July 3, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
I attended and was privileged to speak at the First Annual International Men’s Issues Conference held in Detroit on June 26 — 28. The Conference was a huge success and for me an extremely gratifying experience. Many of the pioneers of the movement for men’s issues were there including Warren Farrell, Erin Pizzey, Paul Elam and many more. The Conference testified to the growth, strength and intellectual heft of a movement whose time, finally, has come.
Like so many people here, I’ve had my own red-pill moment. Mine came in 1997 when a friend of mine, Greg, received a telephone call from a young man. The young man was Greg’s son. He was 21 years old, but Greg had never heard of him before. 22 years previously, Greg had had a brief affair and, unknown to him, the woman had conceived a child. She’d broken off the relationship and they’d gone their separate ways until the young man asked his mother for a gift on his 21st birthday — to meet his father.
As an attorney, I wondered what Greg’s legal remedies were for her intentional deprivation of his parental rights. So I researched that issue and quickly learned the astonishing answer — he had none. The legal system found nothing amiss with what she’d done.
But I didn’t stop there. The thread of information I was getting was simply too enticing not to follow. It took me to books like Cathy Young’s “Cease Fire,” Sanford Braver’s “Divorced Dads,” Warren Farrell’s “The Myth of Male Power,” and many others.
And lo and behold, the picture that came into focus looked nothing like the one I’d seen a million times in the public discourse on men and women. The men I learned about in those books looked like the father I’d grown up with, my friends’ fathers, teachers, relatives, coaches and the like. Assaulted daily by images of men as callous, violent buffoons, I had unconsciously assumed that the men I had known were in some way outside the norm. Now I knew better.
I plunged into family law and, over 17 years of study and writing, have come to some hard conclusions. First, broken families – mostly fatherless ones – are the single greatest problem to face western culture. Second, family law creates broken families by separating fathers from their children, and that’s bad for children, bad for fathers, bad for mothers and bad for society generally. Third, the invariable claim that this is done “in the best interests of children” is factually incorrect. Finally, we know what we should be doing in family court but resolutely refuse to do it.
Most of you know the facts. Children of divorce or single-parent families are more likely than others to drop out of school and do worse when they’re there. They’re more likely to exhibit a range of psychological deficits, engage in crime and drug and alcohol abuse. They’re less likely to be employed, more likely to live in poverty. Girls without fathers are more likely to become pregnant as teenagers. Children of single mothers are more likely to be victims of physical or sexual abuse and 10 times as likely to commit suicide. These deficits continue well into adulthood where children without fathers do less well in their careers and their love lives than the children of intact families.
The problem of fatherless children has reached levels undreamed of just 50 years ago. In 1960, about 6% of children were born to unmarried women; now the number is 42%. Today’s divorce rate is 70% higher than it was in the late 50s. An astonishing 50% of children will experience their parents’ divorce before age 18 and half of those (25% of all kids) will go through a second divorce. A third of children of divorce never see their father, and a third of all children don’t live with their dads.
Unsurprisingly, social dysfunction has proceeded in lock step. With the rise of fatherlessness, has come the rise of our prison population, now the largest in the world and between 60 and 72% of long-term inmates come from fatherless homes. The increasing division in wealth is, to a great extent, between intact and non-intact families. Remember those 42% of children born to single mothers? Well, about 41% of those mothers and their children live in poverty.
Poverty, crime, drug and alcohol abuse, declining educational achievement, increased psychological deficits. Imagine all the resources this society devotes to addressing those problems. We spend over $35,000 per prisoner per year for about 2 million inmates. We spend who knows how much fighting poverty and paying the bills for its side effects — illness, mental illness, housing, homeless shelters, increased police resources, child welfare agencies, school security and the like. How many resources do we devote to treating drug and alcohol addiction? How many to address physical violence in the home?
The list goes on and on, but the point is clear: the costs of fatherlessness to children and society are enormous.
But they don’t stop at children and society. Fathers separated from their children are far more likely than others to suffer severe depression. They’re more likely to be out of work, engage in crime and abuse drugs and alcohol. There’s almost a 10-fold spike in the suicide rate for fathers who divorce.
The problems of fatherlessness extend to mothers as well. A single or divorced mother, lacking the father’s time, energy and resources, finds herself saddled with 100% of the parenting obligations. So single mothers report higher levels of stress, depression, feelings of helplessness and the inability to cope than do other women.
Single mothers with children are the most likely of all adults to live in poverty, because the demands of those children take time and energy that displace paid work. So the median annual income for unmarried mothers in the U.S. is $23,000, barely enough to support one person, much less an adult and children.
We rightly bemoan the gap between the rich and poor, but seldom mention the role broken families play in creating it. 12% of married couples are poor versus 44% of single parent households according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Given the many adverse impacts of fatherlessness throughout society, it is not too much to say that broken families constitute the single greatest problem we face. Indeed, that was the conclusion drawn by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead in her article in The Atlantic Monthly magazine in 1993, but in the ensuing 21 years, the problems she identified have only gotten worse.
Given all that, we would expect to see public policy taking a full-court-press approach to keeping fathers in the lives of children. After all, if we do that, we dramatically ameliorate a host of societal and individual deficits and reduce the drain on the public purse.
But no, we do the opposite. The separation of fathers from their children is perhaps the signal accomplishment of divorce courts. As such, they’re the major force perpetuating the greatest problem of our time. Let us be clear; the removal of fathers from the lives of their children is…public…policy.
Consider child custody. In 1993, about 84% of parents with child custody were mothers; by 2011, the figure was 82%, i.e. no statistical change. But that’s the good news. In the rest of the English-speaking world, Western Europe, Scandinavia and Israel, rates of maternal custody run about 90% or more.
In practice, this means that, when parents divorce, children lose their fathers and fathers lose their children. Most jurisdictions have a standard visitation order that calls for Dad to see his kids only 14 to 20% of the time.
Harmful as this is for fathers and children, the marginalization of Dad is actually a major cause of divorce. Mothers file 70% of divorce actions. Why so many? As researchers Brinig and Allen discovered, mothers file because they know they won’t lose their kids. In other words, divorce courts encourage divorce by assuring mothers they’ll win the “winner-take-all” sweepstakes.
Where did anyone get the idea that children should go from seeing Daddy every day to seeing him only one day in five or six or seven? More than anything else, it came from a 1973 book entitled Beyond the Best Interests of the Child, by Goldstein, et al. (Hillary Rodham aside?) Despite its outrageous flaws it’s still the most cited book on the best interests of children by U.S. courts. The main conclusions of that book, and the authors’ next two, in many states make up the bedrock of child custody law.
According to those authors, first, a child needs only one “psychological” parent, i.e. the primary caregiver – usually Mom. Second, once custody is decided it should be altered in only the rarest of cases. Third, visitation by the non-custodial parent should be at the sole discretion of the custodial one. Finally, laws should discourage joint custody.
The legal community has warmly embraced this thesis that was, at the time it was written, known in academic circles to lack any evidentiary basis. Since then, the social science on child well-being is essentially uniform that children need both parents. Goldstein, et al were simply wrong. As Canadian researcher Paul Millar wrote in 2009, “the major tenet of the Goldstein thesis is not only unsupported by evidence, but, worse, appears to promote harmful outcomes for children through the legal support given the destruction of one of the important parental relationships for the child.”
That’s a fair description of custody law today. The necessity for judges to find one parent superior to the other leads to bizarre splitting of hairs. So we see parents, explicitly found by courts to be fit and loving, sidelined as mere visitors.
But wait. Are fathers really taken from their children’s lives? After all, they get to see them 14 — 20% of the time.
The argument fails in several ways. First, social science shows that, unless a parent sees a child around 35% of the time, the benefits of shared parenting are lost. The child will tend to have the same problems as a literally fatherless child.
Second, as sociologist Susan Stewart has described, those fathers tend to become “Disneyland Dads,” – more entertainers of children than actual fathers. That’s not parenting, it’s babysitting and both fathers and children suffer because of it. Woody Allen once said that 80% of life is just showing up, which is precisely what family courts prevent fathers from doing.
But again, that’s the good news. It assumes that mothers honor visitation orders, but routinely, they don’t and their refusal is seldom punished by courts. Few fathers can afford to hire a lawyer to assert their visitation rights. Even if they can, they must demonstrate a pattern of interference by the mother that requires multiple motions, hearings and the like. By the time the judge gets around to punishing her, years may have passed and tens of thousands of dollars spent during which he’s seen his child rarely if at all.
Why the refusal to enforce visitation? It’s federal policy. The Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE) spends some $5 billion a year for child support aid, but a mere $10 million to enforce visitation orders. That’s a 500:1 ratio and a rough approximation of the value the system places on support versus visitation. Into the bargain, federal regulations prohibit any of that $10 million from being used to pay lawyers to represent non-custodial parents, the very thing they most need.
Nor is custody interference punished criminally despite laws passed to do just that. In Texas, where I live, interference with custody is a felony. But a recent investigation by the El Paso Times revealed that the police and district attorneys of the state’s major cities simply ignore the law. Officials whose job it is to enforce criminal law, in the case of fathers’ visitation rights, nullify it instead.
It’s even worse in Australia. There the non-enforcement of visitation rights is a matter of public policy. Historian John Hirst tells us that, in Australia 30 years ago, family courts decided that, alone among all the orders they issue, only one — visitation orders – would go unenforced by contempt. 90% of those orders are issued on behalf of fathers who are therefore essentially the only litigants in the country on behalf of whom courts refuse to act.
To top it all off, we’ve long known that parents whose access to their children isn’t obstructed are far more likely than others to pay child support. So you’d think we’d work extra hard to ensure access by the parent who pays. But no, we do the opposite.
Speaking of child support, it too helps separate fathers from children. One of the many scandals, bemoaned by the OCSE, is that courts set support levels higher than non-custodial parents can pay. But that same agency financially rewards states for child support collected, ensuring the practice will continue. The more support ordered, the more is paid and the more federal money collected by the state. And of course, the loss of his driver’s license and possibly jail, also stand between Dad and his child as well as his ability to pay support.
Plus, fathers are far more likely to be punished for non-payment of support than are mothers. First, under 29% of non-custodial mothers are even ordered to pay support versus 56% of fathers. And when they fall behind, mothers are much less likely to be punished. A Massachusetts study last year showed that 95 – 98% of the parents sent to jail for non-payment were fathers even though mothers are less reliable about paying support. Fathers with arrears were eight times as likely to go to jail as were mothers who’d fallen behind.
But the drive to keep fathers out of their children’s lives extends far beyond family court.
In New York in the late 70s, the putative father registry was born, and today at least 31 states have one. Putative father registries have but one purpose — to facilitate adoption by denying unmarried fathers the opportunity to contest it. They do this by requiring single men to file a form with the state for any child they may have fathered. Failure to do so means the father is denied notice of any adoption or his child.
But PFRs are closely-guarded secrets. Texas for example, spends no money to publicize the registry or its consequences. The unsurprising result? Fewer than 1% of children born to single mothers had a father file with the registry. That result is highly agreeable to adoption agencies and lawyers — fewer inconvenient fathers to impede the process by which the two get paid.
Utah is so anti-father it’s become a mecca for mothers across the country to place their children for adoption without Dad’s knowledge or consent. Until this year, even a mother’s fraud gave the father no cause to reverse an adoption. And when Utah attorney Wes Hutchins sent women wearing wires to adoption agencies, they recorded personnel saying things like “Birth fathers have zero rights in Utah.” Others simply wrote the birth mothers’ sworn affidavits for them to ensure fathers wouldn’t be identified.
Unjust as that is to fathers, it’s doubly so to children. In the United States, there are only about 75,000 “stranger” adoptions completed every year. But there are some 425,000 children in foster care with no legal parents. Plus, millions of children languish in orphanages throughout the world. Those are all kids who desperately need parents.
So you’d think we’d do everything in our power to connect good adoptive parents with children who truly need them. But no, we do the opposite. We force adoption on children who don’t need it. Putative father registries deprive fit fathers of the opportunity to care for their kids, while using the scarce resource of adoptive parents on children who don’t need to be adopted. Every time they do so, a child in foster care or an orphanage, goes without.
Consider foster care. Single mothers are very likely to live in poverty, and often have their children taken from them by state child protective agencies due to abuse or neglect. That happened to about 700,000 children in the U.S. last year. Once taken, the children are placed in some form of foster care.
Now, the social science on foster care is not pretty, despite many foster parents providing good, loving homes for children in need. Overall, foster children are at greater risk of physical, sexual and psychological abuse, more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, do worse in school, etc. than are children in parental care.
So, given that being taken from one’s parents is itself traumatic for children, and the fact that foster care often has deleterious effects, and the fact that the state has to pay foster parents, you’d think that we’d approach foster care as a last resort. But no, we do the opposite.
CPS agencies routinely railroad children into foster care, and when they do, we notice the absence of a certain figure – Dad.
When CPS agencies take children from a mother, they often ignore the father as the obvious next choice for the child’s care. In 2006, the Urban Institute did a study entitled “What About the Dads?” that found that, in over half the cases in which a child was taken from a mother, CPS caseworkers made no effort to contact the father. The situation is so bad that a federal appellate court in California ruled the practice a violation of fathers’ civil rights, but there’s nothing to indicate it’s abated.
Data show that father care is better for children than foster care and, in any case it’s cheaper. As the child’s biological parent, the state pays nothing to fathers who care for their kids. But rather than improve the lives of children and save taxpayers money, states routinely opt for foster care over father care as the Urban Institute study shows.
Does that make sense? Actually, in the perverse world of family law, it does.
As usual, money is the root of the problem. The federal government pays states for every child taken into – and adopted out of – foster care. In short, the more children a state can channel into foster care, the more money it can receive from Washington.
So, listen to the former chairman of the South Dakota Senate Appropriations Committee, Bill Napoli, on National Public Radio.
“When that money came down the pike, it was huge,” Napoli says. “That’s when we saw a real influx of kids being taken out of families.”
He said there was little lawmakers could do to rein in the department of social services. This was federal money, and it went straight to the department.
“I’m sure they were trying to answer a public perception of a problem,” he said. “And then slowly it grew to a point where they had so much power that no one — no one — could question what they were doing.”
What they were doing of course was trafficking children. And intentionally depriving fathers of children and children of fathers to do it.
Sadly, there are many more ways in which public policy separates fathers from children. But time prohibits me from exploring things like claims of domestic violence in custody cases, restraining orders, paternity fraud, parental alienation, maternal gatekeeping and the like. Maybe next year.
Just who is it that supports this dysfunctional and unjust system of laws and policies on fathers and children? Principally two groups — family lawyers and feminist organizations, usually part of the domestic violence establishment, but not always. When shared parenting bills come before state legislatures, those are the ones testifying against them.
Lawyers of course benefit from the winner-take-all system of child custody. The prospect of losing one’s child encourages many parents to fight tooth and nail, and lawyers thrive on conflict. Bad blood means more motions to file, more hearings to attend, more custody evaluations to conduct, etc., all of which lawyers take straight to the bank. So divorce lawyers fight every effort to make divorce less adversarial.
Of the countless shared parenting bills that have come before legislative bodies throughout the world, not one has ever been supported by a feminist organization, and many have been opposed by them. As a few examples, the National Organization for Women, its affiliates in Michigan and New York, the National Association of Women Lawyers in Canada, the Faucett Society in the U.K., and The National Council of Single Mothers in Australia have all actively lobbied against even the most modest improvements in the rights of children and fathers.
This is true despite the fact that more parenting time for dads would increase mothers’ time to do paid work, earn, save and advance in their careers. All of those are long-time feminist goals, but, it seems that for feminist organizations, some things, like keeping fathers out of their children’s lives, trump even their dedication to women.
This opposition to equalizing the roles of fathers and mothers is, as you might expect, laughably disingenuous.
For example, opponents of fathers’ rights say that cases are decided on the “best interests of the child,” and are therefore sacrosanct, but are they? If judges are acting in children’s best interests, why are so many faring so poorly?
The answer of course is that judges, however sincere their beliefs, are doing no such thing. As Paul Millar points out, what predicts custody orders is not children’s interests, but the sex of the parent. Overwhelmingly, mothers get custody and fathers don’t, but does that promote child well-being? It does not.
As Millar says, “Parental gender is not a good predictor – in fact not a predictor at all — of any of the child outcomes examined here; that is, behavioural, educational or health outcomes. Thus there appears to be a disconnect between the theoretical criterion of custody determinations — best interests — and what actually plays out in the justice system.”
Why this uniform failure on the part of judges to do what they claim to be doing? Surely one reason is our refusal to educate them in the science of children’s welfare post-divorce. We now have a large body of science that tells us what parenting arrangements promote children’s welfare, so you’d expect that science to be a big part of judges’ training. But no, we do the opposite.
Nowhere in the English-speaking world do we teach judges the science on shared parenting and its many benefits to children, parents, the judicial system and society generally. Indeed, when one fathers’ rights organization in the U.K. asked what science on parenting judges are taught, the Judicial College informed them that it had no such science and wouldn’t use it if it did.
So much for the best interests of children.
Another claim by the anti-dad crowd is that custody orders reflect parenting time during marriage and so should be maintained afterward.
First, no science demonstrates that children’s well-being is promoted by keeping them with their primary caregiver. But even if there were, the claim is simply false.
According to the data of, among others, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Stats Canada and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, fathers and mothers who both do paid work perform essentially equal amounts of parenting. When non-working parents are added to the mix, the difference in parenting time expands, but even then fathers do between 40 — 42% of the hands-on child care.
So even if those opposed to increased fathers’ rights were correct, which they’re not, fathers should still see their children at least 40% of the time, but that standard exists nowhere in the world.
Then there’s the old war-horse of the anti-father groups — domestic violence, according to which fathers are uniquely apt to hit their wives and kids, and so should be marginalized in their lives. Of course we’ve known for decades that men and women commit domestic violence about equally and women are more likely than men to initiate physical conflict. And the U.S. Administration for Children and Families shows mothers do between 60 and 100% more abuse and neglect of children than do fathers.
But what’s new information is just how little of this is ever an issue. The State of Nebraska just completed a study of its custody cases over a 10-year period and the results opened a lot of eyes. Allegations of domestic violence were made at all in only 5.4% of cases, while child abuse or neglect was alleged in only 6.2%. In short, domestic violence and child abuse are, in the overwhelming majority of cases, non-factors in deciding parental fitness.
By now it should be clear that family courts routinely do the opposite of what they should be doing if, as they claim, they’re promoting children’s interests. That they, in the process of harming children, also harm fathers, mothers, the social fabric and drain the public purse is a situation that fairly screams for reform.
We know the direction that reform must take. We’ve known for decades that children do better in intact families, and now social science demonstrates that, for children of divorce, equal parenting is the optimal arrangement.
By “equal,” I mean any ratio of parenting time between a 35/65 and a 50/50 split, since the benefits to children tend to kick in when they see each parent at least 35% of the time.
I don’t have time to delve fully into the social science on equal parenting, but here is the briefest of summaries:
First, equal parenting helps preserve children’s relationships with both parents which is vital for their ability to adjust to the trauma of divorce. If divorce courts truly want to act in the best interests of children, they will, in most cases, order equal parenting.
That children in shared parenting arrangements do better by all measures than kids with non-equal parenting has been established at least since 1992. Since then studies with data from 36 countries and hundreds of thousands of people found the same thing. Meta-analyses of data conducted in 2002 and 2012 found that “joint custody and shared parenting resulted in significantly better outcomes for children and parents on all… measures of adjustment including family relationships, self-esteem, emotional and behavioral adjustments and the level of conflict between parents.”
Second, equal parenting is good for parents as well as kids. Parents with equal custody tend to have better physical and emotional health, a greater sense of purpose and personal gratification. By contrast, non-custodial fathers and mothers have high levels of depression. They experience a grief reaction much like to the death of a loved one. They report “increasing isolation, loss of employment and inability to form… new relationships, more disturbed patterns of thinking and feeling including shame, stigma, self-blame and hopelessness about the future.”
Third, children want equal parenting. Studies over 10 years, reveal that between 70 and 93% of children prefer equal contact with their parents. Children in equal parenting arrangements “were found to have the best relations with each of their parents and reported outcomes far superior to those in primary residence homes. Children in sole custody arrangements reported feelings of insecurity in their relationship with the non-residential parent, perception of rejection by that parent and anger toward both their parents for denying them meaningful relationships with fathers and mothers.”
Plus, We the People say we prefer shared parenting. Multiple surveys of public opinion conducted in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. over the past decade show support for shared parenting between 70 and 84%.
In addition to the benefits just stated, equal parenting tends to decrease parental conflict and family violence. It reflects the caregiving arrangements before divorce and enhances the quality of parent-child relationships. It provides a clear guideline for judicial decision-making and reduces the risk of parental alienation. It addresses social justice imperatives on the rights of children and parents. Finally, the current custody model has no empirical support, while science argues strongly for a rebuttable presumption of equal parenting.
In short, if the best interests of children is the goal, we know how to reach it. But a million times a year, year in and year out, we do the opposite.
Given all that, the question arises “why aren’t advocates for children and fathers winning?” After all, we have so much on our side, so why is it that our equal parenting bills routinely go down to defeat? The answer is simple – we aren’t playing the game. It’s as if we’re a football team that, instead of blocking the other players, asks them politely to get out of the way and allow us to score. It’s all very civilized, but not calculated to win.
Time and again we lobby legislators, many of whom genuinely support us. But what those office-holders know is that, if they vote against our bills, they’ll pay no price for doing so. And then they look at the family law bar and the domestic violence establishment and realize that, if they don’t vote their way, they’ll pay for it next time in money and votes.
For politicians, stuck between their conscience and re-election, the choice unfortunately is not a hard one.
We need to change that. We need to add electoral politics to our lobbying efforts. We need to organize locally to defeat wrong-voting office-holders. That’s something we can do with volunteers, a good strategy and comparatively little money. I can comment on this at much greater length another time.
For many years we’ve tried playing nicely. It’s time now to show state legislators both the carrot and the stick.
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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