In honor of Fathers Day here is “It’s not your Mother’s Fathers Movement anymore.” It’s pretty long, so grab a cup of coffee and get comfortable. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
I’m a 40-something, independent, liberal, California single mother of four and grandmother to one, and I’m working within the Fathers Movement. This surprises some people. They must wonder why I’m championing these men if it’s true that, “fathers who seek custody, they’re not all great fathers.” That was the truth according to Mira Fox, who runs Child Abuse Solutions, Inc. when she testified in May against AB 1307, California’s shared parenting bill. Shared parenting, (joint physical custody), and this bill are supported by professionals in the legal, medical, and mental health fields and by family rights organizations, veterans groups and individuals all over California. People across the nation, and around the globe applauded our efforts on behalf of children, and I was proud to be in Sacramento that day. I watched Fox testifying and the picture she painted disturbed me.
Fox said, “Children are often given into the custody of abusive fathers.” According to my research, in approximately 70 percent of all California child custody cases mothers receive sole physical custody. Fathers receive it approximately 10 percent of the time. (Nationwide mothers receive sole physical custody 84 percent of the time.) If children are given into the custody of abusive fathers, they’re given into the custody of abusive mothers as well. Mothers it turns out are most likely to harm a child. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration on Children, Youth and Families, approximately two-fifths (40.8 percent) of child victims were neglected or abused by “their mothers acting alone.” Just 18.8 percent were maltreated by their fathers acting alone, (and 1 7 percent of children were abused or neglected by both their mothers and fathers).
Fox testified about the sexual abuse of children. By far most child custody cases do not involve the sexual abuse of children, but the words alone can strike fear. I don’t blame her. She wanted to win, and she’s good at it. It’s what she does for a living. Fox’s organization, by her own testimony that day, trains people in the family court system how to litigate and adjudicate child sexual abuse cases. I care about victims of abuse too. I want to make sure that no child is put in harm’s way. AB 1307, like most shared parenting bills, had provisions to protect children who are victims of abuse. This was a non-issue. But again, the subject of child abuse was brought up.
It disturbs me greatly that Fox casually painted fathers as perpetrators of incest when in fact fathers are the least likely of all males to commit sexual abuse. According to the January 2005 Male Perpetrators of Child Maltreatment: Findings from NCANDS, fathers are, “less likely than other male perpetrators to be involved in sexual abuse.” Keeping fathers in the lives of their children protects them.
This tactic, mentioning sexual abuse, is similar to our opponents bringing up abusive and “controlling men”. These men are the minority. The same is true about men in the Men’s Movement, (not to be confused with the Father and Family Rights Movement), who want to completely eliminate child support, and the ones who want to revert to patriarchy. Sure, they’re out there, but they do not represent the people I work with, the people who are fighting for equality in child custody. We are the real Fathers and Family Rights Movement.
And I do call it fighting sometimes. It feels like that when I have to deal with the politics of it. At one time I had no idea that I would be pitted against people who are fighting equality. This is America. The whole idea astounds me. I find it frustrating that the opponents of joint physical custody use sensationalism to “win” when it is most beneficial to our children when we all just stay honest and above board.
When I first encountered the Fathers Movement it was by accident. My son was having a child outside of marriage and he asked me for help. His father had abandoned him as a baby shortly after he and I divorced. My son later told me that the most important thing in his life was to be a good dad. He wanted to be the best father he could be, in every possible way. When he learned in his 20’s that he was going to be a father and that marriage wasn’t a possibility, he asked me to find out how to insure he’d be a large part of his child’s life. I had been successfully co-parenting with his sister’s father, a man I’d never married, for 15 years so we both knew it was possible. I was happy to see him looking into parenting plans and caring for the baby’s mother. Unfortunately, shortly after his daughter’s birth an attorney was hired, my son was served a summons for family court, and the situation turned adversarial. I went online to see what I could learn, unknowingly stepping into the Fathers Movement.
Shortly after I became involved in the movement, I realized there was a battle going on between a handful of radical patriarchs, called “angry fathers rights activists” by the radical feminists and a handful of radical feminists, called “feminazis” by the radical patriarchs, with both sides tossing around accusations, insults, and outdated and inaccurate statistics to try to prove their side was right. I decided to do my own research, to see what the truth really is. I’ll admit I was put off by the hostility. I can almost understand why the Fathers Movement has a bad reputation. I saw posts online like, “You might get lucky. The Ex might lose interest or get hit by a truck.” Oh, wait, that quote isn’t from a Fathers Movement web site. That’s from an anti-Fathers Movement, anti-equal custody activist’s web site. The same woman, who has never met my reformist friends, or me, yet sent a letter from her state to my legislators calling us “angry fathers’ rights activists.”
What I found as I dug deeper through the maze of “bad facts” was that both sides were describing the same thing. Both sides exposed the same broken court system. These quotes, “it really depends upon the Judge, which GAL, (Guardian ad Litem), or Evaluator is used and all the biases he or they might hold” and “it’s not simply a matter of attorney v. attorney (or facts or laws or even evaluators, all of which are key players) as much as it is the strategy of knowing which cases to bring before which judges”, came from the same anti-Fathers Movement online forum. I’ve read similar statements many times in the Fathers Movement forums.
I naively assumed that since my son had been a great father during the entire pregnancy, and since joint physical custody had been law in our state for over 20 years, that he would be treated as an equal to his child’s mother. I was shocked by what happened as he went through the family court system. He was prevented from having equal physical custody of his daughter by what could only be called gender bias. Lies were accepted as truth, physical evidence was ignored, the “best interest of the child” and justice were not served. I will never forget his anguish or the trauma my granddaughter went through. I knew that I could not turn my back on this kind of blatant bias and injustice.
It’s now been three years and I’ve learned that the injustice and heartbreak my son went through is happening to fathers, and some mothers, not only all over California, but also all over America, and even all over the world. I’ve learned that what used to be the Fathers Movement has become more of a Family Rights Movement with the inclusion of noncustodial mothers, grandparents trying to get their grandchildren out of foster care, and families dealing with Child Protection Services, (CPS). And I’ve learned that gender bias isn’t the only problem in the family courts.
I’m honored to be associated with advocates, activists and reformists in more than a dozen countries including the US, Canada, the UK, Germany, Scotland, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Italy. I’ve heard hundreds of personal accounts from parents. Everywhere, all around the world parents are saying the system is broken, that it doesn’t serve the needs of today’s families. Part of the problem is that the adversarial winner-take-all atmosphere of the current family court system is causing unnecessary conflict and hostility, financial devastation, and worst of all, the tragic separation of decent, fit, loving parents from their children.
Many fathers have told me that they want both equal physical and legal custody, but they only got joint legal custody. Instead of having significant quality time to truly parent their children, instead of getting the respect they deserve and access to programs that are now exclusively for custodial parents, noncustodial parents simply have “the parental right to make major decisions regarding the child’s health, education and welfare” and have “visitation” with their children.
Jeffery Shipman, 44, a New York father to 21-month-old Deonna, can only see his daughter every other weekend and one weekday evening. He told me, “People often say to me now, “It must be getting easier now, huh Jeff?” I always reply, “It never gets easier” …and you know, a part of me never wants this miniscule amount of time to ever become “easier” for me. For if one day per week becomes “easier” to cope with and I would be considered “adjusted”, that would tell me I’m not doing my job as a father. It’s totally unnatural as a dad not to see my own child for a week straight.”
Approximately one-third of the participants in the Fathers Movement, or Family Rights Movement as some call it, are women. Some are grandmothers like me, some are second wives or girlfriends. Others are professionals or concerned citizens, and some are noncustodial moms like Beverly Morris. Beverly, 39, lives in Florida with her husband and their child, and is a noncustodial parent to two children in Pennsylvania. She told me, “It’s been over seven years and I still feel raped, angry, and severely robbed of my parental rights to raise (my) children.” Beverly is now founder and President of The National Association of Non Custodial Moms, Inc., an online emotional support forum for noncustodial parents of both genders. She said, “It makes me feel like the court system doesn’t care at all what is in the best interest of children; they only care that they continue to make money through hearing after hearing; a trap which I refuse to fall into, and I refuse to put my children through.”
I’ve heard supporters of sole custody say that liberal visitation is adequate for maintaining a close parent-child relationship, yet they aren’t considering the families who are forced to deal with move-aways and estrangement. According to Rebecca Mackey, a remarried 27-year-old noncustodial mother to one, “I lost a part of my heart that has never repaired itself. The phases I feel are similar to the ones that people go through after someone dies. The only difference is that you don’t get to go on with life and remember them. You get to go on with life knowing that they miss you and need you and you are helpless to do anything about it. There is no closure, just a constant searing pain in your soul that some big part of yourself is missing.”
The fathers I know in the movement are regular dads; average, responsible, fit, loving fathers, just everyday dads like you meet in your neighborhood. Yet, they are prevented from fully parenting their children. Unmarried fathers, fathers to one-third of all the babies born in our country, are almost universally denied physical custody of their children. They’re told, “It’s against policy” by mediators, attorneys and judges. Bill Sharp, 51, a never-married Illinois father to 14-year-old Tasha and 15-year-old Willy lost his joint physical custody after his former partner refused to cooperate with the courts. Instead of giving custody to the parent who was most willing to facilitate a relationship between the children and the other parent, the judge awarded sole custody to the mother. Bill told me he still remembers the judge in his case saying, “The father should not be upset because this is how it ends up in 90 per cent of the cases.”
Bill’s son Willy said, “I’m angry and confused. I went to court and told the judge I wanted week-week. I don’t have bad parents. That’s what’s fair. It’s the best thing I can think of. The judge said he’d give me week-week. But then it was taken away from me before it even started and no one told me why. They ought to give a reason if they’re going to take away time with a parent. No one gave me a reason”. He went on, “Mom gave me a reason, she said she was the better parent. Mom tells me that 50/50 is bad but doesn’t tell me why. She was always trying to convince me that 50/50 was a bad idea.” Willy then said the same thing I was thinking, “I don’t understand why the one who is compromising is punished.”
Warren Farrell, Ph.D., author of Father and Child Reunion told me, “Fighting to be the primary parent is not a mothering instinct – or a fathering instinct – it is an instinct of territoriality. Any mother with a mothering instinct senses that children need both their mom and their dad because children are both their mom and their dad. When they are missing either, they are missing that half of themselves. The children who need most the stability of both halves of themselves are the children of divorce, especially those children whose parents are the most in conflict.”
Bill added, “Ask any kid what they want in a custody solution and they’ll tell you they want both their mom and their dad; and they’ll tell you that they want them equally. Why? Well, primarily because it’s really what they want. But most kids have had fairness drilled into them as part of their parent’s, and school’s, and church’s, and their role models’ instruction as to the proper way to go through life.”
Jamil Jabr, who has been divorced for 2 years and has one child, has been involved in organizing Fathers-4-Justice in the United States. He has been working to build the group as a recognized non-profit, charitable organization. His intention is to support the gender-neutral civil rights movement in America that is fighting for equality in child custody. Jamil, who lives in Minnesota, told me, “Replacing the presumption of sole physical custody with joint physical custody will remove the need to have a winner and a loser. It won’t take much to change the presumption so that everyone can be a winner, particularly children, families and society, once the voice of the people stands up to the entrenched special interests and profiteers which, fortunately, are in the minority but, unfortunately, extremely powerful and loathe to change.”
One falsehood that is repeated about joint custody is that it is forced 50/50. This is not true. Most parents, including people in the movement, realize it isn’t realistic to split timeshare exactly down the middle. The age of the child, relationship with parents prior to the custody hearing, the work schedule of each parent, these are all things that need to be taken into account by both parents. When you hear “equal custody” it means the parents are equal, not necessarily the time. From the moment they sit down at the negotiating table to the day the judge makes his order, they should be equals, and in today’s family court system they are not.
Adryenn Ashley, a motion picture producer with 21st Century Pictures Group is one of the women in the movement. She lives in California with her husband and their 2-year-old son. Adryenn experienced the injustice of the family court system firsthand while helping her husband with his case from a previous marriage. Since then she has been filming a documentary about the family courts and how they impact families in the United States. The Family Alliance Council, a not-for-profit company that promotes positive images of families and responsible role models, funds the documentary . Adryenn observed, “We can make the future better for our children, but we have to put aside our own personal prejudices and work toward the real best interests of the children. And I think we can all agree, that a profit machine that sucks billions of dollars out of the pockets of taxpayers, thus reducing the amount available to fund the future generations, is not in anyone’s best interest.”
According to Ronald Rohner and Robert Veneziano, authors of The Importance of Father Love: History and Contemporary Evidence, (Review of General Psychology 5.4, 2001), “Having a loving and nurturing father was as important for a child’s happiness, well-being, and social and academic success as having a loving and nurturing mother.” I’m happy to report that today my son and his daughter’s mother co-parent successfully. They communicate often and in positive terms about their daughter, they both remain flexible with drop-off and pick-up times and days, and my granddaughter shows the benefit of knowing that both of her parents love her always, and that neither are ever far away, or away for long.
Wendy Sheppard, 34, a licensed social worker and life coach who has shared custody of her 8-year-old son told me, “We have a week on/week off custody arrangement in which we both see our son every day no matter where he sleeps. My clients and friends often remark at how “lucky” I am to have such a mutual arrangement with my ex. I don’t consider myself “lucky”. I’m doing what’s best for my son because it’s about HIM, not ME. It’s not luck – it’s about putting my personal feelings aside and doing what’s best for my son.”
When asked, the general public has shown overwhelming support for shared parenting and equal custody. As reported by Fathers & Families in November 2004, 37 districts in Massachusetts had a non-binding ballot question asking if voters supported shared parenting. With over 600,000 votes cast, 86 percent of the voting public 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, 86 percent of respondents voted “Yes”.
What I’ve learned in the last three years in the movement is that children want equal access to both of their parents and that parents of both genders want equal access to their children. I’ve learned that studies show children adjust to divorce best when they maintain the same level of contact with their parents as they had before the divorce and that in some cases shared parenting can actually reduce conflict between parents. I learned that other unmarried parents could successfully co-parent, even if they didn’t think they could. And I learned that society supports shared parenting and equal custody. To answer the question of why I’m working within the Fathers Movement, I’m here to tell the truth.
For more information on shared parenting please visit these web sites:
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