Jason Griffith points out an aspect of shared parenting that’s almost invariably overlooked, at least by me (Cincinnati.com, 7/19/18). Mea culpa; I should have been more thoughtful in my commentary. Griffith is the minority outreach director of Kentucky for the National Parents Organization. As readers will recall, back in April, the Kentucky Legislature overwhelmingly passed the first law in the English-speaking world that presumes equal parenting post-divorce. The governor signed the bill into law and it went into effect on July 14. The new law was an NPO initiative.
Readers well know the multiple benefits to children of shared parenting, but Griffith points out that those are especially pertinent to African-American children and their dads.
In particular, African-American fathers in Kentucky will have a new starting point in determining custody. A 2014 study in the Berkeley Journal of African-American Law & Policy concluded that extreme challenges exist in obtaining parental rights due to stereotypes surrounding African-American masculinity. According to the findings, "Though unmarried, noncustodial black fathers are more likely to visit and spend time with their children than unmarried, noncustodial fathers of other races, black men must contend with the stereotype that they are Absent Black Fathers when they enter the courtroom."I can only imagine. If there’s a bias against fathers in family courts, and multiple studies say there is, then black dads likely receive a double whammy. After all, it’s not as if we see much in pop culture or the everyday news about loving, fit, present black fathers. What we see are a lot of are young men largely indifferent to their kids, if they even know about them at all.
Of course the study Griffith cites plus many, many others, belie the image of black fathers purveyed by television, movies and the news. But what’s science compared to exciting portrayals of paternal negligence or even brutality? And the work of Dr. Katherine Edin based on her data and countless other researchers based on the information out of the ongoing Fragile Families and Child Well-being surveys have added hugely to the depth and nuance of our understanding of poor, mostly unmarried parents, many of whom are black. Put simply, the facts strongly rebut pop culture when it comes to black fathers.
And the issues faced by black fathers don’t stop there.
Without this law, unfortunate trends for single African-American fathers could continue. For instance, the Berkeley Journal study concluded, "As a result of the economic obligations noncustodial fathers face, the definition of a good father post-divorce or post-separation has become synonymous with the ability to pay child support."Indeed. Eighteen months ago I did a series of posts about “responsible fatherhood” programs, some of which were being studied at the time. Viewing those programs dispassionately, it’s hard to distinguish the term “responsible fatherhood” from “get a job and pay what you owe.” To say that the focus of those programs was money paid from Dad to Mom is to understate the matter considerably.
Now, I have no quarrel with programs to help unemployed men to get and keep jobs. That’s all to the good for them, their families, their communities and the public weal. But the message of “responsible fatherhood” programs couldn’t be clearer: Dad, you’re a walking wallet and little else. How many of the half dozen programs, for example, offered fathers legal aid with which to understand (and possibly fight) the child support case or, more importantly, assert their parental rights? Not a one.
Parental rights of course are supposed to come with the obligation to pay, but as ever, the state that brings down its full weight against fathers in child support cases, lifts nary a finger to help them assert their parental rights. This is hardly news, but when we name initiatives “responsible fatherhood” programs, might we not expect them to handle both sides of the issue? Fatherhood isn’t writing a check every month, but time and again in our legal system, it certainly looks as if it were. Recall for example that the Office of Child Support Enforcement budgets some $5 billion to enforce child support orders, but a scant $10 million to help fathers enforce visitation orders.
That 500:1 ratio tells us all we need to know about the status of fathers in family courts and the federal government.
So Griffith has hit the nail squarely on the head. Kentucky’s new law will benefit all kids, but will perhaps do most for African-American ones. Their fathers have the hardest time fighting the anti-father bias of family courts and so stand to gain the most from a law that requires 50-50 parenting time as a starting point.
Many experts, including the National Parents Organization, have already hailed this as the best shared parenting law in the country. Dr. Ryan Schroeder, chair of the University of Louisville’s Sociology Department, testified in support of this effort, saying, "The research on shared parenting is remarkably clear. Children who go through a divorce fare much better when they have equal, or as close to equal as they can get, parenting time."That goes for all kids of course, but black fathers and their children may benefit more than others.