This is an updated version of my 2005 article with the same title.
I was at a 4-year-old’s birthday party when I overheard a young mother. “We call him ‘the loser’, she said, “but not around Bobby”. I cringed. I knew that Bobby was probably aware that the significant adults in his life disrespected this man, and that the man was probably his father. When I hear things like that I worry about children growing up today. One million children in America are involved in a new divorce annually, as of 1997, according to divorcemagazine.com, and The Children’s Fund reports that one in three American children is born to unmarried parents (2004 Key Facts About American Children).
E. Mavis Hetherington and John Kelly, authors of For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered, found that “twenty years after the divorce less than one-third of boys and one-quarter of girls reporting having close relationships with their nonresident fathers.” And the National Fatherhood Initiative reports “About 40 percent of children in father-absent homes have not seen their father at all during the past year.” What kind of role models are we offering our children? With divorced and unmarried fathers currently having the undeserved reputation of “deadbeats”, how can little boys grow up proud to be male?
At one time that young mother could have been me. I have made many disparaging comments about my ex-husbands, and I felt completely justified in doing so. All three of the men had let me down in one way or another, and it made sense to place blame when I spoke about my divorces. They weren’t my fault; after all, they were always my ex-husbands’ fault. That’s what I liked to say at least. That’s what I needed to believe.
I have experienced a phenomenon within my own family that I have now learned is common, tragic, and very often avoidable. I’m talking about the phenomenon of the fatherless child. Three of my children are in that 40 percent, the kids who never see their dads. They had fathers who it seemed, simply walked out of their lives. The thing to note is that of the four men, it was the three who I divorced, the three who had to deal with the family court system and the state child support enforcement who went missing, not the man who fathered a child with me when we were both unmarried, who wrote a parenting plan with me without involving the court system. I’ve successfully co-parented with that man for 18 years.
So what happened to the men I married and divorced? Why were they the ones who walked? It wasn’t like they were never in their children’s lives. These were the men who attended childbirth classes with me, who walked the floor, changed diapers, and played with our babies. We were thrilled to have children together and co-parented successfully while we were married. What exactly had happened during the divorce? Everything changed. The relationships between my children and their fathers disintegrated.
At the time, all I knew was that I had divorced men who had deserved it, as far as I was concerned, and they were proving exactly how bad they were by abandoning their children. My only choice, as I saw it then, was to be the best single mom I could be; to fill in the gaps, to play both parental roles, to make sure as best I could that my kids felt loved and wanted. I chose a career that allowed me to work from home. I supported my family and provided my children the benefits of a stay-at-home mother.
But while I was enjoying close relationships with my children I also knew they were missing something. I resented my ex-husbands for rejecting them, and for any disadvantages they experienced by not having two parents in their lives. Those kids deserved another cheerleader on their team. So if the name of one of my ex-husbands came up in conversation I did not hesitate to use a term like “the loser.”
I have since learned what it is like for a father to go through the family court system and how it can negatively impact the relationship with his child. I’ve also learned that any parent is vulnerable to injustice and any parent could lose contact with their child after going through the current family court system. What I learned is shocking.
A newly separated or unmarried father might think that he is doing everything by the book; he might visit or care for his child regularly, or as often as the mother will allow, he might think he should wait until the court hearing to start paying child support since no amount has been set, especially if the mother of his child has applied for welfare, because paying her directly isn’t allowed. He might go into court expecting to come out with a fair joint physical custody order, especially if he has been providing much of his child’s daily care. He might expect that any child support order that may be made against him would start that day. Many good, fit, responsible, loving, dedicated fathers, and some mothers, are completely overwhelmed by what happens next.
As Jeffery Shipman, a New York father to then 21-month-old Deonna, told me, “It is, simply put, like being raped. You’re raped financially, emotionally, and in terms of your health deteriorating – physically as well. You walk out of the courtroom perplexed and bewildered; shaking your head in disbelief while thinking “This can’t be happening!” But it is. It is real life. It is cruel. I recall walking out of family court one year ago a broken, broken man.” UPDATE: After this article was written, Jeffrey Shipman illegally took his daughter Deonna out of the country, spending three years in Thailand and a year and a half in Europe before being caught. He was given a sentence of 30 months in prison
The Myth of Deadbeat Dads
I came across a 2003 study from the Urban Institute on uncollected child support in California. In Examining Child Support Arrears in California – the Collectibility Study, I learned that common practices, like not making sure the father was served a summons for his court date, setting default orders if he didn’t show up, charging interest, and backdating child support orders were contributing to the fatherless child epidemic. I learned that these, combined with the practice of judges “assuming” income was leaving some low-income fathers with child support orders “4 times higher than it should be,” and in some cases, “twice as high as the debtor’s net monthly income.” According to the Urban Institute analysis, “Three-quarters of California’s arrears result from policies and practices that set and keep child support orders at levels that exceed noncustodial parents’ ability to pay child support.”
Many fathers walk out of the courtroom in shock, owing thousands of dollars in arrears due to backdating and interest, putting them immediately at risk of imprisonment and losing their professional and drivers licenses. Some of these fathers become so overwhelmed they go into hiding, losing all contact with their children. The UI study goes on, “Many child support professionals have come to believe that charging interest, particularly at high rates, is counterproductive and does not serve either the child or the government. Charging interest can make the payment of child support arrears seem overwhelming” to some low-income, non-custodial parents in California “and, possibly, drive them to the underground economy and away from their children.”
The Myth of Abusive Fathers
Another thing happens to fathers, and to some mothers, which I would have never expected to find in America, a country I thought stood for justice. With absolutely no notice, no due process of law, judges can, and do, use ex parte orders to remove custody of their children from parents. In From Madness to Mutiny: Why Mothers Are Running from the Family Courts – And What Can Be Done about It, sociologist Amy Neustein and family court expert Michael Lesher conclude that “No state should permit a change of custody from one parent or guardian to the other on the basis of an ex parte hearing – that is a hearing of which one parent of guardian does not receive notice. At the present time there are states, including California, that permit such changes without notification to the other parent.”
Bryan Godfrey, a California father had the crushing experience of dealing with two ex parte orders. The first one, which came shortly after his wife filed for divorce, granted his wife sole custody and exclusive use of their home, and the second one, five months later, terminated all of his parental rights until further notice. He said, “I was accused of sexual abuse that was determined to be unfounded by the Police, but the judge still terminated my visitation via an ex parte until further evaluation of a psychologist. It has been 17 months since I have seen my daughter.”
I’ve had many fathers say they were falsely accused of domestic violence or child abuse during their custody cases. Bryan passed a lie detector test, yet he still can’t see his daughter. When I asked him how he feels about this he said, “I am completely outraged and frustrated that my parental rights have been terminated without so much as single hearing. I was never charged with anything. I was found guilty without a trial.”
The opponents to joint physical custody like to point to studies that show an epidemic of false accusations of sexual abuse during custody cases does not exist. I’ve never claimed it does. But the truth of the matter is you don’t need an epidemic to see that is does happen, and that it needs to be stopped. Since I purchased the book From Madness to Mutiny, Amy Neustein’s adult daughter, Sherry Orbach wrote an article for The Jewish Press. On May 27, 2005 she wrote, “For eighteen years (I am now 24), I was silent as my mother spun lie upon lie about my father and me. The truth, however, is that my father never sexually abused me, and that reporters and alleged victims’ advocates who supported my mother chose to retell her lies without adequately checking the facts.”
Bryan continued, “My daughter is suffering and I am powerless to help her. If I do anything aggressive I will be perceived as a domestic violence committing man and confirm her false allegations. If I sit back and wait for the wheels of ‘justice’ I’m perceived not to care about my daughter. It makes me feel extremely sad, depressed and angry at all the professionals that claim to be ‘looking out for the best interest of the child’ when clearly they could care less.”
Fathers often tell me once they are caught up in the web of family court, false accusations, supervised visitations and alienation, they can’t get out, no matter how innocent they are, how much proof they have, nor how great a parent they are. Because of the “best interest of the child” standard, judges can do pretty much anything they want, including keeping good, fit, loving parents from their children. Jeffrey echoed a sentiment I hear often in the Fathers Movement, “My patriotism, faith in the justice system, respect for attorneys, judges and the like – all gone. My belief in the basic fundamentals of my country based on our Constitution which was fought for – evaporated.”
Bias In The Courts
From everything I’ve seen over the last three years, I believe a father starts out with an overwhelming disadvantage in family court, just because he’s male. Unmarried fathers, fathers to one-third of all the babies born in our country, are almost always denied physical custody of their children. Bill Sharp, a never-married Illinois father to then teens Tasha and Willy lost his joint physical custody after his former partner refused to cooperate with the courts. Bill told me, “I used to wake up in the morning, look at myself in the bathroom mirror and say, ‘What prodigious thing will he do today, this Bill Sharp?’ It was a quote from some artist; I had read it in 1986, liked it and started using it as my own morning motivation from that point on. That changed on July 1, 2002. That’s the morning I looked into the bathroom mirror and said, ‘They took my kids,’ and then broke down.”
Dr. Richard C. Weiss spent almost $100,000, and fought for over 10 years to try to have joint physical custody of his daughters from a previous marriage and to keep them from being moved away. He said, “This is a nightmare ever present – a silence like death but worse. Many of us really loving, caring and responsible fathers have literally been thrown out of the lives of our own children by the family courts and vindictive ex spouses. That, despite gross civil rights injustices, we remain a persecuted class and worse, children are treated like chattel by dysfunctional custodial mothers and the courts with little regard to their needs for having both parents or the dire consequences of removing them from one fit parent, (most divorced parents are fit).”
The Reality Of Estrangement
Right before I overheard that comment about the ‘loser’ in the family, I had been chatting with the birthday child’s grandmother. She was talking about her family and one story grabbed my attention. A male relative had gone through a painful divorce. Not only had his ex-wife gotten sole custody of their daughter, she moved her far away, and then proceeded to turn the child against him. “Parental alienation syndrome.” I said, “That’s what some people call it.” As she described the heartbreak this man was experiencing all I could do was nod my head in understanding and think about the dozens of men I have met who share his pain.
Parental Alienation happens to mothers too. Rebecca Mackey, a noncustodial mother said it happened to her. She said, “Even when one parent loses custody, they are still punished by the brainwashing and psychological games that go on in the custodial household. They ultimately lose their child… body and mind.”
Fathers As Caregivers
Opponents of joint physical custody say that men don’t do the child rearing before the separation, so they shouldn’t have equal custody afterwards. But according to The Motherhood Study (Institute for American Values, 2005, “[M]any married mothers strongly stated they would not wish for more involvement on the part of their children’s father because he already is as involved in their care as anyone can be. In one mother’s words, her husband “does all the things I do with them.” Another mother described her husband as “very involved, although he does very different things than I do.” “We both love the kids and we both work to teach them what they need to know.” These and other mothers expressed a deep appreciation for what their spouses bring to their lives and to the lives of their children, and several mothers noted how much more involved these fathers are in the children’s daily lives than the generations of fathers before them.
Bill said, “There have been four instances where I have put my career on hold to spend time with my kids. I had hoped to be able to do that when they reached high school, do consulting or teaching so that I could take a summer off with the kids and travel, (Europe, Central America, Asia). That can’t happen now because I have to keep earning money at my current rate to be able to pay the child support that has been assessed. The system values me more for the money I earn than for what I teach my kids when I’m with them.”
One thing the opponents of joint custody say is that mothers have a special skill; a special ability to love and care for children, that they’re much more attached to children then fathers. Well, according The Motherhood Study, most mothers do think that, “Mothers see their contribution to the care of their children not only as extremely important, but also so unique that no one else can replace it. Nearly 93% of our respondents agreed with that statement, with nearly 83% saying they ‘strongly’ agree.” I wonder if they’re aware that 87 per cent of fathers surveyed in 1994 said they agreed or strongly agreed that ‘watching children grow up is life’s greatest joy,’ according to Fatherhood: Research, interventions and policies by Peters, Peterson.
And if they doubt that fathers can love children as much as mothers do, they have obviously never met Bill Numerick, a father who is in love with a son he’s never even met. His ex-girlfriend married another man before she gave birth to their son just over two years ago, and due to the current laws in Michigan her husband was automatically named as the father. Bill fought to be a father to his son and was rightfully proud to be part of shaping a bill to prevent this from happening to any other father in Michigan. He told me, “One thing I dread to imagine is Caleb thinking that I don’t love him and that I just walked away without a second thought. To me that is one of the most freighting things I can imagine. As close as I am to my father I couldn’t fathom the emptiness I would feel had we been kept apart while I was growing up.”
Shared Parenting As A Solution
In 1987 Dr. Joan Kelly wrote, “The primary negative aspect of divorce reported by children in numerous studies was loss of contact with a parent.” In Surviving the Breakup, Kelly and Judith Wallerstein wrote, “The emotional stability of children of divorced parents is directly related to the quality of their continuing relationships with both of their parents. We have repeatedly described the dissatisfaction of so many youngsters who felt they were not seeing their fathers often enough, If custody and visiting issues are to be within the realm of the ‘best interest of the child’, then such widespread discontent must be taken very seriously.”
California resident Kelly Bray is dad to two little boys. He told me, “My wife and I have been doing shared parenting from day one… We never prevent the other from participating in anything to do with the kids. The kids have a stable environment; they know where they will be every day. They have the love of two parents, and intimate time with both. It is more like 70/70 than 50/50 to the kids, and that is what counts. Do you have to like your ex-spouse? No, we cannot stand each other, but the kids never know… The trick is to love your kids, more than you hate your spouse. That can’t be that hard, just look at them… just look at them… They are waiting.”
The general public overwhelmingly supports shared parenting. As reported on Fathers & Families (UPDATE: now National Parents Organization) in November 2004, 37 districts in Massachusetts had a non-binding ballot question asking if voters supported it. With 600,000 votes cast, 86 percent said, “Yes.” In Michigan recently the Detroit News carried out an on-line survey asking the following question, “For divorcing parents, should Michigan courts make equally shared custodial responsibility of children the standard?” Again, eighty-six percent voted “Yes.
Fighting For Family Rights
In 2005, Hillary Clinton said, “I have been working for children and families for more then 30 years. … Of course, the most precious responsibility is for one’s own children, but I think we also have a responsibility for all of our children.” I wonder if she’s aware that N.Y. father John Murtari sent her numerous letters asking her to endorse Congressional hearings and eventually the creation of a Family Rights Act, “to recognize and protect the right of our children to have two parents equally involved in their lives and the right of parents to raise and nurture their own children requiring parents be found guilty in a criminal court, with jury protection, of being a demonstrated serious threat to their children – before government can interfere in family life.” I wonder if she knows that John was arrested numerous times and spent time in jail for his non-violent peaceful protesting (writing with chalk on the sidewalk) at her Syracuse office just to have a meeting with her. UPDATE: John was incarcerated for an unpaid incorrect child support order. As a non-cooperation protest he went 123 days without eating food or drinking water. He was eventually put on a feeding tube by the prison. He is interviewed in Angelo Lobo’s documentary Support, System Down, now available under the name Romeo Misses a Payment.
I was surprised to find myself discussing fathers’ issues at a child’s birthday party. This was the last place I expected the subject to come up. “Oh Teri, I want to talk to you about two of my friends”, another guest said. “Two of my friends can’t see their children”, she said, “The moms have moved their kids away and my friends are really upset about it”. She proceeded to tell me about her two male friends, one with a 4-year-old and the other with a 7-year-old.
In both cases the parents had never married, the fathers had been actively involved, and the children were moved away against their wishes. One mother had moved the 7-year-old almost 500 miles away 4 years earlier. The father’s contact was limited to phone calls. The mother of the 4-year-old moved him away when he was 18 months old and changed all of her contact information. The father doesn’t know where they are. “He’s devastated,” she said.
Glenn Sacks, a former radio talk show host and newspaper columnist told me, “Perhaps never before in our history has there been such a widespread injustice and so little attention paid to it.” Glenn, a father of two, happily married, (never divorced), who lives in Los Angeles added, “People trivialize what has happened to fathers – after all, they’re men, and men have all the power. But if you don’t have the right and the power to raise your own children, what do you have?”