August 4, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
This is one of the best articles I’ve read in a long time (Des Moines Register, 7/30/16). Sadly, it’s about one of the most tragic cases.
On July 22nd, police in Iowa broke into the home of Stephenie Erickson and found her unconscious and her two-year-old son Mason Wycoff dead. She’d murdered the boy and attempted suicide. She subsequently died with the cause of death still unknown.
Two-year-old Mason Wyckoff hadn’t seen his father, Dillon, in eight days — the longest time they had ever been apart.
Since breaking up with Mason’s mother, Stephenie Erickson, Dillon had taken every possible step to inform the authorities of the risk that she posed to the toddler. He had been in touch with the Iowa Department of Human Services twice in the past 10 months, talked to state and local police repeatedly, and even had Erickson committed over mental health concerns in September 2015 — months before they broke up.
Even after DHS investigated Erickson, she retained custody of Mason.
Dillon says Erickson had repeatedly threatened the boy and started keeping him away from his father in the days prior to the morning of July 22, when police found the child dead and his mother unconscious in her Grimes home.
Is that event, tragic and heart-rending as it is, anything but a single anomalous event? After all, in a nation of over 300 million people, terrible things sometimes happen. Or is there more to it?
The article’s writer, Joel Kurtinitis, knows there’s more, much more.
Why couldn’t this father protect his child against such an imminent threat?
In short, because he was the father…
[Dillon Wycoff’s] custody battle started where most unmarried child care battles start: with the mother awarded full custody, and the father left in the cold.
“The law states since I was not married at [the] time of birth she had primary custody, and I had absolutely nothing until paternal rights were identified at a cost of $1,500 minimum,” Dillon told me. “We were attempting 50/50 custody, but she was not obliging and pretty much had me meet a list of demands to see my child.”
That’s an important issue. Why is it that unmarried fathers have no automatic parental rights while unmarried mothers have the full panoply? After all, it takes very little to identify the father. Mothers are asked to name the father of their newborn at the hospital and, if there’s any doubt about his identity, DNA testing is quick, easy and accurate. So why not do the simple, fair thing? Why not accurately identify every father of every child from the first days of its life? We have the ability, why not use it?
And here’s another question: how in the world does it cost “$1500 minimum” to conduct DNA testing and report the results to a court of competent jurisdiction? The testing costs nothing like that, so I assume that Wycoff was including the cost of hiring an attorney to enter the evidence in court in support of the proper motion, filed in the proper way, etc.
Let’s be frank. The law in his case did little but obstruct Wycoff’s exercise of his parental rights and his son’s ability to establish ties to his dad. There is no sensible reason why an unmarried father should have to hire a lawyer, file a motion and pay for a hearing just to establish what genetic testing already proved. The cost alone ensures that many, many fathers will be unable to take those steps. The result? They have no parental rights and Mom retains sole custody and decision-making authority over their child.
As it turned out, that proved fatal to little Mason Wycoff. The legal system favored Mason’s mother, so he remained with her despite his father’s many efforts to get the attention of child welfare authorities and the police. Every one of those people failed Mason Wycoff. Now he’s dead.
Kurtinitis wants to know why.
When I was a single guy just dipping my toes into political activism and writing, talking to these folks was always a bit uncomfortable. I wasn’t sure why they were coming to me rather than a lawyer or judge, and I tried to be as gentle as possible in my suggestion that they do the latter.
After a little research, though, I began to understand why they were forced to make their case to young campaign volunteers.
Iowa’s legislative and judicial systems weren’t listening.
My research turned up allegations of child kidnapping, parental alienation, criminal neglect and judicial favoritism from parental rights activists long frustrated by a lack of legislative interest in solving Iowa’s family law problems.
But one specific flaw seemed to emerge more prominently: sexism…
Bryan Iehl, founder and president of advocacy group IowaFathers, insists that Iowa's law maintains a bias against fathers. A 2011 study on the group’s website claims mothers are awarded sole custody in 73 percent of judicially-decreed arrangements, while fathers gain sole custody in only 8 percent of cases.
But, like other states, Iowa isn’t interested in letting people know the data on child custody.
In an age where every demographic imbalance is hailed as evidence of racism, sexism or one of a host of other biases, it’s remarkable that such a massive disparity has garnered so little attention.
The numbers seem to match national Census Bureau data, but Iowa-specific studies are hard to find.
Iehl has a theory as to why that might be.
“Iowa doesn’t want the data released,” he said. “The Iowa Bar Association is very non-supportive of legislative change.”
Yes, Iowa is yet another in a long list of states whose citizens want family court reform but lawyers’ trade associations don’t. And all too often, state legislators heed, not their constituents, but powerful groups of self-interested attorneys. And when legislatures do the right thing, often governors are willing to be the cat’s paw for the lawyers. That’s what happened earlier this year in Florida where close to two-thirds of legislators in both houses voted for alimony and parenting time reform only to have Governor Rick Scott veto the will of the people.
Shared parenting bills have passed the Iowa House, only to die in the Senate. My guess is that not one of the senators voting “no” believes that he/she has blood on their hands as a result. But they do. More just, fair and equitable laws on child custody may well have saved Mason Wycoff’s life. In any case, they’d serve the best interests of just about all of Iowa’s kids of divorced parents.
Thanks to Joel Kurtinitis for a fine article that conveys the important facts about child custody to Iowa readers. Who knows? Maybe even state legislatures might learn something from it.
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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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