Co-Parenting: Nationwide Effort Would Force Parents to Share Responsibility
When Doug Richardson remarried, he waited nearly a decade before having a child. “We got married under the agreement we’d have no kids,” says Richardson, 42, of Essexville, Michigan. “But my wife is 10 years younger than myself. I didn’t want to shortchange her because of my own experience.”
That experience, which began when he was 19 and married his pregnant girlfriend, got even worse in 1991 when Richardson divorced her, and took a nightmarish journey through the court system. He ended up paying tens of thousands of dollars in child support and health insurance, and then neverseeing his two children. “For the first 16 years I buried it so deep, along the lines of a rape victim,” Richardson said. “It hit me when my child was born (to his second wife), about what was really taken from me.
Angry and bewildered fathers who want more rights after they divorce — to either right the wrongs of paternity fraud, or to be awarded equal or shared parenting with their children — have been fighting back through high-profile court cases, founding shared parenting organizations and lobbying extensively for new laws.
Shared parenting assumes that both parents will be awarded joint custody, unless other factors (proven abuse or domestic violence) weigh against it. “It is the case that there’s a growing awareness of the injustices in the system,” says Ronald K. Henry, co-founder of the Calvert Institute for Policy Research, and who has argued and written papers for decades arguing for shared parenting rights.
SUPPORT TOO HIGH?
“The awareness may be because child support is at unsustainably high levels,” he says. “Or that people are catching on that it’s silly that the child is deprived of one parent.”
Thanks to the lobbying efforts of Dads and Moms of Michigan, formed in 1998 by frustrated fathers, Glenn Steil, a Republican state senator in Michigan, recently introduced shared parenting legislation in that state. “I introduced the bill personally,” says Steil. “There is a group of dads and moms of Michigan that believe that primary fathers don’t get a fair shake in equal parenting, and I believe that to be the case.”
Steil is unsure of the bill passing a Democrat-controlled legislature, which recently nearly shut down the state government because of budget issues. But James Semerad, 51, chairman and charter member of Dads and Moms of Michigan, vows it will pass. “Our organization was originally just called Dads of Michigan,” he says, “and then we found out women were getting abused by the system. Forty percent of the people who call us are women, step-moms, non-custodial moms.” He believes that, until the law changes, nothing else will.
After working on a strategic analysis of other states that have some form of shared parenting legislation, Semerad says his attention fixed on how and why it became so hard to change the laws that assumed a mother’s right to custody, as well as thestructure of the mammoth child support system itself. “There is an institutionalized infrastructure that has a lot of reinforcing components,” he says, from “the woman’s movement, domestic violence, the TV, the media even the federal laws are constructed where they criminalize men.”
POP CULTURE DOESN’T HELP
Pop culture, he says, supports what Ronald Henry argued recently in the American Bar Association Journal (Spring 2006) are skewed assumptions about fathers reinforced by federal legislation girding up the welfare system. “Congress has operated on the belief that federal welfare expenditures can be offset by recoupment of child support payments from noncustodial parents,” Henry wrote. “Accordingly, federal law requires that a recipient of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) must assign to the government the right to receive child support payments.”
This is not all. Although ostensibly arguing to change paternity fraud laws in states to use modern DNA evidence, Henry’s argument also attempted to show how federal law doesn’t encourage a change in child custody laws and accompanying support payments, that is, shared parenting. “Eligibility for receipt of federal funds under TANF and under the incentive formula depends only upon tagging the largest possible number of men, and there is no review or requirement that it be the right men,” he wrote. “With the enormous sums of federal funds that are at stake, the result is not difficult to predict.”
That result, he and others argue, has been a sluggish response on the part of states to slow or stop the flow of federal funds by adopting shared parenting and paternity fraud legislation.
As Carey Roberts wrote in an angry Aug. 14 editorial about the triple-murders of Delaware State University students on a Newark, New Jersey, playground, “If fathers are awarded 50 percent custody of their children, they owe little or nothing in child support. If no child support dollars are channeling through the system, then the federal money dries up. This creates an inducement for states to keep children away from their fathers as much as possible.”
Roberts argued that many of Newark’s and other inner-city problems stem from the break-up of the family, which proponents of shared parenting laws say are perpetuated by outdated child custody laws. Semerad says that many of Michigan’s problems also stem from the break-up of the family, unintentionally reinforced by legislation. “More than 40 percent of kids here in Detroit are born out of wedlock,” he says. “These kids don’t know what a good relationship with their fathers are.”
MONEY AND CUSTODY
Richardson thinks the relationship between federal and state lawmakers and the amounts of money at stake prevent change. “In 2007, Michigan received $1 billion in federal funding for the collection on child support,” Richardson says. “The more families the courts can keep apart, the more money they can get. It’s not about the best interests of the child. People are figuring this out now.”
In late August, Robert Pedersen, a divorced father of two from Lansing, Mich., and co-founder of A Child’s Right, an affiliate of Moms and Dads of Michigan, bicycled 700 miles to Washington DC with fellow father Rob McKenzie to speak at “Family Preservation Day.” Pedersen and Rob McKenzie were heard on National Public Radio, and appeared on YouTube and several other media venues during and after their ride.
“It brought a great deal of attention to a cause that has been building for a long time,” Henry says. Henry, in a three-decade career as a lawyer, says he made it part of his life’s work to change child custody and paternity laws and the assumptions that support them. “When I first started doing law, I did retail-level pro bono stuff,” he says. “I would help with appeals and motions, and the more I saw, the more I realized they all came from broken homes and had no relationships with fathers.”
He decided the source of the problem was “causally linked to family breakdown and father absence.” He explains it with an analogy. “If you saw a child in a river drowning, you’d rush in to save it. But you also would send someone upstream to see who the hell threw in the child. That’s what I try to do: look at the social policies that throw people into the river.”
The current state of assuming a woman’s custody “87 percent of the time custody goes to the woman, according to one estimate” is, relatively speaking, not that old, Henry says. Before the 20th century, child custody and shared parenting weren’t important issues because of the relatively low rate of divorce. More often than not, however, in the case of a divorce, the father as breadwinner automatically gained custody of the child.
But during the 1920s, the social science literature changed, “and there became a bifurcation of maternal and paternal roles,” Henry says. It was actually a long-time coming, since the rise of the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century split up the working roles of men and women in both extended and nuclear families. That split in roles due to the specialization of work, “drove the father out of the house, and separated the income from the family,” Henry says.
He works from home, and has become the key caregiver for his child. “It gives you a whole new perspective on stay-at-home mothers and what they deal with,” he says. “You establish a bond with the child you can’t replace. That’s where I fell into shared parenting, realizing the relationship I have with my son now.”
MOTHER AS CARETAKER
By the 20th century, “the idea was father as absent parent and mother as natural caretaker of the child. “There grew a change in the idea of childhood, too, what some have called the “tender years doctrine,” in which it was assumed that a growing child needed a mother’s love more than anything. Once these assumptions were legislated by the end of World War II, the divorce rate had radically increased, and the courts found themselves with a dilemma.”The courts realized they had a problem because they had begun to put children in the least economically-viable fragment of the family that is, the children were more often than not given to the mother.” As divorce became more common and maternal preference more common, the court changed the rules about child support,” Henry says. “Instead of a duty to support your child in your own home, you had a duty to send money to wherever the court sent the child.”
Semerad has high hopes that the bill Steil introduced and that he helped craft will establish a precedent for the country. “I like the bill because it’s significant,” he says. “There’s a presumption of shared parenting, unless there’s clear and convincing evidence of unfitness.”
Semerad believes the bill’s two other major tenets answer critics’ concerns with domestic violence and the problems of parents’ moving. Under the bill, divorced parents must stay in the same school district; if one leaves, custody favors the one who stays. One also cannot gain custody of a child because of unsupported accusations of domestic violence, Semerad says. “The language is, unless there’s clear and convincing evidence of domestic violence,” there is no change in shared parenting responsibilities.
Even the introduction of the bill is a step in the right direction for Doug Richardson. Although Richardson’s problems mainly stemmed from paternity fraud and the financial obligations from which he has now freed himself “his experience would have been radically different if shared parenting had been assumed, he says.”All fathers should experience this,” Richardson says of his new family life.