Jewish World Review Oct. 26, 1999 /16 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760
Children's needs must take
priority in divorce system
IN GEORGIA, militant "beat-dead dads" want to unpack
their rebel flags. In Colorado, an alienated father states
that he wants his pound of flesh, saying, "I don't care
what blood is spilled." In Washington, some 10,000
fathers plan to toss their divorce and custody decrees
into the Lincoln Memorial's reflecting pool next month.
So goes the Fatherhood Movement in America. Its
members are as diverse as the country in which they live,
yet all are united on one front: They want their children
"It is time to start something radical," said Brad Ingram,
organizer of the reflecting-pool demonstration and head
of the Family Restoration League in Richmond, Va. "It is
time to make an undeniable, irrefutable statement that
unless this government . . . amends its ways, it will be
Unlikely. It is unlikely, too, that the divorce industry will
change its stripes in time for these fathers to feel less
cheated by a system that has given their children to
someone else and strapped them financially. Even some
of the movement's constituents seem to sense failure
beneath the surface of their rage.
A renegade fatherhood activist who would speak only
anonymously predicts the fathers' movement eventually
will fizzle. Men can't cooperate sufficiently to effect
change, he says, especially when their goals are at odds
Others see a void at the end of the march. Weary from
fighting, broke from legal fees, many eventually give up
on their children and disappear. The average tenure of a
fatherhood activist, I'm told, is 18 months. New fathers
drive out the old ones with their new and better ideas,
which the veterans of these wars have come to view as
The answer, says another skeptical insider, is women.
The battle for fathers' equal rights won't be won by
revolutionary men, he says, but by sisters, aunts,
mothers of sons, girlfriends and second wives who see
the painful inequities and join their men at the front.
In part, he is right. Fair-minded women can see not only
the inequities but also the harm done to children who
don't see enough of their fathers. Many women do join
disenfranchised fathers in their struggle; there's no
rational reason, after all, for fathers to have to prove
their necessity in a court of law when families fall apart.
The need for fathers has been made clear by some of
the saddest events and trends in our history. Substance
abuse, teen pregnancy, sexual promiscuity, difficulty in
school -- the list of social pathologies associated with
father absence is long and well-documented.
Yet our divorce system -- combined with a welfare
culture that historically has supported unwed
motherhood -- works overtime to keep fathers at bay,
like some evil usurpers who would steal innocent souls.
The surprise isn't that men are ready to storm the
nation's capital but that they have so little societal
support. In whose best interest is it that millions of
American children do not know their fathers?
Given that we can't seem to stay married more than an
average of six years and that divorce seems increasingly
inevitable, we have to change the rules of the game. We
can no longer afford to concern ourselves with adults'
"rights" but only with children's.
Children have a right to the security and stability of a
family, no matter what trouble adults create for
themselves. Society has a duty to prevail in children's
best interests, which means -- absent abuse or neglect --
unimpeded access to their parents.
The Children's Rights Council, an advocacy group that
stresses children's rights to both parents, seems to have
the best grasp of a workable solution: an assumption of
joint custody upon divorce and a parenting agreement
prior to marriage. (Never-marrieds, who bring children
into the world without concern for the child's "family,"
may deserve the trouble they beget; in any case, their
problems are beyond the scope of this column.)
A parenting agreement negotiated and signed before
marriage helps soon-to-be-weds clarify their values
about child-rearing, how to divide parenting
responsibilities, even how to divorce.
The divorce system needs remedy, too, and some states
are moving -- albeit glacially -- toward a more-equitable
approach to post-divorce custody and child support.
The CRC has high hopes that joint custody will produce
an added benefit: People won't divorce as often. The
states with declining divorce rates are, in fact, the same
states with presumptive joint-custody rules.
Meanwhile -- and until we all get wiser -- on this much
we can agree: Rearing and protecting children has
always required the hard work of a mother and a father.
A culture that promotes anything less should cause us all
JWR contributor Kathleen Parker can be reached by clicking here.
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