|I grew up as a child of divorce, shuttled between two households.
Out of every fourteen days, I spent five with my dad, nine with my
mom -- or thirty six percent of the time with my dad, sixty-four with
my mom. Numbers notwithstanding, the tangible symbol of my divided
life was a small, flowered suitcase. More of an overnight bag, really,
it was sugar and spice pretty. Mine became quite worn over time. For
me, living in two houses was what it was: sad, cumbersome, better
than any of the alternatives -- by which I mean, better than not having
authentic access to both parents and better than their staying together.
Time and again, as friends go through divorces, I feel grateful to
my own parents; however arduous the process of their split was --
and it was -- they tried to do what was best for my sister and me.
Money, or our time with one or the other parent, was never ammunition.
We were never pawns of their anger or disappointment. They were divorcing.
They weren't at war.
Depending how your divorce goes, you may end up being at war. That
much, all sides can agree upon. A follow up question is this one:
whose rights matter most? That's currently up for debate.
Attorney Jeff Wolf, of
Law Reform Institute, explains that what has long guided the
courts in their handling of custody and child support cases was
this imperative: "Do what's in the best interest of the child."
This constituted the standard for the state's 1998 Child Custody
Presumption Law. Legal priorities aren't necessarily set in stone,
and many argue that by trying to change the standards, the "Fathers'
Rights" movement is actually attempting to put a parent's right
-- the father's -- above the child's.
Advocates like Jeff Wolf
believe the current standard should not change for this very reason.
"The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court articulated that
in custody cases, the most pressing issue is how to provide children
with the most stability possible given their situation," Wolf
explains. Not all parties agree with Wolf's assessment. Groups advocating
for the rights of non-custodial fathers have gained momentum since
the early 1990s. They work in myriad ways from outrageous antics
to mainstream lobbying.
In England, Fathers 4
Justice employ guerilla theater tactics to get their point across.
The group, recently profiled in a New York Times magazine
piece by Susan Dominus ("The
Fathers' Crusade," May 8, 2005) is known for its dramatic
actions. On the group's behalf last year, former housepainter Jason
Hatch scaled Buckingham Palace dressed as Batman. From there, he
unfurled a banner in support of fathers' rights -- "Super Dads
of Fathers 4 Justice" -- and spent more than five hours perched
on a ledge near the palace balcony. Although arrested once the stunt
was over, Hatch was released without ever being charged with a crime.
He even got his ladder back. Before the Buckingham Palace protest
Prince Charles was quoted (in London's Daily Telegraph)
in support of fathers' rights. He said he felt judges "favour
mums when deciding custody of kids -- even when many fathers were
not to blame for the split." The prince made this remark when
speaking with a newly divorced Navy officer on HMS Belfast in London.
Jamil Jabr, head of Fathers
4 Justice, has recently begun a United States branch called
Fathers 4 Justice-US. In a reconnaissance trip to New York, members
of the organization scouted out sites for an action. While in the
city, they were trailed by the head of New York's terrorism intelligence
branch. Says Jabr, "He had FBI connections and orders to make
sure that there would be no Buckingham Palace-type incidents."
Although it is dubious whether such outrageous guerrilla theater
style tactics would prevail in post 9-11 New York, it has been widely
reported that the father's rights radicals went out for a beer with
the men assigned to watch them.
Meanwhile, others like
Ned Holstein, founder of the Boston-based organization Fathers
and Families use more conventional means to push the fathers'
rights agenda along. With downtown Boston offices, a membership
base of about 2,000 and an annual budget of $130,000, his group
focuses on lobbying. His was one organization that helped get family
law initiatives on the Massachusetts ballot this past November.
Massachusetts' voters weighed in on the custody issue by answering
non-binding referendum questions in one hundred communities across
the state. Voters, asked if they would endorse a law requiring judges
to presume shared physical and legal custody of all minor children
in all divorce cases unless a parent is proven unfit or unable to
care for the child, offered resounding approval for the suggested
measure: eighty-five percent.
Massachusetts isn't the
only place where such lobbying is taking place. The Indiana chapter
of the Children's
Rights Council (a fathers' rights group) urged that class action
suits be filed nationwide to call for a presumption of joint physical
custody. Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack signed a presumptive joint custody
law in May 2004. Although New Mexico's custody laws determine joint
or sole child custody according to the best interests of the child,
they plainly state this bias: "There is a presumption that
joint custody is in the best interests of the child, unless shown
otherwise." In all, 11 states and the District of Columbia
have a legal presumption in favor of joint custody. Only three states
make this presumption even when the parents contest the arrangement;
eight states apply such a presumption only when both parents are
Some conservative women
are weighing in to support fathers' rights too. Wendy McElroy, a
columnist for FOX News, believes in fathers' rights, wholesale.
Not only does she support shared custody, she recently wrote an
editorial about a birth father's right to his biological child (with
an ex-girlfriend he hadn't known was pregnant in the first place).
In the essay, she cited the father's finding support for his case
from the National
Coalition for Free Men, an organization that lists at the top
of its list of current activities an attempt to abolish the Minnesota
Battered Women's Act. The organization wants the state to take a
brand-new tack, one that "utterly discounts and discredits
the old 'women good, men bad' model and forthrightly recognizes
instead that domestic violence is a shared problem between men and
These groups attempt
to level a playing field they believe is skewed against some men
by widening that description to suggest actual discrimination against
all men. In a 2000
article for Salon, author Cathy Young chronicles the way Dianna
Thompson became executive director of the American Coalition for
Fathers and Children. "Thompson was galvanized into activism
in 1992 when, as a result of an overhaul of California's child support
laws, her husband's support payments for two children from his first
marriage were tripled. Thompson, a mother of five, says that as
a result of the increase, her family was faced with losing their
home." In both of these scenarios -- the biological father
so distanced from the pregnant mother that he wasn't aware of the
pregnancy and the man charged higher child support payments -- men
are presented as innocent victims.
Like the conservative
feminists, the vast majority of fathers' rights activists cite personal
roots for their dedication to the cause. Jason Hatch got into the
fathers' rights movement three and a half years ago after his second
wife left him, taking their two children with her. When he located
her and took her to court, he was granted visitation rights, he
has said, a ruling he states she didn't comply with so he has struggled
to see his children even that much. Two years ago at Gloucester
Crown Court he was convicted of harassing his ex-wife and given
a 12-month conditional discharge. He and his girlfriend had a baby,
and according to a story in the London newspaper, the Telegraph,
Hatch's girlfriend left him after complaining that his obsession
with a campaign for fathers' rights put too great a strain on their
relationship. "Gemma Polson, 27, the mother of the couple's
seven-month-old daughter Amelia, said Jason Hatch's involvement
with the pressure group Fathers 4 Justice had 'taken over his life.'"
Polson went on to explain
to the newspaper that Hatch -- father of four, from two former marriages
in addition to his relationship with her -- put all of his energies
into fighting for the right to see his children from his second
marriage. Quoted as saying of Hatch, "He was seeing hardly
anything of our daughter, which was a bit rich when the whole point
of his campaign was to allow dads to see more of their children.
I would rather he saw more of Amelia than he does."
Ned Holstein's commitment
to fathers' rights also comes from personal experience. He attained
joint physical and legal custody of his three now grown children
and believes that his family fared well through the divorce. However,
the court proceedings -- as he said to the Boston Globe in a November, 2004 article profiling him -- opened his eyes to
the fact that he was being seen as a potential derelict about to
shirk parental responsibility rather than a contributing member
of society going through a difficult experience. The line of questioning
that sparked his sense of injustice was this: "And you do make
a lot of money, don't you doctor?" The stated mission of Fathers
and Families is to "protect the child's right to the love and
care of both parents. We seek shared parenting for the children
of divorced and never-married parents with equal rights and responsibilities
for fathers and mothers."
Gerson, author of No Man's Land: Men's Changing Commitments
to Family and Work, looks at the ways men's and women's roles
in society have changed over the past thirty years. She contends
that large social shifts occurred, upending the old structures,
and clear new paths have not been paved. For example, women's contributions
to the labor force have become critical to our economy. "As
women took on more economic responsibilities, the father as sole
breadwinner model eroded," Gerson says. "And so men do
not possess a predominant ideal or pattern of masculinity or fatherhood."
She has identified three models of fathers, the first being the
old-fashioned married man with wife at home. The second is the egalitarian
man who values emotional involvement and his role as nurturer with
his children even if a marriage breaks up. The third is the absent
father -- deadbeat or runaway -- who finds sustained involvement
with his children inordinately difficult. Gerson explains that the
extremes are most apt to take action. "The Promise Keepers
are highly committed and conservative men determined to turn back
the clock and restore traditional fatherhood. The underbelly of
these Promise Keepers is a rejection of the notion of women's equality.
The fathers' rights movements are filled with men who feel pushed
out, denied of ties to their children, leaving them estranged and
angry. The underbelly of this is anger toward women."
She does not believe
either extreme reflects most ordinary people's experiences. "The
vast majority of men are in the middle, part of dual-earner families,
whether married, otherwise partnered or divorced, and they are working
to earn money and redefine fatherhood in non-politicized fashion;
they are simply living their lives." Gerson notes that the
number of custodial fathers, though it remains small, has doubled
over the past ten years. "Because these new patterns don't
get politicized, they are often not defined as men's movements.
A real fatherhood movement -- like a real mothers' movement -- would
question the structure of how our society balances work and family."
problem with presumptive joint custody
If presented without supporting information about the complexities
that can factor into divorce, joint or shared custody sounds like
the reasonable, fair way to go. It's appealing even to those who
comprehend the vagaries of warfare between divorcing couples. Trish
Wilson, in her article, "Solomon's
Solution" (AlterNet, 21 April 05) references New York Judge
Felicia K. Shea's explanation about why judges might lean toward
this arrangement. Shea writes that "'Joint custody is an appealing
concept. It permits the court to escape an agonizing choice, to
keep from wounding the self-esteem of either parent and to avoid
the appearance of discrimination between the sexes.'" Shared
custody arrangements imply that two parents are contributing equally
toward their children's stability. For such a measure to work there
must be a tacit implication of underlying good will. In many of
the cases that moved fathers' rights advocates to lobby for shared
custody, any traces of good will had long since disintegrated.
According to experts, parents that choose to share custody make
it work well. Wilson points out that early studies of joint custody
revealed situations ideal to making it work well included cooperative
relationships between the parents, financial stability, the mothers
not having remarried, mutual agreement to live in close proximity
to one another and the fact that these couples usually had one child.
However, studies also showed that when parental conflict endured,
joint custody often elongated the period of dissention and conflict.
Judith Wallerstein (author of many longitudinal studies on divorce
including the book, Second Chances) declares that strife
between adults can be turned toward the children when a contentious
divorce is in the works, and that in these cases shared custody
can be damaging. She says, "Conflict is bad for children, and
if you put them more in the middle, it's bad." There is, in
fact, a lot of evidence for the idea that different custody models
are suitable for different families. No single formula determines
the best match for all families. Wallerstein's long range study
indicates that children in joint custody situations did no better
than those in sole custody. Her study also showed that the well-being
of the parents had more to do with how well the children fared than
how custody was resolved, which would indicate that flexibility,
designing custody on a case by case basis, helped more children
to thrive after their parents' divorces.
Eleanor Maccoby and Robert Mnookin, co-authors of Dividing
the Child, describe a phenomenon that they believe backfired.
A study of California courts looked at the outcomes of joint custody
being awarded in an attempt by the judges for families to resolve
familial conflicts. "Three and one-half years after separation,
these couples were experiencing considerably more conflict and less
co-operative parenting than were couples for whom joint custody
was the first choice of each parent." In their study, only
six percent of those seeking divorce opted for joint custody.
The courts themselves do not keep statistics about how many divorces
with children are contested. Jeff Wolf points out that the number
of cases filed as contested wouldn't offer complete clarification.
"Determining whether a given case is 'contested' on custody
would be something of a challenge anyway, because someone (a researcher,
presumably) would have to assess each case to determine the nature
and extent of the 'contest.'" In its testimony to the California
Judicial Committee, the legal services Family Law Task Force argued
that the poor results reflected in Maccoby and Mnookin's study revealed
how that law had not served its intended purpose. That state repealed
its law forcing presumption of shared custody for couples in opposition
to trying it.
editorial for the "Voice Male" newsletter, Rob Okun
co-director of the Men's Resource Center of Western Massachusetts,
Becky Lockwood director for Rape Crisis Services and Violence Protection
at the Everywoman's Center at the University of Massachusetts and
Marian Kent, director of Safe Passage, weigh in on the 2004 Massachusetts
referendum. They write: "On their surface, the questions are
simple, feel-good initiatives, but they're not. In reality, they
may be seen as a planned effort to undermine current custody laws.
With far-reaching implications, the proposed laws could have painful
and even dangerous consequences for children caught in the middle
of high-conflict divorce cases and, in particular, in cases where
domestic violence is a factor." The authors point out that
"The only rights the initiative creates or enhances are those
of non-custodial parents. In what we can only hope was a glaring
oversight, the language of the initiative makes no explicit provision
for dealing with cases where sexual abuse or domestic violence is
a factor." In Massachusetts, an estimated 43,00 children live
in homes where domestic violence exists.
Jay Silverman, assistant
professor of Society, Human Development, and Health and director
of Violence Prevention Programs at the Harvard School of Public
Health, has been studying how women in battering situations fail
to be protected by the Massachusetts courts in custody disputes.
He and his collaborators placed these domestic decisions into an
international framework, citing the U.N. Declaration on the Elimination
of Violence Against Women's call for the "right to due diligence,"
as well as the "best interests of the child," as defined
by the Convention on the Rights of the Child. According to the researchers,
"'The right to freedom from violence is one of the most fundamental
human rights. Without that right, all other rights are meaningless.'"
Family court cases are
closed and records that would offer hard numeric evidence are not
kept, even state by state. As a result, most evidence is anecdotal.
Statistics about violence within families are sobering: 40 to 70
percent of children of battered women are directly abused by their
mother's batterer; half of child homicides are committed by males
within the family circle; male partners commit half of all murders
against women. Separation doesn't necessarily stop violence: according
to some studies; up to 75 percent of both emergency room visits
and calls to law enforcement for assistance were made by battered
women after separating from their batterers. According to Silverman
and Lundy Bancroft, co-authors of The Batterer as Parent,
male abusers are more likely to seek custody than non-abusers. What's
more, studies confirm that they are likely to prevail. Forty-eight
states, including Massachusetts, have laws requiring judges to assign
custody to the non-abusive parent although judges can override them.
In an article for the Harvard Public Health Review, Silverman is
quoted: "'U.S. courts remain incredibly reluctant to punish
men for crimes against their families. In this country, family violence
is still seen as a private matter.'" Silverman points out that
to rape one's wife wasn't officially deemed illegal in some states
until the 1990s, further bolstering his argument that the value
of protecting familial privacy has overridden the value of protecting
women from violence.
In "Solomon's Solution,"
Trish Wilson offers an example of this. Angela was divorced from
an abusive ex-husband, who told her if she tried to divorce him
he'd do anything to prove her an unfit mother or to take the children
from her. Placing her trust in the court system's ability to protect
her and her children from an abusive man, she proceeded to file
for divorce. She was rudely surprised. "'I was pressured to
accept an unstable and unsafe 50/50 custody schedule, even for my
nursing infant,' she said. 'I was blamed for the violence in the
house; for mine and my children's reasonable fears about their father's
abuse. [The court] implied that if I didn't agree to shared physical
custody, I would be punished by having sole custody awarded to the
children's father. His verbal abuse of me and the children were
deemed 'communication problems.' Incidence of child abuse and physical
domestic violence were minimized and called 'a difference in parenting
styles.'" The fallout for her eldest child was dramatic. The
girl began to hurt herself physically, suddenly had trouble in school,
experienced stomachaches and mounted physical resistance to seeing
invention of Parental Alienation Syndrome
Author Katie Allison
Granju described her total shock when her soon to be ex-husband
announced he was vying for custody of their children in her New
York Times essay, "Losing Custody of My Hope" (8
May 05). Granju, the author of a guidebook on attachment parenting,
had been the parent to step back from the workforce and serve as
the children's primary caregiver. She wrote that her former spouse
cited possible "parental alienation syndrome" as a bolstering
factor in his bid for custody.
Gardner coined the term in the late 1980s: "One outgrowth of
this warfare (over custody) was the development in children of what
I refer to as the Parental Alienation Syndrome. Typically, the child
viciously vilifies one of the parents and idealizes the other. This
is not caused simply by parental brainwashing of the child. Rather
the children themselves contribute their own scenarios in support
of the favored parent. My experience has been that in about 80 to
90 percent of cases the mother is the favored parent and the father
the vilified one."
Syndrome" seems to have entered the courts based on Dr. Gardener's
anecdotal observations. Fathers' rights advocates and bloodthirsty
lawyers seized upon the idea and pushed it further, although it
remains relatively undocumented and hasn't received much formal
study. The internet quickly reveals many resources (particularly
for men) for those disheartened by their own divorce negotiations.
It takes little effort to stumble upon descriptions of PAS; for
example, Dr. Reena Sommer defines PAS on her Web site as "the
deliberate attempt by one parent (and/or guardian/significant other)
to distance his/her children from the other parent" and describes
PAS as "a form of child abuse." Among the attributes that
signal PAS during high conflict divorces, according to Sommer, are
conflict between the divorcing spouses and change of geographical
location on the part of one spouse. She neglects to point out either
of these situations could occur without the desire to poison the
children against the other parent during such a split. Sommer's
advice -- "No one knows your children and what is best for
them better than YOU" -- comes with a price tag. Scrolling
down her page are multiple opportunities to buy her book, Children's
Adjustment to Divorce: Educating Yourself, Your Attorney & The
Court (available on sale at $37 to download for immediate consumption).
While some courts have
begun to take PAS into consideration as a factor in custody deliberations,
the term has not been accepted by the American Psychiatric Society
nor entered into the DSM-IV, which is considered the bible of psychiatric
diagnoses. Despite this, various paid "expert" witnesses
in child custody cases across the country assess PAS as a presenting
over child support
Introduction of PAS is
just one of many strategies that fathers' rights advocates are employing
to bolster men's quests for shared or sole custody. Ginetta Candelario,
an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Smith College, found her
divorce negotiations suddenly turned contentious a few years ago.
"The divorce was almost finalized, we had a date, parenting
plan, mediation results entered into the court record, everything,"
recalls Candelario. "Then, I got a Fulbright [scholarship],
which would take me and the children away for six months. He [her
ex-husband, Juan Romero] was upset about that. He also didn't want
to pay a lot of money."
Candelario explains further
that Stephanie, her ex-husband's girlfriend, has a daughter by an
ex-boyfriend. "The boyfriend is an engineer who made about
eighty thousand dollars a year to her customer service position
pay of about thirty thousand. Although the ex-boyfriend hadn't been
terribly interested in the daughter, he obtained joint custody.
Juan said, 'He's so lucky not to pay child support.' Before she
moved in with Juan, Stephanie had to live at friends' houses with
her daughter for six months while her ex-boyfriend kept the beautiful
Romero had a child in
New Jersey from his first marriage. With this daughter, he had visitation
rights but not custody. Candelario never envisioned he'd seek joint
custody for their son and daughter. Because the Fulbright would
mean a change in the kids' visitation schedule short-term, Romero
was in a position to contest existing agreements. For months, Candelario
wondered why Romero was suddenly engaged in such bitter battle.
"Was it money or feeling he'd lost control of his child after
the dissolution of his first marriage or did he believe me to be
a bad mother?" she wondered at the time. "Eventually,
I dreamt, 'Google him.'"
She did. Upon reading
a testimonial posted on the internet by Romero, Candelario better
understood why he was fighting her so hard. Part of Romero's testimonial
reads, "In my case, I have a lawyer; however, who can afford
to call a lawyer with every little question during this emotional
rollercoaster time in our lives. After leaving a brief email at
Brotherhood Of Fathers Rights describing my circumstances, I
received a phone call from Dennis Gac. I was very impressed with
Mr. Gac's legal knowledge and personal experiences. On May 2002,
I became a member to the National Brotherhood Of Fathers Rights.
The amount of information that I have received, thus far, is more
than worth the membership price of $675.00; and I have unlimited
consultation for this price for one year!"
On his web site, Gac
describes his own history with divorce in an open letter to fathers.
"I have formal legal training from the University of Michigan,
and William Howard Taft Law School in Southern California. But 15
years ago, despite all my legal training, I was not prepared for
the prejudice that I faced when I went through my divorce. I quickly
got up to speed and fought my way to fairness against an extremely
disagreeable 'X' wife. Shared custody, no child support and a fair
property settlement resulted after I learned the correct approach
and legal techniques. And I did it all using the same 'Legal-Kung-Fu'
methods you're about to learn. Because the family court system is
becoming more and more 'skewed' against us as fathers, more men
are falling behind in their child support payments and receiving
less time with their kids. You can actually help by pursuing your
own case with vigor before it's too late."
This is followed by a
pitch to subscribe to his newsletter (free online but described
as being a $147 value). Gac offers advice such as, "You can
snatch the momentum of the case from the opposition -- increasing
your odds of success by 80%. After working with nearly 10,000 fathers,
I've learned that you must remain on offense. Filing first gives
you a psychological edge. It sets the tone for the entire case;
making her respond to you rather than the other way around. Not
only will that boost your chances of getting more time with your
kids, the chances of paying less child support are also more likely.
In fact, the court actually appreciates this approach!" Anger
and equity rate a mentioned in Gac's introduction; but there's not
one word about the well being of the children. Searching for information
about Gac on the internet, he not only promotes his services for
divorcing fathers, he also advertises his ability to help snare
Candelario says her ex-husband
was able to negotiate considerably less financial responsibility
than their original agreement as a by-product of the drawn out proceedings.
She also describes how the process was affected when the Guardian
Ad Litem turned out to be a friend of Romero's lawyer. Candelario
says, "After missing our appointment three times, she spent
forty minutes with me, and refused to meet my partner or any family
friends. Because I saw the bill, I know that she spent over two
hours at Juan's house with him, his girlfriend and the neighbors.
I handed her six pages of references to call and she called none
of them. In court, she testified that although Juan hadn't assumed
much responsibility for the children when we were married he should
be given a chance now, basically because he was a nice guy. My lawyer
was able to discredit her on the stand because she'd checked none
of the references."
"After all that
fuss about how my going to the Dominican Republic for the Fulbright
would be too long a separation from the kids, he never once visited
them. He didn't have to pay child support during the months I was
away. And then he decided to drop most of his visitation. These
were days I'd scheduled to commute and teach an extra class at another
university to help pay for the twenty-six thousand dollar legal
bill I'd acquired re-negotiating the divorce agreement. I had to
scramble. He wasn't responsible to help pay for any childcare on
those days that were 'his' because the judge ruled that 'visitation
is a right, not an obligation.' He sees the kids from Friday afternoon
to Sunday afternoon twice a month."
Having an economic upper
hand and using that muscle in a very aggressive manner doesn't always
work. In 2000, a Massachusetts judge ordered Peter Basel to pay
$100,000 of his ex-wife's legal fees, because her bills were "a
direct result of the husband's manipulative, nefarious conduct as
it relates to his fraudulent portrayal of his wife as an unfit parent."
Historically, probate court judges have been reluctant about assessing
hefty fees, because their awards are often reversed on appeal.
financial security of custodial parents
So, how much of a motivation is money in the fathers' rights movement?
The 2002 United States Census report showed that poverty among custodial
parents fell from thirty-three percent to twenty-three percent from
the 1999 study, although the poverty rate remained about four times
higher than for married families with similar aged children. The
study also pointed out that the poverty rate for female custodial
parents fell to twenty-five percent, while the poverty rate for
male custodial parents was significantly lower at fourteen percent.
According the Institute for Women's Policy Research, "women
have made tremendous progress toward gaining economic equality during
the last several decades. Nonetheless, throughout the United States,
women earn less, are less likely to own a business, and are more
likely to live in poverty than men. Disparities abound regionally
and by state, and, even more profoundly, race and ethnicity continue
to shape women's economic opportunities." Further, their most
recent national study adds that even with continued economic gains
for women at the rate that has occurred between 1989 and 2002, women
would not achieve wage parity for over fifty years.
The Census report
shows that an estimated fifty-nine percent of custodial parents
had child support agreements, and of custodial parents receiving
child support agreements, sixty-three percent were women, thirty-eight
percent men. The proportion of custodial parents receiving full
payments increased between 1993 and 2001, but the proportion of
custodial parents receiving partial payments fell during that same
time. Those custodial parents receiving full child support were
less likely to be living in poverty. A correlation also existed
between child support and visitation or custody agreements: the
one was more likely to be received if the other was in place. In
other words, child support remained an essential factor in preventing
poverty among custodial parents, particularly mothers.
Disputing these findings
are researchers like Sanford Braver, co-author of Divorced Dads:
Shattering the Myths. With David Stockburger, Braver wrote
the book The Law and Economics of Child Support Payments.
Braver and others believe child support guidelines "have become
tilted against non-custodial parents because they fail to consider
the large tax benefits custodial parents enjoy, as well as non-custodial
parents' child-related expenses." These researchers argue that
this bias means that although a custodial parent may earn less money,
the higher wage earning, non-custodial parent's lifestyle isn't
better than the custodial parent's. Right wing commentator Glenn
Sacks and family law attorney Jeffery Leving (whose web site
contest that these laws "often drive them (the fathers) into
falling deeply into arrears."
Even for super-wealthy
celebrities, child support conflates responsibility and willingness
to pay. Sean P. Diddy Combs' recent response to being sued for higher
child support payments underscores this. A man known for his own
extravagance -- from big diamonds to big yachts -- he balked when
the New York State Supreme Court's Appellate Division approved a
child support increase from $5,000 to $21,782 per month to his ex-girlfriend,
Misa Hylton-Brim, apparently the highest child support payment in
state history. In an interview with The Associated Press, the hip-hop
mogul called the case an attack on his character. "It's not
about money. I don't care how much money I have," he said.
"If you come at me and say I don't take care of my child, I'm
going to take care of that to the end. I do take care of my child
to my fullest, that's something that should be rewarded. It's not
something that should be handled this way." He plans to appeal,
because he says he already gives enough to his son.
As Attorney Jeff Wolf
points out, if "shared custody" was the law, child support
guidelines wouldn't apply. He believes the fathers' rights movement
has taken a stand to cast the custody issue in terms of a values-based
system, even if there is a huge hidden agenda that has to do with
shirking child support obligations. "These fathers are busy
talking about the value of having a father in order to improve moral
development. They build up fears that children of divorce stray,
although this is unproven. Those values -- moral development and
importance of fathers --sound definitive. On the other side, the
values-based argument for 'best interest of the child' remains harder
to define neatly. Its message isn't that all children need a father,
rather that all children need parents to focus on their needs. Parents
emphasizing this value exhibit characteristics such as being open-minded,
flexible and nurturing. The moral standard of such pragmatism is
to ensure that stability is assured for the children, regardless
of parental sacrifice. The fathers' rights movement doesn't address
children's stability at all."
According to Wolf, that
"best interest of the child" standard sounds legalistic,
even though it's child-centered. He says, "Fathers' rights
groups may not appeal to experts -- they are not trying to -- but
legal services, experts, academics weigh in on the merits of supporting
the child's best interests. The public and the legislature are less
likely to be convinced by academics and judges. In order to prevail,
mothers need to articulate a moral argument, rather than a response
to the notion that fathers have rights."
In the intimate sphere
of family, emotions run high, and most especially when the stories
that convey betrayal -- from a person once loved -- are relayed.
The fathers' rights movement is not monolithic. There are men making
a considered, if one-sided point, about their sense of responsibility
and their commitment to vie for meaningful involvement with their
children. These men, like Ned Holstein, see their cases in terms
of gender discrimination. However, they are unwilling to put children's
needs and rights before theirs. Others in the fathers' rights movement
are far less articulate and far angrier than Holstein is. Their
postings can be found on various fathers' rights web sites (such
Blind rage fuels their involvement, stemming from the sense that
the courts treated them unfairly during their divorce proceedings.
Some, like Jason Hatch, haven't acted wholly above board or peacefully
with their former spouses.
Given the formidable
progress the fathers' rights movement has made -- perhaps especially
possible in this particular political climate -- those putting children's
best interests first have a great deal of work ahead. Mothers, fathers,
and others protecting children need to band together. They have
to take a play from Dennis Gac's handbook and find a way to go on
mmo : june
Werthan Buttenwieser is a freelance journalist and regular
contributor to the MMO. She lives in Western Massachusetts.