Time to also offer fathers victim status

By Mike Franco, Providence Journal, June 17, 2001


RECENTLY, many of America's major newspapers and magazines, including the Journal, cited the U.S. Census report for 2000 that showed a steady decline in married households with an increase in single-parent ones.

The Census also indicates that single-mother heads of households with children outnumber single-father ones by more than 3.5 times.

Additionally, but not cited in the report, is the commonly known statistic that mothers are awarded custody of children about 90 percent of the time in divorce and separation while fathers are relegated to being noncustodial "visitors" of their children.

America's family courts determine custody in this manner with what appears to be a faulty interpretation of the "best interests of the child" standard. After all, research indicates that children do just as well, or better, with their dads as they do with their moms.

The notion that children are served better when mom cares for them is just another myth in family law that puts the child/father relationship at a major disadvantage.

Why does the bias exist? One theory is that America is infatuated with groups that qualify for "victim" status -- so much so that state bureaucracies are ever ready to aid these groups, regardless of whether innocent people, such as fathers and children, are unfairly treated and unjustly suffer.

A victim group in our society can receive layers of government funding and benefits. If you are not from that select group, you are just out of luck.

For instance, divorced and unwed fathers receive little aid from government, and even if, by slim chance, a father is granted custody, he will rarely receive child support from the mother because the courts do not impose it or enforce it. There are times, it is true, when men and fathers inadvertently receive state aid, but not under the guise of victimhood.

They receive it as "crisis" intervention, such as when they are incarcerated for not being "responsible," or perhaps when they become homeless and destitute, or chronically infirm, as a result of sex discrimination against them.

Massachusetts is just one of several states with such bad family policy. The commonwealth has been highly effective in creating a subculture of poor fathers forcibly disassociated from their children even when these dads have proved that they are willing, competent and loving parents.

It is tragic to see fathers in their 20s emotionally wounded because they have never had the opportunity to truly parent their children or to be more active in their kids' lives. This epidemic continues even when there is evidence, such as in a recent Harris poll, that indicates that young men are about 7 percent more likely to give up pay to be with their families than are women of the same age group.

This is an obvious cultural shift that the government fails to recognize. Why do courts "play" interference on fathers? Do they do so to protect their own interests in the name of protecting a select group of victims?

Regardless of bureaucratic motives, fathers and children continue to be violated by state family courts, a forum having little to do with justice or equal rights but more to do with helping mothers receive entitlements based on their "victim" status. Fathers become hostages to an oppressive system the first time that they seek justice in family court when in custody disputes with mothers.

So why are men not considered victims? Perhaps it is not our time. However, if we can convince the state that men and fathers are present-day victims, we might get government aid without having to go to jail, the "poor" house or the hospital.

Mike Franco is Massachusetts state co-chairman of the Fatherhood Coalition.

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