Des Moines Register

Ragsdale: Change child-custody laws so dads aren't ditched

Register Columnist

Des Moines Register

This month, George Strait and songwriter Aaron Barker released one of those little gift books with a CD inside. "Love without End, Amen" is being marketed as a celebration of a father's influence on the lives of his children.

The lyrics, "Daddies don't love their children now and then, it's a love without end, Amen," strike to the heart of a matter that will be debated soon in the Iowa General Assembly.

I've often written about the fathers who divorce their kids when they leave their spouse, fail to pay child support and put their responsibilities behind them.

I've never written about the other side: the men who still want to be part of their children's lives, but by geography or an ex-spouse's cussedness are unable to connect.

I've known some of these great guys whose desire to father is frustrated by the custodial parent and the courts. One father, a respected colleague, assumed total responsibility for his son and daughter when his wife said she needed to "find herself." He was probably the most nurturing and involved dad I've ever met.

I was incredulous when, after the ex-spouse remarried and set up housekeeping a considerable distance from the father's home and the children's school, the court gave her custody again.

It is really hard to see a grown man cry when he tells you what happened.

I've heard from Iowans with similar stories. Men who - for whatever reasons - are at war with the system and their former spouses over child custody. They resent being lumped in with "deadbeat dads." Where they once had some say about their children's lives, they are now relegated to being outsiders, except on certain holidays, weekends and vacation periods. They are angry when the courts see child support as the most important thing they contribute to their children.

"Child support is such a small part of a child's life in this country," said Ken Richards of Des Moines, divorced father of three children. "It can be such a weapon when arbitrarily set. Visitation and father custody are so abused that fathers are marginalized after divorce and children suffer."

Studies back up Richards' belief that father involvement is important in children's lives. Fatherless kids are more likely to fail at school, experience behavioral or emotional problems and engage in risky behaviors. Children who grow up without fathers are significantly more likely to commit suicide as adolescents and be victims of child abuse or neglect.

This growing pile of evidence has been accumulating for decades. Yet Iowa courts have not made it a goal to encourage paternal involvement. Granted, people often are at their emotional and behavioral worst at the time of divorce. But one would think divorce-court judges would be able to peer through the explosive atmosphere and mandate an arrangement that assures men who were good fathers before the divorce will remain a guiding influence in their children's lives.

With that in mind, Richards and other Iowans involved in Parents for Equal Access to Children and the Fathers for Equal Rights organizations have been working to amend state child-custody law. House File 302 - encouraging the courts to grant joint-parenting orders - passed out of committee Tuesday with an impressive majority. Republican representatives Dan Boddicker, David Millage, Chuck Larson, George Eichhorn, Steve Sukup, Betty Grundberg and Scott Raecker were among those who voted yes. They were joined by Democrats Keith Kreiman and Frank Chiodo, who spoke eloquently on the behalf of fathers unwillingly pushed out of the lives of children.

"The vote Tuesday made it a good day to be a father," Richards said. "This bill will make a major change in how the state determines custody. Joint custody would be preferred. The standard arrangement does not work that well. I hope this will be a vital first step in reducing parental alienation and father absence from their children."

During the Clinton administration, a White House Welfare Reform Task Force policy report stated:

"Under the present system, the needs, concerns and responsibilities of non-custodial parents are often ignored. . . . We should encourage non-custodial parents to remain actively involved in their children's lives - not drive them away. Ultimately, the system's expectations of mothers and fathers should be parallel. . . .

"Much needs to be learned about non-custodial parents, partly because we have focused relatively little attention on this population in the past, and we know less about what types of programs would work."

The Health and Human Services report went nowhere. An opportunity to encourage fathers and mothers to work together for the benefit of their children was lost.

The Iowa General Assembly can do what Congress ignored - find a way to change child-custody law so divorced fathers can show their love without end. Amen.

Copyright © 2002, The Des Moines Register.