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.
Fathers have reacted over the years in different ways. Some fathers’ rights activists in Britain dress up as super heroes and scale public buildings to draw attention to the inequity. The founder of Fathers 4 Justice, Matt O’Connor, started a hunger strike for equal parenting earlier this month outside the home of British Prime Minister David Cameron. Some fathers tragically commit suicide. Last month, a distraught father immolated himself on the steps of a courthouse in New Hampshire, after mailing a 15-page “last statement” to the local newspaper detailing his final frustrations with the child custody legal system. The most high-profile victim of the child custody system, actor Alec Baldwin, helped bring exposure to the unfairness by writing a book about his experience.
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.” The children often end up with “Parental Alienation Syndrome,” developing a dislike for the noncustodial parent bought on by the custodial parent. Long term studies of children in the U.S. and New Zealand have found there is a direct correlation between a father’s absence and teen pregnancy.
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.
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.
The “deadbeat dad” roundups by law enforcement of fathers who are behind in child support needs to stop. Many of them are fathers who were not lucky enough to be awarded custody, and are now working two jobs just to try and keep up with expenses and child support. Figures from the Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement solution lies in renewing the importance of marriage. He proposes eliminating no-fault divorce laws and requiring couples where only one spouse wants a divorce to work out the divorce agreement themselves. This would disincentivize divorce, since couples could no longer simply run to court to end the marriage, but would be forced to work with each other to come up with a custody situation they both agree to. Currently, marriage is about the only kind of contract where one party can unilaterally end the contract. The Center for Marriage Policy recommends shared parenting that would place a child primarily with one parent for the first half of their childhood, then with the second parent for their later years.
The small changes that have been made in recent years are encouraging. Thanks to organizations like Fathers and Families, last year Massachusetts, which has some of the most punishing child support laws in the country, reduced the interest on overdue child support by 50%. Legislation has been passed in several states around the country within the past year protecting disabled and military parents from child custody abuses. As families continue to modernize, and more women also suffer the effects of outdated child custody laws, the laws will be finally forced to keep up. It may just not be in our lifetime. This is a new kind of civil rights struggle, and one day our great-grandchildren will look back and remember their forefathers who fought so hard for their right to have meaningful time with both parents.