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December 26, 2013 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

Nationwide polls in Canada have consistently revealed widespread popular support for a presumption of equal parenting post-divorce. Support ranges from 68% to 75%. Studies by social scientists show similar support, most importantly among children. Fabricius showed that children, both in sole and shared custody strongly support equal custody by both parents. But of course the Canadian government knows better than do the people who pay their salaries. Bills before Parliament that would establish a presumption of shared parenting invariably fail to make it to an up or down vote by the full membership.

It turns out Britons are possibly even more enthusiastic about equal parental rights than are the Canadians. Here’s the study that goes back 18 months, but is an important indicator of the British zeitgeist on parenting. The market research firm YouGov did the poll of about 1,800 adults that found overwhelming support for equal parenting by mothers and fathers following divorce or separation.

YouGov asked the survey respondents this: “Thinking about parents who get divorced and have to go to court to decide who should get custody of the children, in general, who do you think should have more rights — the mother, the father or do you think their rights should be equal.

Just 9% said mothers should have superior rights, while 84% said rights should be equal. Two percent said fathers should have greater rights and the rest gave no opinion.

That’s backed up by data from the same survey regarding the importance of fathers to children. Eighty-five percent agreed with the statement, “Fathers are instrumental in bringing up children.” One percent of respondents strongly disagreed.

A full 95% of those responding agreed that “Both parents should share responsibility for bringing up children.” Again, 1% strongly disagreed.

The role of fathers as solely breadwinners received increased scrutiny from what it likely would have in the, say, 1950s or 60s. A bare majority (52%) agreed with the statement “A father’s main role should be to provide for the family by working and earning money.” Forty-two percent disagreed. Only 17% strongly supported that statement, while 11% strongly disagreed. In short, roughly equal numbers of Britons agree and disagree that fathers’ main role should be earning.

And 86% of respondents agreed that “The role of fathers has changed drastically in the past 50 years.”

The YouGov survey is far from perfect. There are countless questions that could have provided much more depth and nuance to the responses given, but it likely provides a fair snapshot of the public’s attitudes toward fathers and their roles in parenting and the family generally.

What the poll indicates is that there is a vast difference between public attitudes and beliefs about fathers and those of family court judges, the various experts who advise them and members of Parliament who pass laws regarding divorce and child custody. Where the public wants fathers to be strongly involved in childcare, the courts all but invariably deny to fathers the chance to do that after a divorce. Where the public wants fathers and mothers to have equal rights in custody cases, courts opt for sole or primary maternal care following divorce or separation about 90% of the time. And where the public sees the role of father as having “drastically” changed over the past 50 years, courts have made little-to-no adjustment in their parenting orders to reflect the change.

What’s true in the U.K. is also true in Canada. It’s likely also true in the United States although I’m aware of no polling that reflects Americans’ take on equal parenting.

Put simply, family court judges are stuck in the 1950s. They order custody as if fathers weren’t doing almost as much childcare as are mothers, as large datasets from the member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development show they are. They marginalize fathers from the day-to-day parenting of their children as if we didn’t know from some 50 years of social science the damage done to children by the process of losing their fathers in a divorce.

Come to think of it, British judges may in fact be entirely ignorant of that social science. As I’ve reported before, when a fathers’ rights organization asked the British Judicial College what scientific evidence they had to support the typical child custody orders of family judges, the response was a quick and indignant one - the Judicial College has no such science and wouldn’t use it to train judges if it did. Amazing but true.

So in that way at least, we may be able to understand why the public is so at odds with family courts; people know the value of fathers to children while judges have remained doggedly ignorant of the fact.

Or maybe they know and just don’t care. Consider the case of Scott Ritchie, the Michigan dad who’d been his son’s stay-at-home father for the first seven years of the boy’s life. He’s a fine and thoroughly fit father and his son was a healthy and happy little fellow, but when Scott’s wife decided to divorce him, she got primary custody. Why? Because the judge found Scott to be too focused (has a judge ever said such a thing to a mother?) on his role as a father and, since he hadn’t been employed in the past seven years, his wife could earn more income than he could.

Imagine if those criteria were applied in every child custody case! We’d likely have the exact mirror image of the child custody statistics we have now. The vast majority of children would be in the care of their fathers with mothers on the outside looking in.

In Scott’s case, the judge admitted in so many words that, in future, he’d have to stop automatically giving custody to mothers. It was an interesting admission on his part, revealing as it did his frank and invariable bias against fathers. But it was more than that. The statement also revealed the strength of that bias. After all, faced with a fine stay-at-home father and his own realization of his anti-father bias, the judge still opted for maternal custody of Scott’s son. As my friend Kathy remarked when I told her the story, “He’ll be careful not to automatically award custody to mothers, just not in this case.”

It doesn’t get much more blatant than that.

Judges and office holders need to progress to the level of understanding about children’s need for both parents that We the People have had for years. You don’t need to read the social science when you have the basic understanding that children shouldn’t have to suffer the loss of one parent just because Mom and Dad no longer live together. Of course a little formal knowledge of the subject could certainly help, but surely we don’t want to unduly tax the faculties of the judges and elected representatives in whom we entrust one of the most important decisions anyone ever makes — the parenting of children post-divorce.

National Parents Organization is a Shared Parenting Organization

National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Along with Shared Parenting we advocate for fair Child Support and Alimony Legislation. Want to get involved?  Here’s how:

Together, we can drive home the family, child development, social and national benefits of shared parenting, and fair child support and alimony. Thank you for your activism.

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