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Crisis in The Family Courts: how Can A "Good Enough Mother" Protect Herself?" by Trish Wilson
The father’s rights movement seeks to destroy the legal protections of women and children, primarily custodial mothers. Fathers’ rights groups are not male-only groups. A large number of these groups are lead and supported by the second wives, girlfriends, grandparents and former in-laws of the men who are taking their ex-wives back to court. This article details the agenda of the fathers’ rights lobby, which despite its claims, is not concerned about the welfare of children. Even though it is a worldwide movement, this article focuses on the movement in the Chesapeake region, particularly Maryland. Fathers’ rights groups in America are national groups with satellite chapters in each state. These chapters meet in church basements, rented halls, and members’ homes. They also meet on the Internet, Usenet, America Online, and CompuServe. The leaders of these groups often have obtained custody of their children by taking the mothers back to court repeatedly over an average of five years. Financially and emotionally exhausted, the mother eventually loses custody by court order.
          
Crisis In The Family Courts
MOTHERS UNDER SIEGE: TACTICS OF THE FATHERS’ RIGHTS MOVEMENT- HOW CAN A “GOOD ENOUGH MOTHER” PROTECT HERSELF?
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Spring, 1996
I began to investigate fathers’ rights groups two and a half years ago after leaving an abusive marriage. Even though I already knew what to expect in court from my knowledge of separation, divorce and abuse issues acquired within various support groups, the amount of money I spent and the legal tactics employed by my ex-husband’s attorney shocked me. The entire legal system’s lack of attention to family law and domestic violence issues infuriated me. I am appalled by the inattention given to women in abusive or domineering relationships, who tried to obtain protective orders against domestic violence and child abuse, and who attempted, in vain, to collect child support.

The father’s rights movement seeks to destroy the legal protections of women and children, primarily custodial mothers. Fathers’ rights groups are not male-only groups. A large number of these groups are lead and supported by the second wives, girlfriends, grandparents and former in-laws of the men who are taking their ex-wives back to court. This article details the agenda of the fathers’ rights lobby, which despite its claims, is not concerned about the welfare of children. Even though it is a worldwide movement, this article focuses on the movement in the Chesapeake region, particularly Maryland. Fathers’ rights groups in America are national groups with satellite chapters in each state. These chapters meet in church basements, rented halls, and members’ homes. They also meet on the Internet, Usenet, America Online, and CompuServe. The leaders of these groups often have obtained custody of their children by taking the mothers back to court repeatedly over an average of five years. Financially and emotionally exhausted, the mother eventually loses custody by court order.

It is important to stress that not all fathers concerned with their rights are bad fathers. Women’s groups and pro-feminist men’s groups do not hate men or downplay the important role of fatherhood. The focus of this article is on the fathers’ rights lobby, and those people who utilize underhanded, abusive tactics to control an ex-wife and children. It is not a blanket indictment of fathers across the board. Good fathers are doing everything in their power to parent their children to the best of their ability. They do not recruit their new wives and girlfriends into demonizing the first wife. They also do not have histories of domestic violence and/or child abuse, as do many members of the fathers’ rights lobby, or those who use similar tactics without the direct assistance of the lobby. The father’s lobby gives all non-custodial fathers a bad image. Before their claims to the rights of fatherhood can be achieved, the responsibilities of the role of father must be met. That includes personal maturity, financial responsibility, nurturing and guidance of children’s lives, and respectful treatment of the mother. Without the existence of responsibility, the talk of rights is hollow rhetoric.

#1: The Myth of the Unfit Mother

According to Phyllis Chesler’s ‘Mothers On Trial, ‘ fathers who custodially challenge mothers win their cases 50%-70% of the time, regardless of proof of paternal domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, child abuse, or sexual abuse. Even a “fit” mother – one who was the primary caregiver of the children during and after the marriage, who has had no history of drug/alcohol abuse or mental illness, and under whose care the children were thriving – stands a good chance of losing custody simply because her ex-husband has remarried and has more money at his disposal than she.

The father’s remarriage and greater earning capacity are two of the reasons fathers who contest custody get it, not doubts as to the “fitness” of the mother. According to an October 1991 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Policy paper authored by Meyer and Garasky, “The number of custodial fathers has been dramatically increasing over time, so to hold to a belief that fathers only gain custody when the mother is unfit requires one to claim that mothers are becoming more and more unfit over time. Fathers are more likely to get physical custody when their income is high, when the mother’s income is low, and when the youngest child is older. Father custody is more likely in more recent divorces.” Economics play a large part in the custody decision, but there is no empirical evidence that the “fitness” of the mother is the determining factor.

A mother’s lifestyle and behavior continue to be held to much more stringent standards than a father’s. Many judges continue to be in favor of “traditional” families. Many men who remarry gain custody of their children and these new wives, who have no blood relation to the children whatsoever, have a better chance of raising them than the biological mother. This is not done “in the best interest of the children,” as these fathers state. This is being done as a way to continue the abusive relationship after the woman has fled, to exact revenge against a former partner, or to avoid paying child support. This movement also ensures that fathers who have been abusing their children continue to abuse them through the notion of the “fundamental right of a father to have access to his children,” which is a concept over 100 years old that prevented the state from interfering with a father’s access to his legal property – his children. The House Bills pertaining to issues such as mandatory joint custody, gutting of domestic violence laws, child support reduction, and the penchant towards favoring “traditional” families are nothing new. They are merely a rehash of patriarchal laws, including updated versions of English Common Law that treated women and children as property. These men teach members of fathers’ rights groups the “tricks of the legal trade” in order to help other disgruntled fathers, abusers, and their new female partners get back at their former partners in the cruelest way possible: separate the mother from her own children.

The abuse of the court system is an issue all women must consider because 51% of all marriages end in divorce. It is important to understand how fathers’ rights groups can misconstrue statistics, studies and family law to present a false impression that the majority of fathers are paying child support, and that, in their opinion, very few fathers fit the description “deadbeat dad.” It’s also important to understand how the dynamic of domestic violence plays into the agenda of the fathers’ lobby. This abuse of information is being used in court to enable non-custodial fathers, often with the assistance of their new wives and girlfriends, to take children away from the custodial mothers. Listed below are the most common myths perpetrated by the fathers’ rights movement.

Myth #2: 75% Of Fathers Are Paying Child Support

The fathers’ rights lobby insists that feminists have created the “myth” of the high non-payment rates of child support in order to push a man-hating agenda. They insist that the vast majority of men are financially supporting their children, that women who seek court assistance to collect child support are lazy and greedy and that they want the money to spend on themselves rather than their children. The first inaccuracy claimed by the fathers’ rights groups is that these figures show the amount of money the fathers have paid the mothers. These numbers are percentages of the money received by the custodial mothers due child support payments, not how much money the father has paid. This money is not necessarily coming voluntarily from the father’s pockets. According to the Survey of Income and Program Participation (S.I.P.P.), fewer than one-half of mothers who received child support in 1989-90 were paid directly by the father; the majority of the payments came via court-order, such as garnishment of wages or lien on property due to the father’s refusal to pay child support. In Maryland, the current law is that there is a presumption for a wage lien in child support cases.

A look at child support statistics reveals the sad state of child support enforcement in this country. The 1989-90 “Current Population Reports, U.S. Bureau of the Census, Series P-60, No. 173-Child Support and Alimony” shows that overall, approximately half the women due child support that year were paid in full, 1/4 received partial payments, and 1/4 received nothing. Over two-thirds of child support was awarded from a judge via court order. In those cases, only 42.3% of women owed child support were paid in full; 27.3 % received partial payments, and 30.4% received nothing. Of the 28.9% of mothers whose child support arrangement was made through voluntary negotiations with the father out of court, 70.6% had received full payments. Couples whose divorces are fairly amicable tend to do well regarding visitation, custody arrangements and child support payments. As illustrated in the Census Bureau statistics, there are serious problems regarding payment of child support to the custodial parent when child support is awarded via court order. Eighty percent of the time, the custodial parent is the mother.

Myth #3: Child Support Awards Are Too High

Fathers’ rights supporters insist that the reason some men pay little or no child support is that they are financially unable to do so. They claim that the child support guidelines are unfairly high, as high as 70% of a father’s income. Therefore, a true “deadbeat dad” – one who has the ability to pay yet refuses to do so – is rare. These statements are easily refutable. Child support is calculated by gross monthly income, not net income. In 1989-90 the average amount of child support due per custodial mother totaled $3,292; the average amount received was $2,252, half of which was paid through social services and court-ordered garnishment. The Child Support Recovery Act and state laws urging garnishment of paychecks are responsible for the increasing levels of child support monies being received by the custodial mothers. Federal law prevents child support calculations from going over 50% of both parent’s gross monthly income – 55% in some cases. When asked to provide sources for the dubious 70% figure, the father’s rights supporters are silent.

According to the Maryland Special Joint Committee report on “Gender Bias in The Courts (May 1989),” between a quarter and a half of the male and female lawyers surveyed believe that child support awards rarely or never “reflect a realistic understanding of a particular child’s needs. Underestimating expenses attributable to a child’s needs is more likely to occur than overestimating, so the result of inaccurate determinations will be to overburden the custodial parent with uncompensated expenses for the child. Since most custodial parents are women, overburdening the custodial parent means requiring women to pay an unfair amount of child support.”

Myth #4: Only Fathers’ Wages Are Considered In Child Support Calculations

In Maryland, both parents are to be held responsible for the children’s financial support. Despite the insistence of the fathers’ rights groups that only a father’s wages are considered in child support calculations, the gross monthly wages of both the mother and the father are tabulated. The Rand mandate ensures that the parental obligation for child support is shared by both parents. Ten years after its implementation, it is evident that mothers are shouldering an unfair amount of the financial child support burden. According to the Gender Bias Report, “Enforcement problems result in gender bias, because the obligees of support awards are custodial parents, usually mothers. When they are denied access to the child support which has been ordered, they will provide whatever support they can afford out of other resources, which results in their further impoverishment. At the same time, non-custodial parents, usually fathers, are allowed to retain resources which properly belong in the child’s household. The father is, in effect, unjustly enriched at the expense of both the child and the mother.”

Myth #5: All Women Who Request Child Support Get It.

According to the 1989-90 Census Bureau report on Child Support and Alimony, only half the women who request child support find their requests approved by the court. The main reason mothers don’t get an award is that they can’t locate the father, the father is in jail, or they can’t or won’t establish paternity. The fathers’ groups prefer to state that these irresponsible women have had so many sexual partners that they cannot name the father. The truth of the matter is that abuse and a desire for revenge on the part of the father plays a major role in these reasons. The mother may refuse to name the father because she fears he will seek revenge should she file a motion to collect child support. Many women choose to forfeit their childrens’ rights to child support rather than risk allowing an abuser to continue to terrorize them either on their own or through expensive court appeals. Several representatives of womens’ groups in the Chesapeake region, which includes Maryland, have recommended to mothers who have not received child support that they not file contempt of court charges in order to collect arrearages. If these women file contempt charges, they risk being slapped with a custody counter-suit by the father of the children as retaliation. These women would rather do without the money, even though they desperately need it, than risk losing their children. The fathers’ rights groups conveniently misrepresent these documents in order to serve their purposes.

Myth #6: Women Do Not Use Child Support to Support The Children. They Spend The Money On Themselves.

Fathers’ rights supporters insist that custodial mothers want money in order to fund vacations or buy a fine new set of clothes. Child support is necessary to buy school supplies, books and food, pay for rent, electricity, the water and sewage bill, heat and air conditioning, and to contribute toward doctor and dental visits. Considering that the average yearly child support received by the mother is $2,252, it is highly unlikely that she’s catching some rays at a Jamaican beach or purchasing dressing gowns from Victoria’s Secret.

Myth #7: The Court System Is Unfairly Biased Toward Mothers in Custody Disputes, Divorce, Alimony, Child Support and Visitation

Is There Gender Bias Against Fathers in Court? Findings From The Maryland Gender Bias Report.

Members of the fathers’ lobby in Maryland have stated that this report is biased against men due to hearings held by womens’ groups in several counties. The fathers’ lobby has also accused the Committee of using it as “window dressing” in order to make it appear that men’s voices are being heard. Contrary to these accusations, several men’s and fathers’ rights groups participated equally in the hearings, including leading some of their own hearings in several counties. There is no “feminist bias” in this report, despite heated commentary by members of men’s and fathers’ rights groups, following its publication.

* Child Custody

In uncontested divorces, the parties generally agree for the mother to have primary physical custody of the children with joint legal custody going to both parents. The Maryland court has established a child-focused approach to awarding custody. If the divorcing parties work together amicably, they work out a fair and equitable custody arrangement that focuses on the child’s needs rather than the parents’ desires. Statements made by the fathers’ rights lobby that most men do not request custody because their lawyers have told them that they do not stand a chance of ever getting it. This may be true but not because of an unfair bias against fathers in court. It is due to the fact that the mother, in the majority of cases, had been the primary caregiver. The primary caregiver model is one factor used in determining child custody. The court also looks towards which parent the child has established a closer bond.

However, a large number of fathers continue to appeal the original award of sole custody to the mother, claiming that bias against fathers is running rampant in court. A father who is able to fund continued litigation does so because he is economically superior to the mother and because he can afford it. Advocates and witnesses, both male and female, for the fathers’ lobby, claimed that judges failed to regard financial statements, denied witnesses a chance to be heard, and presumed that mothers are the only proper custodian of minor children, especially female children. The Gender Bias Report has found some evidence of bias against fathers in court, but not in the large numbers claimed by the fathers’ lobby. No matter how few the instances of gender bias against a father, each is serious and important to the parents, the children, and the entire court system. This conclusion was seconded by lawyers, male and female, who testified at the Committee’s hearings that many parents want custody to go to the mother because she is doing the job satisfactorily already, not because she is female. In the few cases where the father was doing the job, he was reported to have been awarded custody. These cases are from the trial level – the first tier of the court system.

* Child Custody Appeals – The Detrimental Effects On Women

Should the father contest the custody award and repeatedly appeal court decisions, there is a great deal of evidence of gender bias against the mother. Women not awarded custody of their children, or those who have difficulties regarding custody in court, have experienced biases related to their gender that fathers, overall, have not experienced. Their “fitness” as parents is determined not by their previous and documented care of the children, but by unfair gender bias. In short, the mother’s ability to continue caring for the children, as she had been throughout the marriage, provided the children are thriving, directly relates to whether or not the father wishes to make custody an issue. If he chooses to make it an issue, regardless of whether or not it is appropriate or in the best interest of the children, he has a 50% – 70% chance of obtaining sole custody (according to Phyllis Chesler’s book “Mothers On Trial”) even if he had been an absent or abusive parent and husband. The misuse of the appeals process by the father as a means of punishing the mother has become a very common occurrence in courts throughout the United States.

* Bias Against Mothers

Bias is evident when the focus of a court is on the mother’s behavior as opposed to the father’s. According to the Gender Bias Report, mothers are disadvantaged by stereotypes about children needing a mother at home, about children being better off in the home of the wealthier parent, about mothers being unworthy of custody, if they engage in sex with a partner other than the child’s father, and about mothers who must be “perfect” to deserve custody. Mothers have been denied custody because judges held mothers to different, and sometimes, higher standards than those applied to fathers. Double standards were evident in cases in which the father who had been completely uninvolved with his children sought to deprive the mother of sole custody. In addition, the violence of fathers toward mothers is sometimes given too little weight in decisions about custody, joint custody and visitation. In one case, the Committee was told of a judge who deemed the father’s violence less harmful to the children than the mother’s decision to report the father to authorities. Although the father was found to have sexually abused his two preteen daughters, the judge denied the mother custody because her reporting him “showed [that] her hatred for the father took precedence over the children’s need to hold a high image of their father.”

* “Best Interests” Economic Security Criteria

Sometimes judges may equate financial superiority with the best interests of the child. The implication is of a bias against mothers in a custody dispute that focuses on financial resources, since in the majority of cases mothers earn considerably less money than the fathers. The fathers’ rights groups who push these financial criteria do so in order to lower or eliminate child support, or to gain an unfair advantage in a custody dispute.

* Visitation

Non-custodial parents, most often the fathers, focused on problems with enforcement of visitation orders. Custodial parents, most often the mothers, were concerned with problems that arise when the non-custodial parent fails to visit. Serious concerns were also expressed regarding unsupervised visits by a non- custodial parent who is violent or abusive toward the children or the mother. Mothers alleged that courts are punitive to those who deny visitation. Finally, non-custodial mothers reported that their visitation rights were not vigorously protected by the courts.

* Alimony

There are two types of alimony – rehabilitative and indefinite. The most common is rehabilitative, which is awarded with the intention of enabling the recipient to achieve independence through obtaining some form of education and/or employment training. Most alimony awards are too low. In Maryland, according to the Gender Bias Report, the average award is only $500 per month. The man’s standard of living will increase 55% following the payment, and the woman’s will decline by 44%. The Report noted that since most economically independent spouses are men and most economically dependent spouses women, the wide variations in alimony awards, and their adverse impact on the payee’s standard of living, will hurt women more than it will harm men. Nationally, only 15% of women are awarded alimony and those awards are both low and unenforced (1989-90 Census Bureau; Lenore Weitzman’s “The Divorce Revolution”). A major problem regarding alimony is that a custodial mother who is taxed for the alimony paid as income may receive significantly lower amounts in child support because of the alimony she is receiving.

Myth #8: The Majority Of Protective Orders And Child Abuse Allegations Are Fabricated By Women Seeking An Upper Hand In Divorce Proceedings

This myth experienced a resurgence with the recent, and very effective, violence against women laws that have been emerging all over the country, especially within the Chesapeake region. The Federal Violence Against Women Act has also inspired the ire of fathers’ rights groups. These laws, both federal and state, will increase the effectiveness and ease for women applying for protective orders from abuse. Fathers’ rights groups, with many in their memberships having prior histories of abuse, are not happy about this. These groups insist that feminists have encouraged women to file false charges of domestic and/or child abuse in order to gain leverage in divorce court.

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the Task Force On Family Violence, the vast majority of domestic violence accusations are true, including those made after the separation of the parties. Patricia Horn, author of “Beating Back the Revolution: Domestic Violence’s Economic Toll on Women” shows that among 40%-50% of women in homeless shelters are homeless because of fleeing domestic violence. The ex-parte is filed first, usually for 7 days but it may be extended to 30 days. During this time, the alleged abuser is located and served with court papers so that the order of protection may be brought about in court. Orders of protection may be for as long as 200 days. In fact, the protective order often never occurs due to an inability to serve the alleged abuser. After 30 days (the maximum amount of time for an ex-parte order), the abused party has no court-ordered protection. If the abuser reappears and reinjures her, she may file for another ex-parte order and begin the entire process all over again. Even if covered with bruises, judges have been known to deny protective orders because they do not believe the woman’s injuries are serious. In cases of emotional and psychological abuse, it’s almost a waste of time applying for a protective order because these forms of abuse are taken much less seriously than physical abuse. Also, these orders are difficult to enforce. Many women who have been seriously injured or killed by former partners were under protective order at the time of the attack.

Myth #9: Studies Prove That Both Men And Women Are Equally Abusive Of Each Other

This outrageous claim is based on statements and figures taken out of context from several domestic violence studies, primarily the book, Behind Closed Doors by Straus, Gelles and Steinmetz. Physically abusive relationships were studied, utilizing a set of Conflict Tactic Scales. The Conflict Tactic Scales are just that – scales that measure isolated “hits.” Each stab, bite, and punch are not taken within the context of the episode itself. This research only covered physically abusive relationships, not all forms of domestic violence. The authors also did not know if any of the strikes made by women were in self defense. The most glaring omission was that they did not take into consideration the cycle of violence. When each “hit” is seen in the context of the abusive incident, and more importantly within the entire history of the abusive relationship, it becomes obvious that in the vast majority of cases there is only one true victim of domestic violence-the woman. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 95% of all domestic violence is male against female. Only 5% is female against male.

Several of the national fathers’ and mens’ rights groups that are found in the Chesapeake region are: The Childrens’ Rights Council, The National Congress for Men and Children, Coalition for Parental Equality, Grandparents United for Equal Rights, Fathers United for Equal Rights (F.U.E.R.), Fathers’ Rights and Equality Exchange (F.R.E.E.), Family Resolution Council and Victims of Child Abuse Laws (V.O.C.A.L.). Father’s United for Equal Rights (F.U.E.R.) is by far the largest fathers’ rights group in the region. There are nearly a dozen chapters in Virginia – one of which includes the Women’s Coalition of Virginia that may be comprised of new spouses and girlfriends of the male F.U.E.R. members. Maryland has several chapters, including groups on the Eastern Shore. Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Montgomery counties. D.C., has one chapter.

DOMESTIC VIOLENCE IN MARYLAND-MORE FROM THE GENDER BIAS REPORT

There is a very strong link between domestic violence and the abuse of the court system. This is promoted by both the father’s lobby and abusers who hold similar beliefs but have no direct connection to a particular father’s rights group. Judges and attorneys need to be educated in all aspects of domestic violence. According to the Maryland Gender Bias Report, the most pervasive and difficult problems facing victims of domestic violence are attitudes and lack of understanding of many judges and court employees about the nature of domestic violence. Too often judges and court employees deny the victim’s experiences, accuse the victim of lying, trivialize the cases, blame the victim for being beaten, and badger the victim for not leaving the batterer. All this is due to a lack of understanding of the dynamics of domestic violence, including lack of knowledge of studies of batterers. These studies show that the violence is not caused by the victim; that batterers do not give up control when the victim leaves; and that batterers try to manipulate victims to affect the judicial process. This manipulation of the court process includes batterers and other abusers who misuse the court system in regard to divorce, custody, visitation, and child support as well as domestic violence. These abusers are men who not only physically assault their partners, but also emotionally and psychologically terrorize them and/or their children, often with the assistance of the father’s lobby and the covert (and not so covert) manipulation of the court system. Once the woman leaves the abusive home, she finds that the abuse continues in the halls of the courthouse. The Committee also pointed out that “. . .some judges and court employees overlook the victim’s circumstances: that she is economically dependent on the batterer; that she is socialized to be responsible for his conduct and feels at fault for being beaten; that she has children to care for; that she knows that separating from or divorcing her abuser may not guarantee her safety.”

Another problem typically faced by an abused woman seeking protection is that the court will not order the abuser to provide financial support during the period of time the protective order is active. Without financial support from the abuser, she may be forced to allow the abuser to return home due to poverty. The protective order does little good if the woman lacks the financial resources to continue the more expensive divorce proceedings. Protective orders do not guarantee that the abuser will stay away. The court system in some District Courts does not use the power to sanction the abuser. Women married to their abusers are taken less seriously in court if they seek a divorce. These women face a judicial system that doesn’t believe that what they’ve suffered is a crime. If she is denied a protective order, there is nothing to prevent her husband from beating, stalking, or harassing her.

Victims who are married to their abusers face additional problems if they seek a divorce. She may not be awarded a protective order during the course of the divorce proceedings, which provides no legal protection against future beatings. She would have to go through the judicial system in order to gain custody and financial assistance if she is unable to get an emergency order. In the usual course of divorce hearings including delays and appeals, she may wait many months. In the meantime, she is open to custody and economic threats from her husband, who can use the delay to force his victim to return to him. The judicial system also does not believe that the abuse suffered by a woman married to her abuser is a crime. They are treated differently from assault victims who were attacked by a stranger. They may be denied the right to file charges by court- appointed commissioners who do not understand the dynamics of domestic violence. They may be told by the judge that their problems are not serious or their testimony not credible, and that the whole issue belongs in the divorce court. In 1987-88, over 4,500 petitions for emergency civil protection from domestic violence were filed in Maryland’s district and circuit courts, and many of these cases are not taken seriously. This high level of judicial ignorance can be deadly. The former husband of one of the Committee’s witnesses, Zitta Friedlander, stands accused of her homicide.

Regarding the notion held by fathers’ rights groups and individuals who claim that mothers cry abuse and lie to get their way in court, there is an obvious reason behind it. According to Phyllis Chesler’s book “Mothers On Trial,” and organizations such as Montreal Men Against Sexism (MMAS), the Committee for Mother’s and Children’s Rights (CMCR), Real Men, the National Organization for Men Against Sexism (NOMAS), and domestic violence advocates, a very large number of fathers who custodially challenge the

 
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