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Jewish World Review Oct. 26, 1999 /16 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760

Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker
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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 back.

"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 overturned."

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 with women's.

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 useless.

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 to revolt.

JWR contributor Kathleen Parker can be reached by clicking here.


10/19/99: The deadbeat dad is less a scoundrel than an object of pity
10/15/99: Bullying boys ... and girls
10/12/99: Divorced dads ready to wage a revolution
10/04/99: A father's best gift? His presence
09/30/99: Sorry, guys, Faludi is no friend of yours
09/28/99: Science's new findings: Scary future for families
09/23/99: The great blurring of need and want
09/21/99:Focus on more than baby's first 3 years
09/16/99: Commentary from kids sheds no light on day-care debate
09/14/99: Fathers' group seeks to right inequities
09/09/99: Son now has a license to grow up
09/07/99: A slap in the face of domestic violence
09/01/99: No, ma'am: Legislation on manners misses the mark
08/26/99: For better boys, try a little tenderness
08/24/99:The ABC's of campaign questions
08/19/99: Male 'sluts'
08/11/99: Language doesn't excuse bad behavior
08/09/99: When justice delayed is still justice
08/03/99: Unemployment? Not in this profession
07/30/99: It's not about race -- it's about crack babies
07/22/99: Tragedy tells us what's important
07/19/99: Study denouncing fathers sends danger signals
07/15/99:'Happy marriage' belongs in the Dictionary of Oxymorons next to 'deliciously low-fat.'
07/11/99: 'Brother Man': An American demagogue in Paris
07/08/99: Only parents can fix broken families
07/06/99: America is home, sweet home
07/01/99: Tales out of Yuppiedom
06/28/99: Men aren't the only abusers
06/23/99: Is the entire country guzzling LSD punch?
06/20/99: The voice remains -- as always -- there beside me 06/16/99:Stating the obvious, a new growth industry
06/14/99: Calling for a cease-fire in the gender war
06/10/99: We owe children an apology

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