The rates of the four major youth pathologies--juvenile crime, teen pregnancy, teen drug abuse, and school dropouts--are tightly correlated with fatherlessness, often more so than with any other socioeconomic factor. Yet at the same time, we allow hundreds of thousands of fathers to be locked out of their children's lives by ex-spouses who ignore their kids' need for a dad, and by a family court system that is biased against fathers.
The divorced dad has endured more unwarranted criticism than perhaps any other group in our time. Isn't the divorced dad, we are told, a man who abandoned his family? A dead-beat dad? A child abuser?
Occasionally, yes. Usually, no.
Close to 70% of all divorces involving couples with children are initiated by the mother, not the father. Studies show that couples agree that the reasons for these divorces are usually not infidelity or abuse but instead a lack of "closeness" or of not feeling "loved and appreciated."
Most "deadbeat dads" are either poor, unemployed, or are denied access to their children. Among men who have had no employment problems in the past year, and have had access to their children, more than 80% pay their child support in full. Less than 5% don't pay at all, and fathers actually have a much better record of paying court-ordered child support than mothers do.
There are fathers who abuse their kids. However, 70% of confirmed cases of child abuse and 65% of parental murders of children are committed by mothers, not fathers, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Children are 88% more likely to be seriously injured from abuse or neglect by their mothers than by their fathers.
How can we get fathers back into their children's lives? There are five needed, long overdue reforms:
1) Enforce fathers' visitation rights. Three-quarters of divorced fathers surveyed maintain that their ex-spouses have substantially interfered with their visitation rights. A study of children of divorce found that 42% of children who lived solely with their mother reported that their mother tried to prevent them from seeing their fathers after the divorce. However, only 16% of children who lived solely with their father reported similar obstruction. In another study, 40% of divorced mothers admitted that they had interfered with their ex-husbands access or visitation, and that their motives were punitive in nature and not due to safety considerations. Yet the government spends $340 on enforcing child support for every $1 it spends on enforcing visitation rights. Prosecutions of fathers who violate child support mandates are common, whereas prosecutions of mothers who violate visitation orders are rare.
2) Make joint custody a reality instead of a meaningless scrap of paper. Many states have a joint legal custody norm, but in practice it means that the mother is issued physical custody and the father can only see his children a few days a month. Studies reveal that divorced mothers are five times as likely to be satisfied with custody arrangements as divorced fathers. It is imperative that joint custody means 50% physical time with each parent, or a time-sharing agreement negotiated between parents whom the court treats as equals.
3) Don't hold the father's breadwinner role against him. Men are generally expected to sacrifice time with their kids in order to be their family's main breadwinner. When divorcing couples go to family court the judge gives the children primarily to the mother because the father "hasn't nurtured them as much." Why not? Because he was earning the household income that made it possible for the mother to spend more time nurturing the children.
4) Crack down on "Move Away Parents"--custodial parents who violate court orders by moving their children away from their ex-spouses.
5) Penalize ex-spouses who make false accusations of child abuse, molestation, etc., during custody disputes. Many warring ex-spouses use false accusations as their "ace in the hole" in a custody battle. Studies have shown that in this context, 75% of child sexual abuse accusations are unfounded or unsubstantiated.
The man who abandons his children is a pariah in our society, as he should be. But if it's despicable for a father to abandon his children, is it not equally despicable for a mother to drive a father out of his children's lives?
This column first appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the Salt Lake City Tribune, and the Los Angeles Daily News (6/17/01).
Glenn Sacks is a men's and fathers' issues columnist and a . His columns have appeared in dozens of America's largest newspapers.
Glenn can be reached via his website at www.GlennSacks.com or via email at .
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