Denying fathers their rights
Barbara Kay, National Post · Jun. 15, 2011 | Last Updated: Jun. 15, 2011 3:03 AM ET
Shania Twain recently published a memoir detailing her anguish at her ex-husband's affair with her best friend. In the end, Shania found happiness with the friend's betrayed husband, by her account a straight-arrow guy, a terrific father to his own daughter and a much-admired step-father to her sons.
She writes, "What attracted me to Fred was his selflessness. He was going through the same agony as I was -maybe even worse, because as a father, he would have to battle his soon-to-be ex for the right to see his own daughter. At least that was something I never had to face."
Why is it that Shania accepts with such fatalism that the custody of her daughter will never be at issue, whereas this selfless man will have to "battle" for access to his child? Because that is the way things still are in family courts in the West, and even celebrities with the clout to arouse public outrage have absorbed the received wisdom that if one parent resists shared parenting for any reason whatsoever -it is usually the mother, and the reasons can be trivial or non-existent -the mother is awarded sole custody. (In reality, nobody is awarded anything through such judgments; on the contrary, one parent and his children have been taken away from each other).
In 1995, 49,000 American men were primary caregivers to their children. In 2010 154,000 men were. Pampers is now using fathers in their diaper ads. Almost 10 years ago, in a sample of 32,000 parents, Health Canada found that working fathers and mothers spend virtually equal time on child care.
So gender convergence is the rule for non-divorced parents, and equal parenting is now the rule for divorces that don't go to trial. Why is it not the presumptive norm for those that do go to trial, after which mothers get sole custody nine out of 10 times?
It is clear to any disinterested observer who immerses himself in the subject that almost the only opponents to equal parenting are misandric ideologues and those financially invested in the family court system itself, which would see a drastic reduction in revenue from the professional gold mine all-or-nothing custody battles represent.
Reliable surveys tell us that over 70% of Canadians want a presumption of shared or equal parenting in law (in the absence of abuse). But many judges are still in thrall to stubborn myths: that men demand custody rights to punish their ex-wives or to avoid child support; that they easily disengage from their children; or that awarding men equal rights represents a "patriarchal backlash" (even though few men ask for sole custody, only shared) and children do just as well with one parent as two. Wrong on all counts.
Edward Kruk, associate professor of social work at the University of British Columbia, has been studying the changing role of fathers and the problems of father absence for 30 years. His latest book, Divorced Fathers: Children's Needs and Parental Responsibilities, illuminates the tragic toll on fathers first removed from their children's lives by a biased legal system, and then unsupported by a social services network that is almost wholly indifferent to fathers' rights and feelings.
Displaced fathers are overwrought at the loss of contact with their children. They are far more likely to become depressed or unemployed. Worse, suicide rates amongst fathers struggling to maintain a parenting relationship with their children are "epidemic." Divorced fathers are more than twice as likely to kill themselves as married fathers. But since men tend to suffer in silence, the depth of their despair goes unnoticed.
Kruk calls the crisis of father absence -for both fathers and the children they are torn from -"one of the most significant and powerful trends of this generation." Children now form primary attachments to both parents. Losing their father's active participation in their lives is enormously consequential. Trustworthy research demonstrates that children deprived of a meaningful father role are at far greater risk of physical, emotional and psychological damage than those actively parented by their fathers. Children fare better with equal parenting even where there is conflict between the parents; it is only child-directed conflict that hurts children.
Kruk's findings reveal that ironically, precisely because they have taken on equal responsibility for parenting before divorce, men who lose their parenting role now suffer far more grievously than they used to 20 years ago when he wrote his first book, Divorce and Disengagement. He argues for a paradigm shift, away from a rights-based discourse to a framework of "responsibility to needs," in which both children's needs and parental and institutional responsibilities to them would be enumerated.
Kruk rather poignantly asks: "Why are parents with no civil or criminal wrongdoing forced to surrender their responsibility to raise their children?" and "Is the removal of a parent from the life of a child, via legal sole custody, itself a form of parental alienation?" Good questions, especially since equal parenting has been part of the Conservative policybook since the party's rebirth. What's the delay? Over to you, Mr. Harper.