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FATHERS' RIGHTS

By Jeffrey M. Leving with Kenneth Dachman, Ph.D.

In most homes today, mothers and fathers share child-care duties and the daily labors necessary to operate a family (cooking, cleaning, shopping, feeding and bathing the kids, helping with homework, and so forth). With both parents working in so many modern families, child rearing often involves day care, baby-sitters, or an infinite array of creative scheduling choices. Both mothers and fathers have become, in the words of one pediatric psychologist, "executive parents" - more parental care managers than direct caregivers. In other words, families today are a lot like small businesses, with dads, moms, relatives, and hired help doing whatever must be done, with little regard for titles or status.

Over the past thirty years, women have made remarkable progress in areas of society that had been dominated by men for centuries. The women's movement was responsible for much of this advancement, and it was feminists who first pointed out that traditional gender roles were oppressive and demeaning to both men and women. Interestingly, only half of feminism's message has made a meaningful impression on our collective consciousness. Women are now viewed as being capable of success in the workplace. Men, however, are not yet seen as being capable of providing competent, attentive child care -- at least not in the eyes of many family court judges.

In a recent USA Today poll, 88 percent of the eleven thousand Americans surveyed believed that mothers and fathers should share equally in all child-rearing activities. Because local judiciaries usually are in tune with prevailing public opinion, many political experts find the invincibility of the maternal presumption in family law to be remarkable. As one veteran analyst commented, "Walking into some of these courtrooms is like traveling back in time."

Years of experience and research have convinced me that to understand the gender bias condoned by many family courts, we must recognize the interaction of all elements of the phenomenon. An inappropriate reverence for a long extinct ideal of motherhood is certainly one important piece of the puzzle. The belief that fathers can't handle the rigors of child care is another. The conviction that children need a father's money much more than the father himself also plays a part. The final key might be the perception -- widely held within the judiciary and shared by many "civilians" -- that fathers don't really want, or need, parental rights or responsibilities.

Society's lack of respect for fatherhood and the inaccurate assumption that fathers are not truly interested in parenting combine to perpetuate a comfortable rationalization, a judicial delusion that plays out something like this: Mothers and children need each other. Fathers and children don't, or at least not as much.

The insensitivity and inaccuracy of the notion that divorced or otherwise estranged fathers really don't want or need continuing involvement with their children immediately became clear to me within days after my decision to represent fathers in family court. Since that day, I've become all too familiar with the very real pain and overpowering sense of loss suffered by fathers excluded from their children's lives. All kinds of fathers from all walks of life find separation from their children to be a torturous, devastating experience. The father might be a glib advertising exec or a quiet factory foreman. The agony is the same.

The personal and societal damages directly attributable to current family court policies and practices are so extensive it's difficult to decide where to begin an assessment of the carnage. For fathers and children, the pain, upheaval, and trauma often begin immediately. In about nine of ten divorce and dissolution cases involving children, the mother is awarded sole or primary custody. The father leaves the family and the family home; and a familial environment disintegrates into a tenuous, artificial, often unworkable access arrangement. The father is awarded visitation rights. Typically, he'll be allowed to see his children about fifty days a year.

Most fathers recognize that it is difficult, often impossible, for a visitor to be an effective parent. The loss of normal day-to-day interaction and the absence of shared living creates an uncomfortable, strained relationship between fathers and children. Most estranged fathers loathe visitation -- both the term and the experience.

A visiting father often feels like a stranger, an impostor. Visits become self-conscious, high-pressure interruptions of the children's "normal" lives. Fathers feel the need to entertain their kids or load them up with gifts. There doesn't seem to be enough time for the ordinary activities that "normal" dads and kids share -- fixing a bike, taking a quiet walk, watching cartoons, painting the garage door. Time, most parents know, is an essential component of child rearing. Parents and children who don't spend a great deal of time together never become at ease with each other. Building trust and establishing effective communication become virtually impossible. Unless a father and his children have an unusually strong relationship, visits become what one expert calls "the keenest torture that divorce has to offer."

Admittedly, in accordance with visitation agreements, some of these kids do see their fathers from time to time. As we've noted previously, the average visitation order gives a father fifty days a year with his children. Because 20 percent of custodial mothers see no value in maintaining the father-child relationship, visitation interference is common. That fifty-day allotment quickly evaporates. Only one in six divorced fathers sees his children once a week or more. Almost 40 percent of children who live with their mothers haven't seen their fathers in at least a year. The bottom line is, fathers are vanishing from the social landscape and, as the following facts compiled by the National Fatherhood Initiative demonstrate, father absence has dramatic and extremely serious effects on us all:

* Seventy-two percent of all teenaged murderers grew up without fathers. * Sixty percent of rapists were raised in fatherless homes. * Seventy percent of the kids now incarcerated in juvenile corrections facilities grew up in a single-parent environment. * Fatherless children are twice as likely to drop out of school as their classmates who live with two parents. * Children whose fathers are absent consistently score lower than the norm in reading and math tests. * Three out of four teen suicides occur in single-parent families. * Children who live apart from their fathers experience more accidents and a higher rate of chronic asthma, headaches, and speech defects. * Eighty percent of the adolescents in psychiatric hospitals come from fatherless homes. * Compared to girls raised in homes where both parents are present, the daughters of single parents are 164 percent more likely to become pregnant before marriage, 53 percent more likely to marry as teenagers, and 92 percent more likely to dissolve their own marriages. * A growing body of evidence establishes a high correlation between fatherlessness and violence among young men (especially violence against women). * The absence of a biological father increases by 900 percent a daughter's vulnerability to rape and sexual abuse (often these assaults are committed by stepfathers or the boyfriends of custodial mothers).

In the opinion of social Critic David Blankenhorn, author of Fatherless America, "Fatherlessness is the most destructive trend of our generation." Vice President Al Gore concurred, declaring in a recent speech that "absent fathers are behind most social woes."

Knowledgeable social scientists have linked fatherlessness to a wide range of social nightmares and developmental deficiencies. Among these problems, judging by the results of numerous studies, are substantial increases in juvenile crime, drug and alcohol abuse, teenage pregnancy, promiscuity, truancy, and vandalism. Strong connections have also been established between a father's absence and a child's likelihood of becoming a dropout, jobless, a suicide victim, or a target of sexual abuse. A study of state prision populations found that only 41 percent of the inmates grew up with two parents. FBI statistics indicate that a missing father is a more reliable predictor of criminal activity than race, environment, or poverty.

U.S. News & World Report recently described the frightening reality faced daily by residents of fatherless city neighborhoods this way: "There are places in America where fathers -- usually the best hope to socialize boys -- are so rare that bedlam engulfs the community. Teachers, ministers, cops and other substitute authority figures fight losing battles in these places to present role models to pre-teen and teenage boys. The result is often an astonishing level of violence and incomprehensible incidents of brutality."

Two years ago, the National Center for Health Statistics reported that a child living with a divorced mother is almost twice as likely as a child living with both parents to repeat a grade of school, contract anemia, and suffer from intestinal distress, bed-wetting, and stuttering.

Several psychologists have documented the developmental difficulties endured by fatherless children. Low self-esteem, poor school performance, hyperactivity, lack of discipline, rejection of authority, depression, withdrawal, and several degrees of paranoia were among the disorders identified. As a group, these emotional and behavioral symptoms form what one researcher calls "the adolescent reactive adjustment syndrome." For years after childhood, hundreds of thousands of the fatherless continue to encounter educational, career, and relationship failures far more often than their peers from intact families.

Our thanks to Jeffrey Leving and Kenneth Dachman, authors of "Fathers' Rights" (1997), along with HarperCollins publisher for permission to reprint this valuable excerpt. DOL will be announcing dates for a live discussion forum with the authors. We hope our DOL readers will join in with questions and comments on this heated issue.

Posted on Sunday, May 6, 2007 at 12:56PM by Registered CommenterSite Administrator in | Comments Off

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