Rachel Alexander ‘Gets It’ on Need for Family Court Reform

The message of equally shared parenting is spreading.  It’s now gotten an unequivocal endorsement in the conservative online publication Townhall.  Read the article here (Townhall, 7/19/11).

The writer is Rachel Alexander and she nails essentially every important topic on divorce, custody and child support.  And I say that not simply because she gives a shout-out for Fathers and Families or because she seems to have been reading my stuff (who else quotes Canadian researcher Paul Millar?).

Alexander’s piece isn’t long, and it’s hard to cover the waterfront of custody issues in the space she has, but she does an admirable job.

Child custody and support laws have become more onerous over the last 50 years due to fewer parents staying together and women becoming equally as capable as men at earning a living outside the home. Instead of reflecting these changes, the laws have lagged behind, continuing to favor mothers over fathers. The laws generally award primary custody to the parent who spent more time at home with the children and less time working, even if the difference was miniscule. The other parent is then ordered to pay a crushing amount of child support, sometimes on top of alimony. In a small percentage of situations, usually where the father was the primary caregiver, this situation is reversed and the laws punish the mother.

I’m glad she didn’t frame this as a debate about fathers versus mothers.  It’s not and it never has been.  The debate is about parents versus family courts.  The fact that mothers get the short end of the stick in custody cases far less often than do fathers, doesn’t mean it can’t happen.  And the complaints that fathers have very much reflect those of mothers who end up as non-custodial parents.  It’s no accident that many “fathers rights” advocates are mothers who’ve gotten a view of the custody/visitation/child support scene from the other side.

Alexander’s also right in pointing out that society has changed a lot faster than have courts and laws on child custody.  The entire concept of custodial and non-custodial parents is an artifact of bygone days.  Those were the days when few people got divorced, so there wasn’t much science on the effects of divorce on children.  Nor was there much on the benefits of fathers to children.  Now there is a lot of both, but laws haven’t much changed.

Likewise, mother as default caregiver harks back to days when many more mothers than now didn’t do paid work and dads shouldered the task of earning for their families.  Again, it’s different now.  The workplace has opened up for women and so has the system of higher education.  So women can earn as much or more than men, even though on average they don’t.

And yet state laws on divorce and custody are loathe to acknowledge what has been common knowledge for decades.  Alexander gets that.

Although a few small changes have been made to the laws within the last few years, due to exposure and the efforts of advocacy organizations, there has not been significant progress. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 84 percent of custodial parents are mothers, a figure that has not changed since 1983. This is unfortunate, because Canadian economist Paul Miller analyzed data on families and found that “parental gender is not a…predictor at all of any of the child outcomes examined, that is behavioral, educational or health outcomes.’

Alexander looks favorably on equal parenting and understands that it holds the promise of fixing much that’s broken in family courts.

The latest effort to change the system calls for “shared parenting.’ Although advocacy groups differ on how shared parenting would be implemented, it generally consists of making the default custody arrangement 50/50 joint physical and legal custody when parents split up, absent egregious circumstances. This would replace the current system which leaves it up to a judge”s whim to decide what constitutes “the best interests of the child.’ Shared parenting bills are being introduced in state legislatures around the country, and several states now have some version of shared parenting. In those states, studies are finding that divorce rates are lower and the children are better adjusted. 

She also gets it right on child support and temporary restraining orders.

In addition to passing shared parenting laws, there must be tougher requirements for issuing restraining orders and reform of child support laws. 50/50 shared custody should not include child support unless there are egregious circumstances. Child support creates an incentive to continue fighting. Neither parent wants to get stuck paying it, and some parents greedily want it as a source of income to use as they please, since there is little monitoring of how it is spent. Eliminate child support in all but the most egregious situations, and most of the fighting clogging our family courts will cease.

Mark my words: a tipping point will come in the fight for fathers’ rights to their children and children’s rights to their fathers.  Just when that will be, I can’t say.  But there is too much on the side of fathers and children for them to be held hostage by outdated and inaccurate views about mothers and families.  When that time comes we’ll see a cascade of changing state laws that truly seek to keep both parents in the lives of children post-divorce.

When that happens, Rachel Alexander will be counted as one who helped tip the balance.

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