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NPO publishes blog articles to inform and to stimulate conversation about issues of importance to NPO's mission.  All blog articles express the opinions of the authors as individuals and do not necessarily reflect the views of National Parents Organization, its Board of Directors, or its executives.  

January 23rd, 2012 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
The new article Seattle Weekly article Ripped Apart: Divorced dads, domestic violence, and the systemic bias against men in King County family court (1/18/12) details the way allegations of domestic violence are routinely used to separate fathers from children in King County (Seattle) family courts. In fact, there seems to be a cabal of judges, commissioners, custody evaluators and mental health professionals that target fathers in custody cases.

I recently suggested that Fathers and Families should give an award to a series of articles written by Jennifer Hemmingsen in The Gazette, an Iowa newspaper.  Her series about Iowa’s child welfare system was excellent, but it may have to move over and make room for Nina Shapiro’s piece on Seattle’s frankly anti-father family courts.  Shapiro gets it right.  Hers is a must-read for anyone who wants an education about how family courts function in this country.

Put simply, a mother can use a claim of domestic abuse to thwart a father’s access to his children.  It doesn’t need to be founded on anything much, and certainly not actual violence.  Mere allegations of a push a shove, shouting or disagreements on how money is to be spent are routinely called “domestic violence” and used to remove men from their homes and their children’s lives.

And Shapiro brings that all to life in her descriptions of three fathers her pseudonyms for whom are Jim, Richard and Daniel.  The full insanity of how allegations of domestic violence are used to abuse fathers and their children is on display in Shapiro’s article.

Let me remind readers that a recent study done of results in Oregon custody cases found that, despite the clear intention of the legislature to reduce the number of sole custody rulings, the law it passed actually made no difference.  Why?  Allegations of domestic violence, the vast majority of which were leveled at men by women, trumped the intention of the statute.

The same is clearly true in Washington State.  Washington is the only state that meticulously tracks all custody decisions by its family judges and commissioners.  The data show about as clear a bias in favor of mothers as can be imagined.  Here’s the original piece I did on the Washington State data.

As but a few examples, in about 65% of cases, mothers get greater parenting time than do fathers.  By contrast, fathers get more in only about 17% of cases.

More telling are cases involving “risk factors.”  Those are parental behaviors like abuse or neglect of children, drug or alcohol abuse, mental health problems and the like.  So, when the parent had one or more risk factor, fathers were far more likely than mothers to be denied all access to their children.  For example, 75% of fathers who had abused or neglected their children were denied all access to them, while only 50% of mothers were.

Adding insult to injury, when the father had no risk factor and the mother had one, he got full custody in only 26% of cases.  When the sexes were reversed, she got custody 44% of the time.

So Washington’s own data show its family courts’ radical anti-father bias.  Nina Shapiro shows just how that happens on a day-by-day, case-by-case basis.

First, she interviews only female lawyers, at least one of whom describes herself as a feminist.  And those lawyers are clear that, despite the shift in parenting practices by both fathers and mothers, family courts doggedly favor mothers.

But parenting roles have changed. And the “judicial system,” says veteran family-law attorney Deborah Bianco, “is way behind the culture.” Bianco is one of a number of mainstream family-law attorneys—representing both women and men, and often female themselves—who now say they too see a bias against men.

Rhea Rolfe, an attorney who once taught a “women and the law” class at the University of Washington, recalls sitting with a male client in a commissioner’s courtroom one day. There were maybe seven or eight cases heard. “She ruled against every single man,” Rolfe recalls, “and two of them were unopposed.”

“In any other arena, the evidence gets you the ruling,” observes attorney Maya Trujillo Ringe. “But in this particular arena, the dad has a much bigger uphill battle.” So much so, she says, that she and other attorneys often joke that “if you put a skirt on the dad, same facts,” he’d win primary custody. “You can overcome the bias,” Ringe adds, “but it takes a lot of work and a lot of resources.”

Attorney Jennifer Forquer agrees, noting that “fathers will routinely be sent to parenting classes” by commissioners. “It doesn’t matter if they took paternity leave, if they changed diapers. If a mother makes an allegation that a father’s parenting is deficient, he ends up going.” If a dad wants to make such an allegation about a mom, she says, “you have to be careful how you present that.” Commissioners are not inclined to believe it, she says.

The first remark is one I’ve made myself countless times.  Plenty of people have noticed that fathers are much more involved in childcare than ever before.  They’ve also noticed the social science that overwhelmingly favors keeping fathers and children together where possible.  And finally they’ve noticed that fairness, justice and gender equality demand equal treatment of fathers and mothers in custody cases.  The only ones to take note of none of that are family court judges who, year after year, do the same thing – primary custody to Mom, every other weekend to Dad.

Articles like Shapiro’s will help to put an end to that.

I’ll post more on her piece later.

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