Protect Fathers’ Loving Bonds with Their Children

By Michael McCormick and Glenn Sacks

Chicago father Joseph Richardson gave his life to save his child last month. According to one newspaper report, “With an out–of–control car bearing down, Richardson grabbed his 4–year–old daughter and held her up out of harm’s way. It was his last act — and one that apparently saved his daughter’s life.”

Earlier this year San Francisco father Albert Collins gave his life to save his family. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, “Collins’ last act was to throw his body over the top of his daughter to shield her from [errant shots] that would leave him dead…[his mother] watched helplessly, as her son made what would be his final request…‘look out for [my] son and [my] daughter.’”

There certainly are fathers (and mothers) who don’t come through for their children, but the average dad loves his children as much as Richardson and Collins did. Unfortunately, you’d never know it from the way our family court system treats fathers.

Millions of divorced or separated men are not permitted any meaningful role in their children’s lives. Many get to spend only a few days a month with their kids, and once mom finds a new man, they’re often pushed out entirely in favor of the child’s “new dad.” Yet when we talk about fatherless homes, it’s only in the context of the “paternal abandonment” script.

Fortunately, some legislators are finally starting to rethink fatherlessness. One of them is former Iowa House Speaker Pro Tem Danny Carroll, who never knew his father. Carroll refuses to make the standard assumption that his dad abandoned him. Rather, he publicly speculates that had the family law system protected fathers’ relationships with their children, perhaps he would have had his father in his life.

The benefits that divorced or separated fathers can provide their children are substantial. For example, a recent study of low–income African–American and Hispanic families by Boston College found that when nonresident fathers are involved in their adolescent children’s lives, the incidence of substance abuse, violence, crime, and truancy decreases markedly. The study’s lead author, professor Rebekah Levine Coley, says the study found involved nonresident fathers to be “an important protective factor for adolescents.”

Family courts often facilitate outcomes which damage children’s relationships with their fathers. While child custody laws are neutral on paper, in practice they favor awarding sole custody or primary residency to mothers and visitor status to fathers. Misguided women’s advocates such as the National Organization for Women have repeatedly beat back attempts to change this.

These outmoded, reactionary policies are unfair to fathers (and also to some mothers who lose custody), and disastrous for children. What’s needed instead is a presumption of shared parenting in divorce or separation. Under this presumption, when parents cannot agree on custody arrangements, courts will order shared custody unless there is clear and convincing evidence that one of the parents is unfit or unable to care for the children. A mediator will then help the parents draft a shared parenting plan awarding each parent substantially equal time with their children.

Research shows that shared parenting is best for kids. For example, according to a meta–analysis of 33 studies of children of divorce published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Family Psychology, children in shared custody settings had fewer behavior and emotional problems, higher self–esteem, better family relations, and better school performance than children in sole custody arrangements.

Moreover, studies of children of divorce demonstrate that most prefer joint custody and shared parenting. For example, Arizona State University psychology professor William Fabricius conducted a study, published in Family Relations, of college students who had experienced their parents’ divorces while they were children. He found that over two–thirds believed that “living equal amounts of time with each parent is the best arrangement for children.”

The family law system has for too long given short shrift to a child’s love for his or her father and a father’s right to parent his child. At the dawn of the divorce age it was perhaps understandable that courts didn’t know how to make genuinely beneficial custody arrangements. It no longer is. Shared parenting protects children’s loving bonds with both parents, and should be the norm.