Men and women who believe that children need both their parents to be integral parts of their lives will be rallying at the state capitol in observance of Equal Parents Week this Thursday. The rally, sponsored by Dads of Michigan, Moms for Dads, and the Children's Rights Council, will highlight the national tragedy of fatherlessness and call for family law reforms which will allow parents to share both parental rights and responsibilities equitably.
US Census Bureau data show that 84% of all custodial parents are mothers. Noncustodial parents, usually fathers, often struggle to remain a part of their children's lives. Fathers have little chance of getting joint physical custody of their children, and standard visitation is only a few days a month.
Visitation interference is a major problem for divorced dads. 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." This was echoed by the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry report "Frequency of Visitation by Divorced Fathers," which noted 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."
Many other dads have been locked out of their children's lives because their ex-wives have moved their children hundreds or even thousands of miles away.
Yet the presence of a father in a child's life is the largest single predictor of whether a child will graduate high school, attend college, become involved in crime or drugs, or get pregnant. Children without fathers are more likely to be suspended or expelled from school, and they attend fewer days of school and fewer years of school.
Fatherless children score far lower on college entrance exams and are considerably more likely to be unemployed both in their teens and their early 20s. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, they are five times more likely to commit suicide, nine times more likely to drop out of high school, and 32 times more likely to run away from home.
A solution to the problem of fatherlessness now lies before the Michigan legislature. Michigan House Bill 4664, also known as the "Parental Parity Bill," would create equality between divorcing couples by replacing the sole physical custody norm with the presumption of joint legal and physical custody. Judges would be able to deviate from this shared parenting arrangement only if there is clear and convincing evidence that one of the parents has committed acts which render that parent unfit, such as child abuse or domestic violence.
If divorcing parents are unable to agree on a shared parenting plan, the courts would be required to develop a plan which would afford both parents equitable custody and parenting time. Parents who refuse to comply with the parenting plan risk losing their share of parenting time. The bill, which was drafted by Dads of Michigan and Moms for Dads, was sponsored by Representative Andrew Raczkowski (R-Farmington Hills) and currently resides with the Michigan House of Representatives' Committee on Civil Law and the Judiciary.
Destructive and costly custody battles are endemic to the current adversarial custody system, and they are fueled by parents' fear that they will be expelled from their children's lives. By replacing winners and losers with equals, shared parenting removes much of the anger and conflict from divorce.
Shared parenting also encourages cooperation and even reconciliation between troubled couples because each divorcing parent will know that, barring proof of abuse, they will not be able to drive the other parent out of their children's lives.
In addition, because shared parenting leaves few legal issues for divorcing couples to fight over, parents save on the costly court and legal fees which take money away from their children, and which drive many divorced couples into bankruptcy. And, according to the US Census Bureau, 83% of noncustodial fathers with both joint custody and visitation privileges pay child support.
Under this bill children would gain from the ongoing emotional, physical, and financial support of both parents. Unlike the current win/lose adversarial court system, shared parenting says to parents "you are still mom and dad." Most important of all, it tells children, "you haven't lost a parent."
This is the full version of a column which originally ran in the Lansing State Journal (9/26/02). To read the exact version which ran in the Lansing State Journal, click here.
Glenn Sacks writes about gender issues from the male perspective. He can be reached at . Dianna Thompson is a founder and executive director of the American Coalition for Fathers and Children (www.acfc.org). She can be contacted by e-mail at .