If you ask Dianna Thompson, she will tell you straight. It’s a mess out there.
As a nationally recognized expert on family, step-families and divorce-related issues, and a member of Leading Women For Shared Parenting, Thompson sees that sons and daughters growing up without access to both parents is causing harm to children, families and communities. And she believes – especially during the holiday season – mothers and fathers must do all they can do to put aside their differences and allow their children as much parenting time as possible … for the good of all.
Many in society are aware of the prevalence of divorce and have a general idea of the impact on children. The landscape of fatherless homes is harsh, as shown by the statistics.
- The non-profit National Father Initiative reported on a U.S. Census Bureau finding that 24 million children in America – one out of every three – live in biological father-absent homes. Nine in ten American parents agree this is a “crisis.”
- According to research conducted by Joan Berlin Kelly, author of “Surviving the Break-up,” 50 percent of mothers “see no value in the father’s continued contact with his children after a divorce.”
- The American Journal of Orthopsychiatry report “Frequency of Visitation by Divorced Fathers,” claimed that “40 percent of mothers reported that they had interfered with the noncustodial father’s visitation on at least one occasion, to punish their ex-spouse.”
- Researchers found that father-child contact was associated with better socio-emotional and academic functioning.
- Youths in father-absent households have significantly higher odds of incarceration than those in mother-father families.
- There is significantly more drug use among children who do not live with their mother and father.
The idea that 50 percent of ex-wives see no value in a father’s presence in the family alarms Thompson. “That is astounding,” she says. “There should be safety guards to disallow this type of behavior. But in reality there are none. Family court is not a place where many fathers observe their rights; it’s where they lose them.”
Thompson believes she knows where the fathers – the supposed deadbeat dads of the world – have gone. “I really think the fathers are right where the courts put them – locked out of their children’s lives.”
In Thompson’s experience, she has observed an “adversarial” court system that pits one parent against the other, attempting to determine which parent is “better,” often using unnecessary, lengthy, and costly evaluations, with the result being one custodial and one noncustodial parent. Since a custodial parent acts as the gatekeeper determining who sees the child, a custodian seeing no value in a visit to dad could make it difficult on the fathers. According to Census reports in 2009, approximately 1 in 6 custodial parents were fathers (17.8 percent). With mothers chosen as custodial parents in such a high percentage, the odds are definitely against the fathers.
Chris Christopher, a father of two who separated in 1998 and divorced in 2004, was surprised to see how the legal system treats fathers. “The system is skewed to prefer women as caregivers. I had long proved that I was a capable parent prior to the divorce proceedings. I was stunned to see the preference given to women for care of children. We split money 50-50; why is there a different standard for children?”
Once the divorce proceedings commenced, Christopher sat with his lawyer as they input data into a divorce software program. Twice, using the software, the lawyers calculated 80 percent custody for the mother. Christopher’s response to the software system: “I don’t want to play.”
Even if couples go to court and receive visitation orders, fathers don’t always get their time, due to limited visiting terms and thwarted visits. And in this latter case, the fathers’ only recourse is to return to the court system, costing money that ultimately runs out. Instead of parents working out custody in a civil, considerate manner, some families are funneled into a billion dollar divorce industry where children are paying the price for it.
Though avoiding an official court hearing in 2009 in his second divorce, John (name changed upon request) still had to pay upwards of $100,000 working with a collaborative law model, a cost he termed “absurdly expensive.” He says, “We needed a mediator for frickin everything, since my ex wanted everything.” After getting an agreement, the two worked with a parent coordinator, which was, for John, a “terrible” experience he called “a crap shoot” that wasted thousands of dollars.
According to Thompson, children can’t get too much love from their parents, and for the child “the best parent is both parents.” Though an adult can divorce a spouse, children will always be part of that other parent. Because a large number of children believe they are the cause of a divorce, one way to show they are not to blame is to make the kids an integral part of each parent’s lives.
Says John, “A child needs both parents. A father cannot be a mother. Though I’m a pretty nurturing guy, I can’t give what a mother can give. I don’t understand things like makeup or why my daughter is crying if she has to leave the house without it.”
Says Christopher, “I never supported seeing anything else but our two children being raised by their two parents. Both our kids needed access to a mom and a dad 100 percent of the time we were available. Adults bring children into the world. To the question of who would bear the pain of divorce between adults or children? The adults would take the pain. My kids’ mom and I could not make our marriage work, but we shared a mutual vision that allowed us to make our parenting work. We made that happen by putting our children first.“
Thompson says, “Children don’t choose divorce; parents do. So it should be up to the parents – and the courts – to do anything possible to make divorce the least harmful on children.”
According to Thompson, though fathers often request equal, shared parenting, the courts don’t observe that. “In the 20 years that I have been working with fathers the one question I get asked most is ‘Why can’t I just be a dad?’ Fathers never come to me trying to get out of child support. It’s always ‘How can I get more time with my child?’”
As the noncustodial parent, fathers may find themselves, for example, seeing their child every other weekend if they can see them at all. Having visitation orders doesn’t assure fathers will see their kids. “A lot of dads tell me they have shared custody, but they haven’t seen their child in six months or more,” Thompson says.
Thompson points out that parents who don’t pay, or fall behind, in their court-ordered child support will be contacted by a state agency, possibly costing them drivers licenses, business licenses, passports and even jail time. However regarding visitation rights, there are no state agencies or free services available for noncustodial parents, primarily fathers. The option of returning to court is ineffective and costly for fathers, most of whom decide to simply pay child support and forgo the court fights.
“They punish fathers for non payment of child support; why isn’t there equal punishment for mothers who deny visitation? Emotional support is just as important, or more important, than child support,” she says.
The real loser in all these battles, says Thompson, is the child, who may not only lose contact with a cherished and needed father, but also with the extended family of grandparents, aunts and uncles.
So what can parents do in this case?
Christopher and his ex-wife never had custody issues, since the two guardians chose to live next to each other, and continue child rearing as they did before the separation. His lawyer said: “That’s not an agreement.” Christopher responded: “I don’t care what you say.” The lawyer said: “You can’t do it.” Christopher responded: “Yes we can.”
John’s first divorce didn’t hold the same charge as his second marriage, and the custody was not a battle. “I would just call her, and say, ‘Can I have Ben for a couple of days?’ She would say, ‘Sure.’ We didn’t keep track of it. We had a trust with each other. Making decision based on the best interest of our child made life so much easier.”
According to Thompson, mothers and fathers would be wise to work together to create a parenting plan in some form. Instead of spending thousands of dollars on legal fees – which could go towards children’s upbringing and college funds – parents should sit down and write up a parenting plan or agreement, since no one knows their child’s needs, schedules and activities better than both guardians. This agreement would be used for the holiday season as well.
“Holidays can often be stressful for everyone, but for children of divorced or separated parents, the holidays can be especially challenging,” Thompson says. “Even so, parents must remember that spending time with family at the holidays is especially important to children. They should be allowed a stress-free, drama-free holiday and enjoy the day with mom and her family, as well as, dad and his family.”
And as far the larger battle of advocating for divorced fathers’ rights to see their children, Thompson suggests:
- Never give up the fight for your children.
- Support legislative measures for shared parenting.
- Work with organizations that lobby to change the laws to give both parents access.
- Educate everyone on the social pathologies for kids who don’t have fathers in their lives.
- Educate everyone on the benefits of having the male’s support, not just for kids but for wives as well.
Christopher wants to remind men that they can set the vision and context for the family and resist buying into a system that will “break up your family.”
Even with the custody mess out there in our society, Thompson has seen signs that men and women are seeing the importance of shared parenting. “I am happy to see that more and more people are working together on this topic, since children really thrive when spending time with both parents and extended families … especially at the holidays.”
Dianna Thompson is a nationally recognized expert on families, step-families, and divorce related issues. She is an authority on domestic policy as it pertains to men, women and children. A longtime political analyst, lobbyist, and spokesperson, Dianna has testified all over the country on shared parenting and legislation that affects families. She advocates for shared parenting, believing that children need, want and deserve emotional, physical and financial support from both parents. Dianna can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.