Saturday, March 12, 2011

Who's to Judge?

I had a friend send me a link to an article that was about two different mothers who gave up custody of their children in order to pursue other interests and dreams...

I'm having mixed feelings about this.

First - the article is found here... And it starts off with the sentence, "Rahna Reiko Rizzuto says that she never wanted to be a mother."  Then follows up with "...when her sons were 5 and 3..."

Hmmmm...first major problem...If you don't want to be a mother...why are you having children...and not just one child, but two???

But...I don't want to digress into nitpicking this woman apart.  The thing that this article made me really think was also a topic of conversation among my friends and I and centered around this question...

Do you judge mothers who don't have custody of their children?

First, you may be wondering why this is pertinent information for a father's right's blog.  Well, consider the family court climate in our country that we KNOW caters to mothers first...and then consider if a mother who doesn't have custody of her children is criticized and much harder does that make it for you dads to receive equal and fair parenting time...or even full custody of your children...simply because your ex is afraid of the stigma of a mother who "gave up her children?"

Now, I know that you fathers get a bad rap for not sticking around, doing more with the kids, attending every activity, etc.  In fact, the article was terrible, as far as I was concerned.  When I read it I wondered where the author, Lylah M. Alphonse, has been for the past 10 years and if she's EVER known anyone who was divorced that was male and non-custodial.

She actually makes this statement about mothers who choose to not have custody of their children, "But it shines a light on a glaring double standard: When a man chooses not to be a full-time parent, it's acceptable—or, at least, accepted. But when a woman decides to do so, it's abandonment."

Ok...let me jump on my soapbox for just a many of you fathers chose to not be a full-time parent? 


Thats what I thought.  How many of you were even given the option?  Yeah..  Strike one against Laylah. 

Second, in who's world is it "acceptable - or, at least, accepted?"  I'm guessing the same world where fathers just let the judge know they aren't interested in being a parent anymore.  Strike two, Laylah. 

Finally...I think I may have actually laughed when she said for a woman its termed "abandonment."  For you dads we just use the terms dead-beat and loser.  You should thank your lucky stars that its not abandonment (*note sarcasm puhleeeze!)  Strike three, Laylah.

You're OUT.

The unfair glossing over of the issue that fathers aren't even considered as a primary custodian isn't mentioned in the article.  Just the fact that these two women who made the choice to give up custody are some kind of "new breed" of women.  It almost made it seem like we're supposed to pat them on the back for their progressive attitudes and thank our lucky stars there are women out there like this.

And yet, if a father were to make that same statement or decision he is tried and hung without the benefits of a jury or trial. 

I suppose the big picture idea is that once a parent you are always a parent.  Regardless of whether you are custodial or not.  Just deciding one day that taking care of these children you brought into the world isn't what you want to do anymore is about the most selfish thing I've ever heard.

And that goes for mothers OR fathers.

I suppose another lesson is to not judge what you may not understand...but its really hard and we're not especially.

So I have to end with one of my favorite of the 16,135 comments that were left on this article...

"I couldn't finish the article, I got bored with her story just like she got bored with her kids."

Monday, March 7, 2011

Applauding Illinois

Steve Watkins was a divorced father who had custody of his daughter, Alex, from his first marriage.  He met and married his second wife, Jennifer, who gave birth to their daughter, Sidney. 

Jennifer and Steve had a weird relationship.  Mostly because Jennifer Skinner's idea of the perfect marriage was Steven and his daughter Alex in their own home and her and Sidney living in her grandparents home (where her mother and father also live) and they (Jennifer, Steven, Alex and Sidney) could "have dinner a few times per week."

Fifteen months after their marriage, Steve and Jennifer separated and Sidney became the center of a bitter divorce and custody battle.

November 25, 2008 Steve Watkins arrived at the home of Shirley and Kenneth Skinner (Jennifer's grandparents) to pick up his daughter Sidney for his visitation.  He arrived at 5:30PM and 20 minutes later was dead.  Shot twice in the back of the head.

Shirley Skinner has been charged and convicted in the murder of Steve Watkins and is serving a 70-year sentence.  Jennifer Watkins retained custody of Sidney.  Dale and Penny Watkins (Steve's parents) have custody of his oldest daughter Alex and have been awarded visitation priveleges of Sidney.

Well, that was until Jennifer skipped town and disappeared.

On March 1, 2011 an arrest warrant was issued to jail Jennifer Watkins indefinitely until she complies with the visitation awarded to Steve's parents, Dale and Penny Watkins.

On March 2, 2011 the Illinois House Committe passed the Steve Watkins Memorial Bill.

To read a comprehensive story on this case go here.

I suppose the Steve Watkins story is truly the worst case scenario in a custody battle situation.  If you take the time to read the whole story you will be amazed at the truly heinous actions of Jennifer Watkins.  You will shake your head with disgust that this woman has been allowed to retain custody of her daughter.  You will wonder how many thousands of dollars of therapy might help little Sidney when she is old enough to understand the actions her mother and her mother's family took to keep her away from her father.  And you will wonder if the right woman is in jail for the murder of Steve Watkins.

But, there is a bright star in this sad story.  In Illinois if a parent choses to not abide by the court ordered visitation schedule there are two ways to try and enforce the court order.

1.  Criminal Court.  The victim (the person not receiving the visitation) reports the violation to the States Attorney and they prosecute.  The first two violations result in a fine and the third violation makes it a Class A misdemeanor which heresay shows police departments refuse to enforce because they consider it a petty crime.

2.  Civil Court.  The victim files a contempt case against the abuser of the visitation priveleges.  Remedies for visitation abuse are outlined in 750 ILCS 5/607.1 and currently include a modification of the visitation order, supervised visitation, make up visitation, counseling, or other appropriate relief as deemed equitable.

Whats the reality?  Well, I don't think Illinois is more advanced than any other state and I think I can pretty safely say that most of the time it results in N.O.T.H.I.N.G.  Maybe a lecture on being nice from the judge...maybe a slap on the hand...maybe threatened jail time.  But nothing that would deter someone from refusing visitation a second time.

And in a well-stated sentence from Illinois Fathers the end result is, "...This trend of dismissal sends a powerful message that visitation, the primary vehicle for non‐custodial parental involvement with their child, is
insignificant and trivial."

The death of Steve Watkins has resulted in a step forward for non-custodial parents.  Who, for the purposes of this blog are most often fathers.  Now, in addition to modifications, supervised and makeup visitation or counseling, the judges in Illinois can jail a parent, revoke their drivers license, revoke their professional license(s) and increase fines against them.

Its already got many people lamenting its passage.  The inspector general with the Secretary of State doesn't want to have to enforce revoking driver's licenses.  Members of the State bar agree.  And then there are the oppositions that focus on battered women who are just trying to protect their children.

I agree that abusers should have limited or supervised contact with children and I hate to be a cynic, but Jennifer Watkins tried crying abuse to remove Steve Watkins from Sidney's life too.  False allegations are all too common.

I'm applauding Illinois' step forward to enforcing visitation and parenting priveleges.  And when I look at the face of Steve Watkins and his two beautiful daughters... I can't help but feel they did the right thing.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Thumbs up Research

I am constantly keeping my eye out for good solid research on the benefits of shared parenting and recently I found a gem of a paper written by Dr. Linda Nielsen.

Who is Dr. Linda Nielsen, you ask?  Well, she's the Professor of Education and Adolescent Psychology at Wake Forest University and just happens to be one of my new favorite people.

Dr. Nielsen has her very own website, which may not be fancy, but is easily navigated to buy her book, Between Fathers and Daughters, find helpful father friendly links and a great list of articles that she's written such as Demeaning, Demoralizing and Disenfranchising Divorced Dads or one that I'll definitely be digging into soon, Stepmothers:  Why so much stress?

But, the meat and potatoes of this blogpost is to focus on a recent research paper about Shared Parenting. 

Shared Parenting: A Review of the Supportive Research is written, well, like a research paper.  But if you can get past the classroom typeset there is a virtual goldmine of great information.  For example, she talks about the present system of mother's having primary custody which relegates fathers to seeing their children a minimal amount of time.  She makes the statement that by not allotting more time to fathers there is an unstated accusation they they are not committed to their children.

I think its pretty safe to say that is a fairly common assumption made about fathers both by the judes and the legal system and by general consensus after the court days are done and the custody papers are filed.

I found this particular idea about why fathers tend to continue to disengage from their children's lives very interesting, "First, because most fathers are awarded so little parenting time and because the children live almost exclusively with their mother, fathers are seldom able to maintain an authoritative, engaged, intense relationship with their children. Moreover, 35 percent of these fathers have no legal say in how their children are raised.

Being legally disenfranchised and physically marginalized, the father often feels demoted to a “Disneyland Dad”, an adult “playmate” or an “uncle” who can do little or no real fathering.

Then too, the mother’s behavior and attitudes often make the father feel unwelcomed and excluded (DeCuzzi & Lamb, 2004; Trinder, 2008). Indeed, too many mothers move the children such a distance away from the father that his contact is drastically reduced or ends altogether. Feeling discouraged and disheartened, unwanted and unnecessary, many dads realize from the outset that they have little or no chance to be the fathers they once were."

But gets even more interesting when she correlates this disengagement with the father-child relationship and makes quite a bold statement about the worth of a father...

"Even children and young adults who are successful in other areas of their lives often suffer from the loss of their relationship with their father. 

The question thus becomes: Even if the research were to show that shared parenting contributes absolutely nothing to children’s financial, social, educational or psychological well being at any point in their lives (which is not the case), what if shared parenting does contribute to children’s having an ongoing, meaningful relationship with their fathers for the rest of their lives?

Is their relationship in and of itself not worth as much as the other measures of “success” for children of divorce?"**

**Note that the bold is my own addition because I LOVE that question and I want to make sure you now have it rolling around in your mind.

W.O.W.  What a different point of view than our legal system has set as the precedence of determining custody.  Why is a good relationship with your father not more important to the judge and jury determining custody of a child?  Why has that relationship lost its value when thinking about the "best interest of the children?"

(Are you loving Dr. Nielsen as much as I am yet?)

How did our fathers become an afterthought?  Fortunately, Dr. Nielsen shows research that more and more people are agreeing that fathers have an important role to play in a child's life.  Unfortunately, for the purposes of this paper her conclusions are based on a shared parenting strategy where no parent has less than 30% of a child's time.  Thats still a far cry from the 50% I advocate for in this blog, but its a start. 

She continues through her paper to focus on the conflict between parents and concludes with this thought, "In shared parenting there are trade-offs to grapple with: the benefits of living with both parents versus the inconvenience of living in two homes, the challenges of coparenting versus the “winner take all” single parenting.

There are also die-hard beliefs that need to be set to rest: the belief that children will not benefit from living with both parents after divorce, the belief that fathers are generally inferior to mothers as parents, the belief that children only benefit from living with both parents when there is no conflict between them.

Despite these tradeoffs and challenges, the research is abundantly clear on this: only allowing fathers and children to live together 15 or 20 percent of the time is not in most children’s best interests. This view is widely held by experts who do research, mediation or therapy with divorced parents as evidenced by the research presented in abundance throughout this paper. Our society and our legal system can – and must – do better than this."

Hear Hear, Dr. Nielsen!  I applaud your ability to demonstrate the value of a father in today's society.  I only wish we didn't have to convince the courts of their worth.