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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.  

March 25, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

As the whole world, and a few nearby planets, know, Madonna and her ex Guy Ritchie are embroiled in a custody battle over their son Rocco, who’s now 15. The Material Girl, 57, wants him to live with her in the U.S. while Rocco and Ritchie want him to live in London with his dad and where he’s currently in school.

As a temporary matter, a British judge has honored Rocco’s wishes and ordered him to stay with Ritchie. But of course the saga drags on. And, as everything related to Madonna, nothing escapes the speculations of that huge segment of the press devoted to celebrities great and small. So, since the judge’s order, we’ve been treated to a steady flow of articles examining Madonna’s every wrinkled nose or arched eyebrow.

She’s been on tour in Australia and supposedly had numerous “meltdowns” on stage occasioned – also supposedly – by the trauma of “losing” her son. For her part, Madonna says it’s all part of her act, although it’s hard to see how showing up over three hours late for her performance in Brisbane figures into the script.

Since the moneyed and beautiful seem to forever be divorcing loudly and painfully, we’re never without at least a couple of tawdry stories marring media headlines and Madonna’s custody squabble is no exception. There’s rarely anything to be learned from these affairs except how much money can be spent on the most trivial of issues, but to his credit, the always excellent Matt Connor has done so (Telegraph, 3/16/16). Connor of course is the founder of Britain’s Fathers 4 Justice and knows a thing or two whereof he speaks.

The case is courting attention because of the high profile nature of those involved. But on a more fundamental level, it's noteworthy because we aren't accustomed to seeing things this way around. Normally, it is the father fighting for access to his child, not vice versa.

Right. In that, it’s much like the recent case involving Kelly Rutherford, her ex Daniel Giersch and their two kids. From that we mostly learned how adept the news media could be at avoiding any knowledge of the facts of the case. Those facts, painstakingly and publicly detailed by a Los Angeles County judge, made it all too clear why Giersch was granted primary custody. From the beginning, Rutherford had done all she could to deprive the children of their father and alienate them from him, but none of that made it into articles about the custody battle. The media had their narrative – a pretty blond mother unjustly deprived of her children – and they stuck to it.

But what the Rutherford case offered – and many people accepted – was a chance to witness a custody fight that featured the father as the “winner.” I suspect the Madonna/Ritchie case will end up much the same. Unlike the Giersch/Rutherford children, Rocco is old enough to decide with whom he wishes to live and have those wishes respected by the presiding judge.

It’s always good for public perceptions to see a father getting custody. The more that happens, the more people can get used to the idea and the more anti-father bias will erode.

But, as Connor points out, there are no winners in family court, despite the fact that the law demands there be one.

Fathers4Justice have long argued that courts are for criminals, not families. Our adversarial family justice system is predicated on conflict: to prove who the best parent is, you must prove who is the worst.

Exactly. And that fight – to prove who is the best and who the worst parent – exacerbates conflict in a situation that’s rife with it anyway. Family courts adopt the same justification for the adversary process that all courts do. They claim it’s the best way to separate the truth from falsehood, but there’s no evidence that’s the case when parents do battle. Indeed, false allegations are common as dirt in custody cases. Of course that’s largely due to the refusal of judges to punish those who swear falsely in their courts. As long as the stakes are high and there’s no downside to lying, false claims are inevitable.

But, far more important even than perjury is that family courts are required to determine who is the better parent and reward him/her with custody. Put simply, the goal of the entire exercise is the wrong one. The law points judges in the wrong direction. It requires them to pick one parent with whom the child is to live almost all the time and shunt the other off on a siding.

That we are continually told that said exercise is done “in the best interests of the child” is absurd. Removing one fit, loving parent from a child’s life is not in that child’s interest. The social science on children’s welfare post-divorce is pretty well settled on that issue. Perverse as the claim to be acting in the child’s interest is, it’s a subset of the more basic problem – that judges are required to pick one parent and kick the other to the curb.

Family judges shouldn’t be choosing one parent over the other for the perfectly sound reason that children don’t need one parent more than the other or love one more than the other. Children form attachments to their parents very early in life and the social science on the matter demonstrates that there’s no hierarchy between the two. Both mother and father are equally necessary to the child’s well-being. So judges should be ordering equal parenting in the vast majority of cases.

As a society, we often forget that a father’s love is just as precious and just as important as a mother's. And we also overlook the sheer tragedy that any family, be they famous or not, have to battle to resolve their problems in a secretive, abusive and failing family justice system that is not fit for purpose.

It’s that obligation on the part of judges to pick a winner and a loser that’s at the heart of the dysfunction of family law. More than anything else, it’s what makes the system “not fit for purpose.” It’s not fit for purpose because its purpose is the wrong one. The consequences are dire.

It is legalised cage fighting for parents in which there are no winners, only losers. And the people who lose the most? The children, who nearly always become detached from the half of their family on their father's side…

The primary problem is that there is no presumption of shared parenting in British family law – and nowhere is it written that fathers must see their children, despite the countless studies that prove the value of a dad in a child's upbringing. Courts presiding over divorce cases habitually decide that children abide with their mothers, leaving the father to feed off the scraps of frequently meagre 'contact hours'. 

Even then, the man is left swimming upstream. The same courts that happily send mothers to jail for not sending their children to school are oddly resistant to the idea of prosecuting someone for not adhering to contact orders. Put simply, the custodian (normally the woman) can effectively cut her other half out completely.

Since 2001, Fathers4Justice has been campaigning to end the cancer of family breakdown and fatherlessness and the devastating impact this has on children, families and society as a whole. It's a situation that costs the country £49 billion every year, according to the Centre for Social Justice, and has left 3.8 million children living in fatherless homes - that is 1 in 3 children living without a dad (Office for National Statistics).

That 1 in 3 figure holds for the United States as well. Family courts separate children from their fathers, give the fathers very limited time with them (usually 14% - 20% of parenting time) and then fail to enforce even that. If Mom wants to reduce Dad still further in his children’s lives, she can easily do so either by simply refusing to obey the court’s order or by filing specious claims of abuse. In those situations, only the most persistent and best-heeled of dads can hope to maintain meaningful relationships with their kids.

The only way we can end the pain and heartbreak of fathers and families is to ensure children retain the love and support of their dads through shared parenting in the event their parents separate. Shared parenting is responsible parenting: it will lead to better outcomes for our children, our families and our country.

Again, Connor’s exactly right. And good on him and Fathers 4 Justice for fighting the good fight.

#sharedparenting, #childwell-being, #Fathers4Justice

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