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January 21, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

Hard on the heels of Judge Susan Strong’s ruling that orders Court Administrator Corey Steel to turn over documents used in training Nebraska family court judges regarding child custody and parenting time comes this op-ed (Lincoln Journal Star, 1/15/16). It’s by Shawna Thompson, who clearly knows her stuff.

On its face, Thompson’s article is simply another in a long line of opinion pieces urging judges to order equal parenting or legislators to reform state laws on child custody to ensure that children don’t lose a parent following divorce. Thompson’s right on her facts and on the issues and her arguments are compelling.

Of course, kids do better with two parents actively involved in their lives. But,

many people still fail to understand the importance of fathers. According to research by Joan Berlin Kelly, 50% of mothers “see no value in the father’s continued contact with his children after a divorce.”

In light of this alarming statistic, it is perhaps not surprising that a study published by the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry found that “40 percent of mothers report that they had interfered with the noncustodial father’s visitation on at least one occasion, to punish their ex-spouse.”

A recent report by the Federal Administration for Children and Families describes a harmful phenomenon called “maternal gatekeeping,” in which mothers interfere with fathers’ access to their children. According to this report, “more than half of nonresident fathers offered accounts of gatekeeping behavior, ranging from refusing to grant physical access to making frequent last-minute schedule changes.

Gatekeeping also came in more indirect forms, such as refusal to communicate in person or by phone, withholding information from the father about the child, or berating the father.”

Motives for maternal gatekeeping vary. In some cases, mothers use children as a weapon and deny fathers access to their children as a way to punish them. In other cases, mothers use children for financial gain. According to the ACF report, “mothers would sometimes restrict access when a father failed to provide ‘extras’ over and above the required child support.”

It’s remarkable to me that Thompson cites the ACF report. It’s a fairly obscure work about which no one has commented in the mainstream press to my knowledge. I wrote three pieces on it and Thompson’s is the only other piece I know of. Good for her. She’s doing her homework.

Having laid the groundwork on the need of children for full relationships with their fathers, Thompson goes on and demands that Nebraska family judges do a better job of keeping dads in kids’ lives. And it’s here that I find the connection between Thompson’s piece and Judge Strong’s ruling.

As Thompson points out, following the Nebraska study conducted in 2013 of family court orders in child custody cases, we now know that those judges are performing poorly at their Job One — ensuring that the best interests of children are met.

According to a 2013 Nebraska Supreme Court study that reviewed ten years of Nebraska custody data, mothers were awarded sole or primary custody in 72% of cases. The study also found judges grant noncustodial parents about 17% of the parenting time on average, which is only half the minimum time recommended by mental health research. According to the research, judges should grant at least 35% parenting time to each parent except in limited cases.

Do Nebraska’s judges know the social science on parenting time and children’s well-being? If they do, then many of them need to find new employment because they’re failing to issue orders that keep both parents actively involved in children’s lives. But what I strongly suspect is that they don’t know the science, that they’re ruling as best they can, given what they’ve been taught.

At this point, however, Nebraskans don’t know what their family judges are taught about the value of fathers to children, but that looks like it will soon change. My guess is that they’ve been taught some very dubious notions backed by very dubious science, or none at all. We’ll soon find out.

Second, Nebraska judges need to enforce parenting time orders more rigorously. Mothers who violate parenting time orders often are not punished until the third or fourth violation. Not only is this harmful to the children involved, it is also very different from how judges enforce child support orders…

Third, judges should be far more sensitive to situations in which one parent interferes with the child’s relationship with the other parent. These situations, sometimes called “parental alienation” or “parent-child relationship problem,” require immediate intervention. Unfortunately, many judges fail to act or unintentionally enable the bad behavior, which often causes lasting harm to the children and targeted parent.

Finally, judges should have a greater awareness of false domestic violence allegations, which is a common tactic in maternal gatekeeping situations. A 2005 study in Family Court Review found 59% of domestic violence allegations made in contested custody cases were not supported by evidence. Similarly, an analysis of domestic violence restraining orders concluded 81% were unnecessary or based on false allegations. This is consistent with other evidence that “between 50% and 80% of abuse allegations cannot be substantiated in child custody cases where a high conflict exists between the parents and there is a young child involved.”

Again, judges who know the science behind equal parenting will be far less likely to engage in the behavior Thompson describes. They’ll be more likely to punish parents who interfere with children’s access to the other parent, try to poison the child against the other parent, make false allegations of domestic violence or child abuse, etc.

Judges aren’t likely to issue or enforce orders that promote the best interests of children if they don’t know what children need. If they think that kids don’t need their fathers, why would they concern themselves with keeping fathers in children’s lives?

Thompson’s right on every point. But more importantly, we’ll soon know what Nebraska’s judges have been taught about that most important of all issues — parenting time and children’s well-being. I suspect the information we’ll soon be receiving will be a revelation to Nebraskans. I think Judge Strong’s order is one of the most important developments to come along in years.

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