationships suffer.”

In the United States, some 75% of the homeless are men.  That’s due in part to the economic recession, in part to our woeful system of education that increasingly ill serves males and in part to a punitive system of child support and alimony that routinely sets support levels above where they can be met by the father and then refuses to permit downward modifications when circumstances change.  The U.S. Office of Child Support Enforcement has for years decried the fact that state judges routinely set child support above the father’s ability to pay, but child support legislation makes it a certainty that the practice will continue.  That’s because states receive money from Washington for every dollar of child support taken in, and, as night follows day, fathers are squeezed for every penny they can give.  Part of that process is the initial support level and another part is the ponderous pace at which courts set hearings on motions to modify those levels.

It looks like much the same is occurring in Italy, Spain and Greece.

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