Sunday, June 20,1999
Keeping fathers in families
Moms, courts abuse dead-bolted dadsby Dianna Thompson and Stuart Miller
Published June 20, 1999
LAKE FOREST, Calif.—Today is the last Father’s Day of the millennium. It is an important time for us to reflect on the history and future of fatherhood, as well as to honor the sacrifices of our fathers and their fathers before them.
In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson made the official announcement proclaiming Mother’s Day a national holiday that was to be held each year on the second Sunday of May. It was not until 52 years later, in 1966, that President Lyndon Johnson declared the third Sunday of June Father’s Day.
Throughout history, fathers have, for the most part, been seen as heroes, protectors and providers. More importantly, fathers were the cornerstone of the family. Traditionally, Father’s Day was a day that you honored your father for his unconditional love for you through good and bad times—for always being there emotionally, physically, and financially. Dad was the one who taught you how to tie your shoes, to ride a bicycle, to catch a fish, to read—memories to cherish for a lifetime.
But now, 33 years after President Johnson’s proclamation, sociology professor David Popence, author of “Life Without Father,” points out that “if present trends continue, the percentage of American children living apart from their biological fathers will reach 50 percent early in the next century.”
The U.S. Census Bureau reported that in 1960, 20 percent of all marriages ended in divorce; in 1990, nearly half of all marriages ended in divorce. Even more alarming is the research that shows that children who grow up without fathers are more at risk for social pathologies such as dropping out of school, teen pregnancy, violent behavior, and suicide.
Society has changed considerably in the past 40 years. Women are in the work force as never before, and men are increasingly taking more active roles in childrearing. But our family courts haven’t seemed to notice these societal changes, particularly with regard to custody decisions. Instead, they adhere to an outdated, 1950s vision of the family, which identifies Mom as the “real” (e.g., custodial) parent and Dad as merely the source of financial support (e.g., the noncustodial parent or “visitor”).
Court is where one would expect to find equity. Yet the courts are where most divorced fathers discover that they have lost their rights to their children. This is particularly difficult on fathers who shared in parental responsibilities during marriage. Nothing impacts a divorcing father as deeply as hearing a judge relegate him from model father and citizen to visitor.
Fathers’ advocacy groups report that most fathers want to have “shared parenting” or “joint custody” arrangements following divorce, but are astounded to find out that they would have a better chance of winning the lottery. To add insult to injury, many of these same fathers complain that their ex-spouses interfere with their court-ordered visitation. Sometimes access to the children is denied altogether—with no relief from the court.
In contrast to government’s involvement in child-support problems, there are no state agencies a father can go to when his visitation is denied. If you are a mother and you don’t get your court-ordered child support, state agencies will go after the father and get the money. If you are a father who is experiencing difficulty seeing your children, expect no help.
Fathers frequently miss time from work to pursue court remedies for visitation interference. The Ohio Psychological Association found that employers suffer more in lost productivity due to an employee’s divorce, custody, and visitation problems than from drug and alcohol problems combined.
But what happens when visitation and access denial are ongoing and the father can’t miss any more time off from work—or simply doesn’t have the money to continue to fight in court? The father is then locked out of his children’s lives and becomes a “Dead-bolted Dad.” Though more and more child-development experts are recognizing that this “dead-bolting” is a form of child abuse, judges remain reluctant to grant relief.
According to Drs. Joan Berlin Kelley and Judith Wallerstein in their book “Surviving the Breakup,” more than half of mothers reported they saw no reason for their children to continue to have any contact with their father. Dr. Sanford Braver, in his book “Divorced Dads: Shattering the Myths,” confirms this shocking attitude and reveals that 40 percent of mothers actively interfere in fathers’ visitation.
Visitation interference has reached epidemic proportions. The Children’s Right Council, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, estimates that 5,600,000 children have their access to their noncustodial parent sabotaged by the custodial parent.
Society deplores father absence, yet what is being done to encourage father involvement? When the courts make Dad a weekend visitor, do nothing to protect the rights of fathers who have continual visitation problems, and work with agencies that seem only to be concerned about money, are they helping children? Or harming them?
Child support should be a financial, physical, and emotional commitment, the same sort that fathers have made to their children throughout history. Has the nature of man devolved so radically in such a short period of time that fathers are no longer willing to be a part of their children’s lives? Or, rather, have government policies created the “dead-beat dads” that we despise so much and the “dead-bolted dads” about whom nobody seems to care?
This very day there are millions of children who want to see and spend time with their fathers and can’t. Reciprocally, millions of fathers want to see their children but can’t. Lessons of life won’t be taught and good memories for the future won’t be made.
The government will use millions of taxpayer dollars to ensure that a child-support check will be at Mom’s place on Father’s Day, but won’t lift a finger to see that the father is there. Can a child-support check teach a child how to ride a bike? Can it say, “I love you”?
Rather than demote fathers to visitors and quickly label them “dead-beat dads,” we need to start the new millennium by letting policy makers know that we as a society will no longer tolerate the government discarding children’s fathers, that we value fathers ... and that Father’s Day is really every day for millions of children who need their dads.
DIANNA THOMPSON is executive director of the American Coalition for Fathers & Children.
STUART MILLER is a policy analyst and freelance writer who lives in Vienna, Va.
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