Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Father´s Responsibilities Before Father´s Rights

by Irene Weiser and Marcia Pappas


In their July 27 opinion “Devoted Dads Need Support NOW”, fathers’ rights proponents Mike McCormick and Glenn Sacks promote mandatory joint custody saying "children love, want and need their fathers" and therefore should have equal time with them. But their cookie-cutter solution disregards the individual decisions and needs of separating families while tying judges’ hands, endangering battered women, and placing the father’s interests above the best interest of the children. 

We agree that joint custody can work in financially secure families when the parents live near each other, have flexible work schedules, and neither has remarried. But when parents are forced into a custody arrangement they don’t agree to, and when parents don’t get along - as is often the case when relationships end - studies show joint custody can be disastrous for the children.

Under current law, any separating couple in NY State can choose joint custody if they think that is best for their family, and both the National Organization for Women (NOW) -New York State and StopFamilyViolence.org support their right to do so. 

Nevertheless, most parents do not voluntarily choose joint custody for a variety of reasons based on their individual circumstances. The vast majority choose to leave the children in the custody of the historical primary caregiver – usually the mother - with visitation by the non-custodial parent. 

Moreover, 95% of separating parents reach agreement on custody arrangements without courtroom battles or judicial intervention.   Mandatory joint custody laws would override these parents’ careful decisions about what is best for themselves and their children.

Of the five percent of custody cases that do involve courtroom battles, at least three quarters of them involve domestic violence.   Abusers often use ongoing, costly litigation - seeking joint or sole custody - as a tactic to continue the abuse and to punish the mother for leaving.

We all know that abusers don’t make good role models or good parents and that they don’t deserve “father’s rights.” Sacks and McCormick agree that mandatory joint custody should not apply in these cases. That means they are promoting mandatory arrangements that will hamstring the choices of almost all separating families in order to benefit, at most, only 1.25% of them.

But even in cases without abuse, judges still need the flexibility to protect the safety and best interests of the children when a parent is alcoholic, a drug abuser, a hardened criminal, or when children are the product of one-night stands, rape or incest.  Neither NOW NYS nor StopFamilyViolence.org support legislation that would tie judges’ hands in these or other difficult family situations.

The people who advocate most strongly for mandatory joint custody laws are parents who do not want to pay child support.  Child support payments are paid by the non-custodial parent to the custodial one.  Under mandatory joint custody laws, regardless of which parent actually ends up supervising and raising the children, there would be no non-custodial parent and neither parent would be required to pay child support.  While non-custodial parents who currently pay child support will benefit, this outcome is certainly not in the best interests of the children.

McCormick and Sacks accuse NOW of using scare tactics in cautioning about the dangers of mandatory joint custody legislation for battered women and their children.  Considering how often we read of courts ignoring signs of domestic violence and then later read headlines of the woman or children’s murder, NOW’s caution doesn’t seem overstated at all.  There is little question that with mandatory joint custody, at times judges will fail to detect abuse and will put children at risk by awarding custody to abusers.

Ironically, it is members of the so called “father’s rights” groups that have engaged in scare tactics.  After the mandatory joint custody legislation, A330, was defeated in the New York legislature, NY State Assembly Leader Sheldon Silver received a threat from the co-director of the father’s rights group of NY State, an affiliate of McCormick’s national organization, implying there could be violence if joint custody legislation is not passed.

It’s time for Sacks and McCormick to come clean about their true agenda and to stop bullying New Yorkers into misguided legislation that will usurp the choices of most separating parents, endanger women, tie the hands of judges, and substitute “father’s rights” for something we all support – father’s responsibility. 

Weiser is the executive director of StopFamilyViolence.org.  Pappas is the President of the National Organization for Women (NOW) –New York State, Inc.

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