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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 22, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

Hard on the heels of the publication of the report by the Nebraska Administrative Office of the Courts on the realities of child custody orders throughout the state, comes this editorial by the Scottsbluff Star Herald (Star Herald, 1/19/14). It’s the hardest-hitting editorial in favor of shared parenting and fathers’ parental rights I’ve ever seen. It quotes last week’s Omaha World Herald op-ed by attorneys Chris Johnson and Amy Sherman that I wrote about here. It minces no words, citing the anti-father bias of the current custody system and calling on judges and lawmakers to join the rest of us in the 21st century. It makes the central point that children need fathers in their lives and courts shouldn’t be in the business of removing them. Here it is in full.

“Inequality” has become a modern political buzzword, usually used in the context of an outrage that demands legislative correction.

Lately the gap in pay between men and women has raised a few hackles. Critics say that although women make up approximately half of all workers in the United States, they earn on average only 77 percent of what the average male makes. Others point out that African Americans and Latinos are imprisoned in the United States in ratios disproportionate to the overall population.

Those discrepancies are often regarded as clear evidence of bias. But an inexplicable and unfair gap in child custody awards draws little attention from the media or outrage from those who demand a strictly level playing field in other cultural arenas.

In Nebraska, district court judges decide custody and parenting time in contested cases. The best interest of the children is supposed to be their primary concern. But the Nebraska Administrative Office of the Courts recently reported that from 2002 to 2012, mothers were awarded sole or primary custody in 72 per cent of child custody cases. Fathers were awarded sole or primary custody only 13.8 percent of the time. Joint custody with shared residence — essentially equal parenting time — was awarded in only 12.3 percent of cases. Non-custodial parents got to see their children only 5.5 days per month.

Writing Friday in the Omaha World-Herald, family law attorneys Chris Johnson and Amy Sherman said “most non-custodial parents have access to their children less than 20 percent of the time, a shockingly low number.”

The difference in custody awards isn’t explainable by factors such as domestic violence, which was verified in only 5.9 percent of custody cases, or extreme levels of conflict between divorcing couples, which the study found in only 12 percent of cases.

“These figures are important because mental health research shows children have significantly poorer outcomes when they have insufficient parenting time with either parent. Children are less likely to finish school, more likely to engage in high-risk activities and more likely to be involved in criminal behavior than if they have two parents actively involved in their lives, regard less of whether their parents are living together,” the lawyers wrote.

Over the years we’ve heard many mothers complain that the fathers of their children fail to pay child support. Indeed, “deadbeat dads” are a serious problem in America. The justice system goes after them in a variety of ways, including wage garnishment and seizure of assets.

But men often complain that their ex-wives ignore custody rulings, failing to make children available for visits or even moving away to prevent contact between them and their children. When they take those complaints to court, they often fall on deaf ears.

Only four of the state’s 12 state judicial districts have adopted parenting time guidelines, all of which are different and none of which are research-based. Cases are “often decided based on presumptions used by individual judges, which vary greatly and are rarely research-based,” the lawyers wrote.

Of the 3,400 Nebraska divorces involving children in 2011, 28 percent resulted in joint custody, and 60 percent resulted in sole custody for mothers. In about 10 percent of cases, fathers were granted sole custody. In Judicial District 12, which includes the Panhandle, the Nebraska Administrative Office of the Courts analysis found that mothers were awarded sole custody 75 percent of the time.

A judge can reduce a man’s future role in his children’s lives to little more than a convenient checkbook. With divorce so tragically common in modern family life, you don’t have to look far to find cases in which loving fathers have been evicted from their homes and cut off from their children. Some dads are deadbeats, but that doesn’t justify the bias in custody cases. Men as well as women are capable of providing stable homes and sound parenting.

A bill up for consideration in the current session, Legislative Bill 22, would require courts to provide joint legal custody and maximum parenting time for both parties, as long as judges determine that it’s in a child’s best interest. In cases where conflict between parents is detrimental to children, a judge could still decide that exclusive custody is justified.

Children need both parents in their lives. In cases where parents can’t remain together, fathers deserve better justice than they’re getting. This is the 21st century. Judicial whim ought to give way to clear, research-based standards that support custody awards based on parental fitness, regardless of gender.

As remarkable as this editorial is, its nationwide reach is as much so. Face it; the nation at large doesn’t usually pay a lot of attention to the opinions of the Scottsbluff, NE Star Herald. But this time it has. The editorial has been picked up in at least 40 newspapers across the nation, many of them in major metropolitan areas with significant readership. The Associated Press picked up the editorial and it’s subsequently appeared in cities like Miami, Atlanta, Kansas City, and many others. Its frank assessment of the problems with family courts and its clear-eyed understanding of how to solve them are getting a broad and much-needed viewing.

The high points about divorce and child custody are there for all to see: that children need both parents, that most fathers are fit parents, that, despite those things, courts routinely give custody to mothers, that maternal custody usually means fathers see their kids less than 20% of the time, that those arrangements reduce fathers to a mere “convenient checkbook,” that those arrangements arise out of bias, that those arrangements don’t contribute to but rather detract from child well-being, that custody orders reflect “judicial whim,” not the science on children’s welfare, that the bill before the legislature (contrary to the false claims of former Nebraska Bar president Marsha Fangmeyer) does not remove discretion from judges to order unequal parenting in cases that require it and finally that custody shouldn’t be based on the sex of the parent.

I’d say that’s hitting the ball out of the park.

Of course, all this comes against a backdrop of total silence by those in the state who oppose fathers’ rights to their children and children’s rights to their dads. When Johnson and Sherman produced their previous op-ed in support of shared parenting and LB22, the anti-dad crowd was quick to respond. But their fallback position – that fathers are too abusive of mothers and children to be trusted with any but the most limited contact with their kids – flew out the window when the Nebraska report landed with a bang. The report makes it all too plain; domestic violence and child abuse play almost no role in custody cases in Nebraska.

The conclusion is obvious: we shouldn’t make rules for all fathers that apply to only a tiny fraction of them. As the Star Herald so cogently says,

Some dads are deadbeats, but that doesn’t justify the bias in custody cases. Men as well as women are capable of providing stable homes and sound parenting.

Have we finally reached the tipping point in Nebraska? Are we finally at the point where the truth about shared parenting, the justice of shared parenting, the need for shared parenting have finally come face to face with the opposition and the opposition backs down?

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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