Orlando Sentinel

Children's needs must take priority in divorce system

By Kathleen Parker
Published in The Orlando Sentinel on October 24, 1999.

In Georgia, militant "beat-dead dads" want to unpack their rebel flags. In Colorado, an alienated father states that he wants his pound of flesh, saying, "I don't care what blood is spilled." In Washington, some 10,000 fathers plan to toss their divorce and custody decrees into the Lincoln Memorial's reflecting pool next month.

So goes the Fatherhood Movement in America. Its members are as diverse as the country in which they live, yet all are united on one front: They want their children back.

"It is time to start something radical," said Brad Ingram, organizer of the reflecting-pool demonstration and head of the Family Restoration League in Richmond, Va. "It is time to make an undeniable, irrefutable statement that unless this government . . . amends its ways, it will be overturned."

Unlikely. It is unlikely, too, that the divorce industry will change its stripes in time for these fathers to feel less cheated by a system that has given their children to someone else and strapped them financially. Even some of the movement's constituents seem to sense failure beneath the surface of their rage.

A renegade fatherhood activist who would speak only anonymously predicts the fathers' movement eventually will fizzle. Men can't cooperate sufficiently to effect change, he says, especially when their goals are at odds with women's.

Others see a void at the end of the march. Weary from fighting, broke from legal fees, many eventually give up on their children and disappear. The average tenure of a fatherhood activist, I'm told, is 18 months. New fathers drive out the old ones with their new and better ideas, which the veterans of these wars have come to view as useless.

The answer, says another skeptical insider, is women. The battle for fathers' equal rights won't be won by revolutionary men, he says, but by sisters, aunts, mothers of sons, girlfriends and second wives who see the painful inequities and join their men at the front.

In part, he is right. Fair-minded women can see not only the inequities but also the harm done to children who don't see enough of their fathers. Many women do join disenfranchised fathers in their struggle; there's no rational reason, after all, for fathers to have to prove their necessity in a court of law when families fall apart.

The need for fathers has been made clear by some of the saddest events and trends in our history. Substance abuse, teen pregnancy, sexual promiscuity, difficulty in school -- the list of social pathologies associated with father absence is long and well-documented.

Yet our divorce system -- combined with a welfare culture that historically has supported unwed motherhood -- works overtime to keep fathers at bay, like some evil usurpers who would steal innocent souls.

The surprise isn't that men are ready to storm the nation's capital but that they have so little societal support. In whose best interest is it that millions of American children do not know their fathers?

Given that we can't seem to stay married more than an average of six years and that divorce seems increasingly inevitable, we have to change the rules of the game. We can no longer afford to concern ourselves with adults' "rights" but only with children's.

Children have a right to the security and stability of a family, no matter what trouble adults create for themselves. Society has a duty to prevail in children's best interests, which means -- absent abuse or neglect -- unimpeded access to their parents.

The Children's Rights Council, an advocacy group that stresses children's rights to both parents, seems to have the best grasp of a workable solution: an assumption of joint custody upon divorce and a parenting agreement prior to marriage. (Never-marrieds, who bring children into the world without concern for the child's "family," may deserve the trouble they beget; in any case, their problems are beyond the scope of this column.)

A parenting agreement negotiated and signed before marriage helps soon-to-be-weds clarify their values about child-rearing, how to divide parenting responsibilities, even how to divorce.

The divorce system needs remedy, too, and some states are moving -- albeit glacially -- toward a more-equitable approach to post-divorce custody and child support. The CRC has high hopes that joint custody will produce an added benefit: People won't divorce as often. The states with declining divorce rates are, in fact, the same states with presumptive joint-custody rules.

Meanwhile -- and until we all get wiser -- on this much we can agree: Rearing and protecting children has always required the hard work of a mother and a father. A culture that promotes anything less should cause us all to revolt.

Kathleen Parker welcomes e-mail at kparker@kparker.com, although she cannot respond to all mail individually.

[Posted 10/23/1999 5:37 PM EST]

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