This article on fathers and the family court system is by far the best I’ve read in ages (Huffington Post UK, 11/5/15). It’s by Karen Woodall and directly concerns courts in the United Kingdom, but is equally applicable to those in all parts of the English-speaking world. Woodall nails it and nails family courts and the lawyers, social workers, custody evaluators, guardians ad litem, etc. who make their living there as well.
Woodall says she “work[s] in the field of family separation.” Her thesis is blunt: in family courts, fathers are considered to be disposable. It matters little how much they love their children, how much their children love them or how important they are to their kids. To the courts and the various practitioners therein, they’re disposable. Yes, British law now encourages meaningful relationships between children and both parents post-divorce, but judges and mental health professionals see the matter differently.
These days, in the shadow of Section 11 of the Children and Families Act 2014, children are regarded as being best served by having a relationship with both of their parents after separation. The problem being that in order to achieve that many dads face obstacles to achieving that. Obstacles in the shape of Family Court Practitioners whose own belief system does not allow them to conceive of a father wanting to care for his children and obstacles in the shape of other people who believe that when it comes to post separation care for children, mum knows best.
We see this in the United States as well. Despite reams of data on the importance of fathers to children following divorce or separation, the actual data on how many fathers get sole or primary custody varies statistically not at all from one decade to another. In 1993, 83.8% of custodial parents were mothers, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Eighteen years later, the number stood at 81.7%, i.e. no statistical change. Six different studies that surveyed family court judges and family lawyers in 11 different states found anti-father bias to be routine with many judges frankly admitting to never treating fathers equally to mothers.
Now, Woodall’s focus is on fathers and their well-being. She rightly points out that fathers are doing far more of the hands-on parenting than did dads of generations gone by. These fathers whom she sees in her practice are then blindsided by a family court system that continues to see them as a distant second in the horserace for the prize of primary parent.
Dads after separation were once described by the CEO of Gingerbread (the single parenting charity) as ‘secondary resources, most effective when strategically employed.’ Translated this means, dads are useful to mums after separation because they can babysit and be included on the rota for the school run. Dads as helpers, are acceptable so long as they are doing as they are told. Dads as hands on active parents, sharing the care, the chores, the long nights of tummy aches and sickness are not routinely acceptable. In fact as a practitioner working with dads who have been evicted from their children’s lives after separation, I have witnessed dads being told that their desire to care for their children is ‘aggressive and upsetting’ to their children’s mother.
And it’s that mother about whom the system cares.
I work in the field of family separation and I meet disposable dads every day. These men, who appear at times to me to be nothing more than the ghostly imprint of what a father is, are suffering. Not that you would know it, so unpopular is their plight. Gaslighted by the system which surrounds the family as it separates, these dads, who were pregnant with their partners (in that most modern approach to sharing all of the experience of bringing forth life), now find themselves routinely cast out of the family after separation. Dads are not welcome in post-separation family life, especially if they are going to cause trouble by wanting to actually parent their children. For those modern men who gave their all to fatherhood, the injustice of such a swift eviction from the lives of their children after separation, is a bewildering attack on their very sense of self.
When I talk about ‘the system’ I am talking about those family services which are likely to become involved in supporting the family as it separates and adapts to changing times, CAFCASS (the Family Court Practitioners who assess the needs of children in post separated family life and Social Services, who may also be involved). All of these services are routinely delivering their services around mother and children first, with father coming a very poor second. There is no such thing as gender equality in family services it seems, or if there is, it is the commonly held approach of women and children first. Pity those dads who go into the family courts expecting fairness, equality and justice, for what they receive is far less than this.
On one hand we excoriate fathers for not being more involved in their children’s lives, even when they’re almost as involved as are mothers. (Please see yesterday’s post on data from the Pew Research Center on exactly that topic.) But then comes divorce and our legal system, our society and our culture all of a sudden begin singing an entirely different tune. That song may be called something like “Pay Up and Get Out.” Fathers who’ve invested every emotional sou they have in loving, caring for, providing for and protecting their children are suddenly told that they’re utterly unimportant except as a source of cash for their ex.
In the process of investing so much in their sense of fatherhood, those men, as Woodall has seen up close, experience the process of divorce and child custody as a blow to their sense of who they are. Unsurprisingly, the suicide rate for newly divorced fathers is many times that of other dads.
Woodall is again correct in pointing out that this system of divorce and child custody is an anachronism. It never made sense to separate children from their dads, but, back in the 1950s when fathers were far less involved with their kids on a daily basis than they are now, perhaps an argument could be made for it. But not now, not when fathers from all walks of life are stepping up and doing their share of childcare as never before.
There is a popular notion that after separation dads are either absent or angry and that their presence in family life is not necessarily an essential part of what a child needs. From the changing of the divorce laws in 1973 to the current day, several generations of dads have found themselves disposed of after family separation. An outcome which is nothing less than brutal for those so affected and which is, in these days of modern men and masculinities, so ridiculously outdated that it can sometimes feel as if we are living in a bygone era, where children and their fathers were on head patting terms before bed but nothing more.
Which brings me to my only (and very minor) quibble with Woodall. To the extent she believes that children need and experience the loss of fathers who are very much of the hands-on variety and not those who emphasize their role as resource providers, she’s incorrect. She never says that outright, but some of her words suggest it.
But the simple truth is that kids don’t place greater value on fathers who do more of the diapering, bathing and feeding than they do fathers who do less of that and more of the wage earning. Kids bond with their parents on the deepest and most elemental of levels long before they can distinguish what type of dad they have. And it is that bond that’s destroyed when a court decides that, from here on out, little Andy or Jenny only gets to see Daddy every other weekend.
Family courts tell us that they act in the best interests of children. They don’t. And they won’t start doing so until they start ensuring real, meaningful relationships between children and both parents when the adults split up. The act of designating one parent the custodial one and the other a visitor is a body blow to the child that often hurts lifelong. Woodall rightly reminds us that it’s a blow to dads as well.