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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.  

November 6th, 2011 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
The need to keep fathers in children’s lives post-divorce is being pressed by countless people in countless situations every single day.  Here’s an example from Oklahoma (NewsOK, 10/19/11).

Testifying before the Human Services Committee of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, several fathers made points about the failure of the family court system to keep fathers in the lives of their children.  They also made it clear that social service agencies that could be part of the solution to father-child separation, ignore the problem.

James Murrell easily could have been a deadbeat dad, but instead the Tulsa man told a legislative panel Tuesday of the struggles he has made to stay in touch with his daughter after his ex-wife took her with her when she moved to another state.

Murrell, 46, who grew up in Oklahoma City, said he was blindsided when his wife of two years filed for divorce about a year after their daughter’s birth. His parents have been married for more than 50 years, and he didn’t know anything about divorce court or child support arrangements. After his divorce, he was ordered to pay child support and half the cost of sending their child to a Tulsa day care, a fee he still pays, he said, even though his daughter now lives in Texas with his ex-wife.

In short, Murrell could have been a dad just like the news media and the anti-dad crowd seem to want him to be – uncaring about his child.  But he overcame his lack of income because he wanted to support her and remain part of her life.  His ex-wife rewarded his efforts by moving out of state so he can’t see her at all.  The courts obviously haven’t done anything to rectify the situation.  After all, the order to pay the daycare center she no longer attends is still in effect, so I suspect he hasn’t been able to get much action on her refusing to allow him custody.

That’s where he stands – paying to support a child his ex refuses to allow him to see.  My guess is that he doesn’t have the money to re-hire a lawyer, go to court and try to get the judge to do something about his ex’s move-away.

As we all know, if Murrell let up on the money flow for an instant, the State of Texas and the State of Oklahoma would come down on him with both feet.  Would his ex have to pay an attorney to get that to happen?  Not on your life.  But when a father seeks that most modest of things – face time with his child – American state courts begin to look like they were designed by Franz Kafka.

Calvin Williams, director of fatherhood services for Public Strategies, an Oklahoma City firm that provides technical assistance to clients in several human services sectors, said effective fathers need good relationship and financial skills.

Children growing up fatherless is a growing trend in Oklahoma and in the nation, he told members of the House of Representatives Human Services Committee during an interim study.

“It increases when you have the economic downturns like we do because when a father has the inability to provide for his child, his absence is the guilt and shame,” Williams said. “Mom becomes an impediment at that point — you can’t provide; you’re not going to see your kid.”

Lawyers always tell their clients that child support and visitation aren’t mutually exclusive.  That is, just because Mom doesn’t allow you to see your kid, you can’t stop paying support.  And vice versa.

That’s an accurate description of family law, but of course the real world is a bit different.  There, if Dad can’t pay, Mom can cut off access in a heartbeat and, as Williams said, many do.  After all, mothers know the ropes well enough, and if Dad’s lost his job and can’t pay support, that obviously means he can’t hire a lawyer to enforce his visitation rights.  So Mom knows she’s in the clear if she wants to keep Junior away from his dad.

Truth to tell, many men, particularly young ones, could benefit from some help regarding how to be a good father.  The epidemic of fatherlessness is more than a generation old and that means there are men who’ve become fathers who never had a father in their lives.  So how can they know what good fathering looks like?

“Men aren’t equipped, men aren’t taught, men aren’t shepherded,” Williams said. “It’s just an event that occurs in a variety of ways. Families are formed in a variety of ways and men find themselves as fathers.”

Many men don’t have the community support to learn to be good fathers, he said.

He said it would be helpful if the state had a fatherhood network to help men prepare for the emotional and financial stress of being a father as well as honing relationship skills with their child and also the child’s mother.

It would indeed be helpful, but I’ve got news for Mr. Williams.  Cash-strapped states aren’t about to establish such a network.  They don’t even do the basics – like enforce visitation orders.  Why would they take on a whole new level of expense, just to help prepare men to be good fathers.  Why spend the money when the courts are just as likely to shove them out of their child’s life later on?

Williams did have one good suggestion.  (Hey, it must be good.  I’ve made it before myself!)

Laws should be changed so fathers are allowed to have a salary equal to at least the poverty level before child support payments are determined, he said.

What a concept.  Williams is actually proposing that fathers shouldn’t have to bankrupt themselves just to support their kids.  They shouldn’t be forced onto the street so that Mom won’t suffer a decline in her standard of living.

The whole idea of child support assumes that fathers should have to gut every asset they have before a court will modify a child support order that was likely too high to begin with.  To put it mildly, that just doesn’t make sense.  After all, if the parents were still married and the guy lost his job, their standard of living would decline.  Everyone would do without so the family could get through its rough financial patch.

But let the parents divorce and the mere loss of a job is supposed to have no effect on Mom and Junior.  Where do people get these ideas?

The fight for common sense and fairness in family courts continues – all across America.

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