Thursday, March 16, 2000
Fatherhood is too often being given short shrift in courtsAl Knight, Denver Post Columnist
Mar. 16 - Three recent court cases filed in widely separated sections of the country are testimony to the fact that men are beginning to fight back against what they see as a pronounced bias in divorce and child-custody cases.
One of these cases involves Robert Muchnick, who runs an organization called Center for Children's Justice in Denver. He filed a class-action lawsuit about two weeks ago in Denver District Court claiming that the state's judicial system is unfairly administering the Dissolution of Marriage Act to the great disadvantage of fathers.
It specifically alleges that the law "permits arbitrary and capricious application'" in the "so-called best interest of a child" and vests in trial judges virtually "infinite discretion" in the allocation of "legal custody or decision making" and the award or allocation of parenting time.
The complaint says that judges have been using their discretion so that in perhaps 90 percent or more of the cases the decisions "severely disfavor the father in direct contravention of the public policy of the state."
What Muchnick is pointing out is that the state has on the one hand decreed that the law is intended to "encourage frequent and continuing contact between each parent and the minor children" but that, in practice, the effect of the administration of the law is quite the opposite.
Men are, more often than not, are simply expected to send money for child support and put up with visitation rights that consign them to minor roles, if any, in the child's life.
Muchnick isn't the first to notice the trend or object to how the "best interests of the child" standard is being applied.
In Massachusetts, a group called the Coalition for Preservation of Fatherhood, filed a lawsuit last year claiming discrimination in domestic-relations cases. The complaint in that case was aimed at the way state judges were issuing restraining orders without "meaningful hearings."
It was alleged that courts were routinely relying on "victim witness advocates" who acted as defacto unlicensed lawyers for women who "concoct" exaggerated accounts of domestic abuse for the sole purpose of getting their husbands out of the home.
Initial hearings in these cases, as in Colorado, occur without the other party (usually the male) being present. Requests for restraining orders need not show a pattern of physical threats or actual harm. Allegations of emotional harm are specifically allowed.
As the Massachusetts complaint put it, what the woman often alleges is nothing more than that the husband has shouted at her.
The most telling of the three cases, however, is a January decision in a child custody case, out of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. That court awarded custody of a child to the male step-parent even though there was no showing that the biological father was in any way unfit as a parent.
The court arrived at its decision using the "best interest of the child" standard. In concurrence, the chief justice made the following statement, which ought to give pause to every parent in America. He said he approved of the approach that "discards the presumption that a parent has a prima facie right to custody against third parties" and favors a "standard requiring that custody be determined by a preponderance of the evidence, weighing parenthood as a strong factor for consideration."
A moment's reflection on that statement indicates how far the country has come from the once-accepted notion that a parent, barring proof of neglect or abuse, is entitled to special consideration in the court's eyes.
Overwhelming evidence exists showing that the reduction in respect for the role of fathers is costing society dearly.
Muchnick's web site (www.childrensjustice.org) contains a set of statistics showing the state of fatherhood in America.
These are among the more amazing facts.
Ninety percent of all homeless and runaway children come from fatherless homes. Seventy-one percent of highschool dropouts don't have fathers in the home. Seventy one percent of pregnant teenagers don't have a father in the home. Seventy percent of those juveniles in state-operated institutions don't have a father in the home. Finally, 75 percent of all adolescent patients in chemical-abuse centers don't have a father in the home.
Given this background, one would suppose there would be dozens of programs to make fatherhood more important culturally and socially.
Sadly, that is not is the case.
Al Knight is a Denver Post columnist and editorial writer. E-mail Al about this column.
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