Murder of Child by Mother Causes Iowa State Bar to Oppose Increased Parenting Time for Fathers

August 22, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

A couple of weeks ago, I reported on the tragic murder of Mason Wycoff of Iowa who was just two years old at the time. His mother, Stephenie Erickson had given him an overdose of oxycodone. She then did the same to herself, dying a short time later. Mason’s father, Dillon Wycoff had, for 10 months, been frantically trying to draw the attention of the police, child protective authorities and the courts to what he regarded as Erickson’s growing risk to Mason. No one heeded the warnings and Wycoff’s little son paid the highest price.

Now he’s trying to convince legislators that Iowa’s child custody laws need to be revamped to ensure that fathers aren’t left by the wayside when couples divorce or separate (Des Moines Register, 8/20/16).

"I did everything in my power to save my son’s life. It was not me that let Mason down that morning, but rather the very system put in place to protect him from this exact outcome," Dillon Wyckoff said at a family law summit held at the Iowa Capitol…

"Mason is dead," he said. "He is dead because of outdated, biased and harmful language in the Iowa Code that perpetuates a longstanding cycle of unfair treatment towards fathers and a total disregard for the safety of the children and adults involved in the cases where a parent’s mental health is placing a child at risk."

As I mentioned in my previous piece on Wycoff, the organization IowaFathers reports that its study of custody outcomes in the state demonstrates that mothers receive sole or primary custody in 73% of cases while fathers receive the same in just 8%. It’s precisely that bias that blocked Wycoff from protecting his young son.

Mason’s murder and Dillon’s subsequent efforts to draw attention to the plight of fathers and children in Iowa’s family courts have not only gotten the attention of state legislators, but have drawn out of hiding the President of the Iowa State Bar Association, Skip Kenyon (Des Moines Register, 8/19/16). As we know, state bar associations and particularly their family law sections are invariably opposed to any change in custody laws that threaten to give children more time with their fathers post-divorce. Needless to say, Kenyon is no exception.

And also needless to say, his article is a thin tissue of ignorance and misstatements. Once again, opponents of shared parenting prove they have nothing on which to base that opposition.

Kenyon makes five points, none of which has merit. First, he drags out the old chestnut from so many anti-dad polemics of days gone by: allowing children to have meaningful time with their fathers “opens the door to possible abuse.” Yes, according to Kenyon, fathers are more likely to abuse their children than are mothers. His evidence? None. (And let’s not forget the terrible irony of making such a claim against a backdrop of a two-year-old just murdered by his mother.)

Has Kenyon ever consulted any authority whatsoever on child abuse? How about the Administration for Children and Families that, for years found that mothers abused and neglected their children at twice the rate fathers did? Add in Mom’s new boyfriend and they account for almost 60% of all child abuse and neglect. Fathers meanwhile perpetrate 18 – 20% of abuse and neglect.

So of course Kenyon is just flat wrong when he assumes that fathers per se pose a greater risk of abuse than do mothers. But what about the fact that suddenly depriving a child of one of its loved and needed parents is itself abuse. After all, ample social science demonstrates that kids are better off with two parents actively involved in their lives than just one. And children suffer terribly the loss of a parent when the adults split up. How then, is it not abuse for courts to remove one parent from a child’s life? Kenyon doesn’t explain.

Amazingly, he delivers himself of this gem.

In addition, in order to modify any type of required action by the court, there needs to be substantial social science data to support it. In this case there is not sufficient evidence to support a change to require a presumption in favor of joint physical care.

Most lawyers I know think in terms of the need to provide evidence for whatever proposition they’re asserting. It’s one of the most basic requirements of the trade. So I count it strange that, time and again, Kenyon is content to simply assert some claim and consider the job done.

It’s not. Does he know that 110 social scientists worldwide endorsed Prof. Richard Warshak’s 2014 summary of the social science on shared parenting? Does he know that those scientists overwhelmingly support shared parenting in most situations following divorce? Does he know that they do so because the science shows that children generally do better with both parents involved in their lives? For that matter, does he know that only a very tiny minority of scientists hold the view that more research is necessary? He makes no mention of those facts if he’s even aware of them.

But, as I’ve said before, those who parrot the “not enough science” line neglect important considerations. For example, if social science is so important to the determination of child custody outcomes, what is the social science to support their position that children don’t need both parents, that fathers are superfluous? Where is the science that the current system works well?

That’s right, there is essentially none. So in fact, those opposed to shared parenting employ a double standard. According to them, pro-shared parenting advocates must produce more science than we already have for our position, while those opposed need produce none at all for theirs.

And, as I’ve said before, the demand for ever more science on the subject is nothing but a dodge. It’s a demand that can always be made. With every new proof of the value of shared parenting would naturally come yet another demand for more.

But the simple fact is that judges base their parenting time decisions on something. Perhaps they read the tea leaves left in their cups after lunch or consult the strange lady with the Tarot cards. Who knows? But if they want the best that science has to offer, they’ll consult the many studies of shared parenting and the writings of the scientists who’ve done the research. Face it, it’s the state of the art. Until something better comes along, it’s sensible to rely on it and frankly stupid to do anything else.

Which brings us to Kenyon’s claim that judges, because the law requires them to act in the best interests of children, do exactly that. The problem with that notion is that judges aren’t trained in the science on shared parenting and therefore are unable to issue responsible orders. The 73%/8% split in custody found by IowaFathers stands as mute testimony to the fact. The best interests of children usually lie with maintaining real, full relationships with both parents both during marriage and afterward. Judges fail to make those orders, so they can’t be acting on kids’ behalf.

Nor is Kenyon safe when he points out that the great majority of divorces are finalized at the agreement of both parents. It’s true, but fathers acceding to the inevitable – that the chances of their receiving meaningful parenting time from a judge are slim and none – scarcely means that’s what they desire. On the contrary, most fathers realize the futility of spending huge sums of money just to get the same parenting time they’d get without spending it. So they agree for Mom to have custody and live on whatever crumbs of parenting time are left over. As researcher MIT researcher Philip Greenspun has said,

“It is not rational for fathers to fight for custody because their chances of winning primary or shared parenting are insignificant.”

That’s just how lawyers like Kenyon like it. But the system that removes fathers from children’s lives is bad for everyone, most especially kids. Dillon Wycoff knows that all too well.




National Parents Organization is a Shared Parenting Organization

National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Along with Shared Parenting we advocate for fair Child Support and Alimony Legislation. Want to get involved?  Here’s how:

Together, we can drive home the family, child development, social and national benefits of shared parenting, and fair child support and alimony. Thank you for your activism.

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