Child Custody - Men Feel Cheated

In 90 percent of the divorces involving minor children, courts award physical (or primary) custody to the mother, who becomes the custodial parent, and visitation rights (now often called "parenting time") to the father, who is the noncustodial parent and who also pays child support.

For a father to be awarded physical custody in a contested custody case, he must prove that his wife, the mother of his child, is unfit. Even when this is true, demonstrating maternal incompetence is, at best, difficult and always unpleasant. Moreover, in many courts, judges are in the sway of established ideas such as the Maternal Preference and the Tender Years Presumption, both of which reinforce the idea that all other things being equal, a child’s "best interests" are served by living with his or her mother.

Even when the husband agrees that the child would be better off with his or her mother, divorced fathers very often slide into a vortex of despair about their missing children. In his book Still a Dad, Serge Prengel describes this "descent into despair": the father first feels he has no right "to be a full-fledged parent"; that his role is not to nurture but to pay. He feels hurt and angry, and may try to fight, but "everything" seems to work against him. Soon he feels like "a powerless victim" of his former wife, "overwhelmed, helpless and hopeless" and pulled "in a spiral of despair."

In adjudicating contested child custody, support and visitation, courts are guided by what is called the best interests of the child, the gold standard that gives judges a wide degree of latitude. Indeed, the phrase the best interests of the child means what a judge says it means.

Even when a man shares legal custody of his child with his former wife, as is very often the case, many noncustodial fathers soon come to believe that the court "sides" with the woman; that the former spouse uses visitation as weapons against her former husband. According to Sanford Braver, "visitation denial" is a factor in about 25 percent of divorces. Moreover, a noncustodial father may pay 20 to 25 percent of his after tax income in child support for one child. (Unlike alimony, which is tax deductible, child support is not.) Very often noncustodial fathers resent, not supporting their children, but paying money to a former spouse without having a say about how the money is spent. And some men come to believe that child support payments are not being used for their children.

When a husband and wife divorce legally but remain married emotionally, continuing battles about money and control of the children often escalate into contests that end with one parent taking the other back to court for judicial intervention. Over time, these continuing battles become like soldiers fighting a war that’s over. Nobody wins, but the fighting becomes an end in itself.



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FATHERS’ RIGHTS -- The "fathers’ rights” movement supports the idea that custody decisions should not discriminate against fathers. Support groups, including Fathers for Equal Rights in Miami and Fathers Are Forever in California, provide support for fathers who feel unfairly treated by the legal system.
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