L. A. Times

June 26, 2002

Custody Decisions Biased Toward Men, NOW Says

Rights: Many women claim to have unjustly lost their children. Fathers' advocates dispute conclusions.

Los Angeles Times

The state's family court system is biased toward men in child custody rulings, the California chapter of the National Organization for Women said in a report released Tuesday.

The 134-page report details the findings of a three-year study based on questionnaires from women who say that they unjustly lost custody of their children. The study found that women often were denied custody even when children were abused by the father in part because men often can afford better legal representation, said Helen Grieco, California NOW executive director.

Fathers' rights advocates disagreed Tuesday, saying that women traditionally have been favored in family court. "The court oftentimes still sees a 1950s vision of the family, where the mother is the homemaker," said Dianna Thompson, executive director of the American Coalition for Fathers' Rights in Lake Forest. U.S. census data showed that women are granted custody 80% of the time, Thompson said. "Fathers have very small chances of getting even dual custody," she said.

Thompson criticized the report's method as a self-selecting survey among NOW constituents.

NOW's conclusions were announced at a news conference after attorneys for the organization filed a legal brief in a state appellate court in Los Angeles supporting a mother who says that she was denied a fair trial when a judge granted her ex-husband full custody of their daughter, who is 15.

Idelle Clarke, of Sierra Madre charges that a 1998 court decision ordering Clarke's daughter to live with her ex-husband was based on his allegation that Clarke brainwashed her daughter into saying that he sexually abused her. Clarke said her daughter had told three judges her father molested her.

Clarke's struggle is common, Grieco said. She said the fathers' rights movement during the 1980s created a backlash against women. "We've been two steps behind, trying to do damage control," Grieco said.

The three-member appellate court panel is likely to decide the Clarke case in about two months.

Clarke said the last time she saw her daughter, it was from a stage at the girl's eighth-grade graduation two years ago. "She was wearing cargo pants and a battered T-shirt while everyone else was in formal wear," Clarke said.

Clarke, who is representing herself in court, said she will appeal to the state Supreme Court if she loses her appeal. "I'm a mother," she said. "I can't quit asking for help."

Her ex-husband could not be reached for comment.

Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times