The National Organization
for Women's recently released Family Court Report 2002
claims that family courts are "wrought with gender bias" against
women. However, the respondents to the survey upon which the
report is based were not chosen at random, but were instead
self-selected from among those whom NOW calls its
"constituents." If one selects a survey's respondents, one can
make the survey show almost anything. For this reason, these
types of Self-selected Listener Opinion Polls, commonly known as SLOPs, are viewed as junk social science by serious researchers.
NOW's report sounds the
alarm on women's "loss of custody through gender bias" but the
vacuity of this claim can be demonstrated by examining how
rarely courts grant custody to fathers in contested cases.
For example, a Stanford
study of 1,000 divorced couples selected at random found that
divorcing mothers were awarded sole custody four times as often
as divorcing fathers in contested custody cases. A study of all
divorce-custody decrees in Arlington County, Virginia over an 18
month period found that no father was given sole or even joint
custody unless the mother agreed to it. According to Frank
Bishop, the former director of the Virginia Division of Child
Support Enforcement, almost 95% of custody cases in Virginia
were won by mothers.
An Ohio study published in
Family Advocate found that fathers seeking sole custody obtain
it in less than 10% of cases, and a Utah study conducted over 23
years found similar results. According to the 2000 Census Bureau
report, mothers comprise 85% of all custodial parents.
Even the 80% to 95%
maternal preference documented by these studies and others
understates family court discrimination against fathers by
identifying many coerced child custody arrangements as
"uncontested." The vast majority of divorces involving children
are initiated by women, and women are usually granted temporary
custody of the children. Judges are reluctant to switch children
from the custody of one parent to another. Fathers, left to
fight an uphill battle to gain custody and often out of both
money and hope, sometimes give up. Others spend their life's
savings trying to obtain joint physical or sole custody so they
can remain a part of their children's lives. Devastated
financially and with little hope of winning, they often sign
consent orders granting custody to mothers. In both of these
common scenarios, the child custody arrangement is
NOW has attempted to
obscure this anti-father family court bias by claiming
"according to several studies, when there is a custody dispute,
fathers win custody in the majority of disputed cases." In other
words, men don't get custody because they don't want it. Yet
NOW's claim, proclaimed in its 1996 National Conference
Resolution attacking the fathers' rights movement, and again in
Family Court Report 2002, is without merit. All three of
the sources NOW cites used survey pools which were either
nonrandom or in which contested and uncontested custody cases
were lumped together.
Once custody is lost
divorced dads are often at the mercy of both custodial mothers
and the family courts. Divorced dads' complaints include:
blocked visitation and unenforced visitation orders; "move away"
spouses who permit or even use geography as a method of driving
noncustodial parents out of their children's lives; acceptance
by the courts of false and/or uncorroborated accusations as a
basis for denying custody or even contact between parent and
child; rigid, excessive, and often punitive child support
awards; and burdensome legal costs.
The presence (or absence)
of a father in a child's life is one of the largest factors in
predicting whether a child will graduate high school, attend
college, become involved in crime or drugs, or get pregnant
before age 18. The greatest and least recognized force behind
America's epidemic of fatherlessness is the way courts allow
custodial mothers to drive fathers out of their children's
The solution to the
problem is shared parenting, which creates equality between
divorcing couples by replacing the option of sole physical
custody, which occurs in the vast majority of custody cases,
with the presumption of joint legal and physical custody.
If divorcing parents are
unable to agree on a shared parenting plan, the courts would
order a plan which would afford both parents equal physical time
and decision-making power. Children gain from shared parenting
because it allows them to retain the ongoing emotional,
physical, and financial support of both parents.
The National Organization
for Women has lobbied hard against shared parenting legislation
and today is the main obstacle to equality in family court. Yet
during the 1960s and 1970s many of NOW's leaders, including
former president Karen DeCrow, were sympathetic to shared
parenting as part of their efforts to erase all gender
inequalities. Family Court Report 2002 again reveals
just how far NOW has drifted from this admirable goal.
This column first appeared in
Dianna Thompson is a founder and executive director of the American Coalition for Fathers and Children (www.acfc.org).
Sacks' columns on men's and fathers' issues have appeared in dozens of America's
largest newspapers. Glenn can be reached via his website at
via email at Glenn@GlennSacks.com.