Last winter I found myself in an old warehouse–turned-winery in Columbus, Ohio, making conversation with an angry stranger over mulled wine.
“You’ll think I’m crazy,” he told me. When I egged him on, he turned out to be the first mad Dad I’d met, a man who felt he got burned by the child custody and child support system here in America. He told me about a campaign to shame dads who are behind on support by putting their pictures on pizza boxes. He told me that because of job loss and the recession 70 percent of men in Ohio were in arrears.
He went on to lament how he is missing out on his daughter’s life but what stuck in my head was that number – 70 percent of men in Ohio in arrears on child support payments? Could that true?
I cross-checked it with the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services. As of March this year, nearly three-quarters (73.88 percent to be precise) of Ohio child support cases were more than one month in arrears. Nationally, the US Child Support Enforcement Program reported that in 2010 there were 11.3 million cases in arrears, owing a cumulative $110 billion in child support.
And then I began to wonder – having lived abroad for 16 years – is this kind of systemic breakdown happening in other countries?
The international context: parallels between the US and the UK
So I set up a net: Google alerts for stories related to – “Fathers, Child Support” and “Fathers, Child Custody.” My inbox filled up fast.
I learned about the situation in the former Soviet republic of Georgia where one woman – kicked out by her family for an out-of-wedlock child – fought for child support and turned the country’s laws upside down.
I read that one of Ghana’s leading advocates for children (and former child slave himself) James Kofi Annan said that “over 70% of all children found on the streets of Ghana are as a result of irresponsibility on the part of fathers, and over 90% of all trafficked victims are due to same.”
In the space of a few weeks I had reports from India, Israel, France, Germany, and Saudi Arabia.
But the stories that daily flowed from the U.S. were different. The focus shifted from women struggling for their rights, to fathers feeling victimized by child support and custody laws. And, as I read further, it turned out American fathers are not alone. Fathers in Great Britain, too, are also raising their voices in protest.
I’d worked as a journalist in the UK, and the parallels between the countries piqued my curiosity. Full disclosure: my father died when I was eight. I know first-hand the importance of a Dad in a child’s development. I decided to talk with dad activists on both sides on the Atlantic.
Debtors’ prison for “deadbeat dads” in the U.S.
There is no shortage of extreme child support stories here in the US: a father who set himself on fire outside of a New Hampshire courthouse; a police officer on the hook after donating sperm to a friend. Many of these stories have to do with money.
“One of the things that is happening in some states is the amounts are so high they are basically winning the lottery for the custodial parent,” he told me. “Then the bitterness lingers because every two weeks, or every month, one of the parties is writing a check they know is excessive, unnecessary, and not what the child needs.”
While super-sized child support payouts make headlines, the census reports that of $35.1bn in child support due in 2009, payments averaged $3,630 per custodial parent – $302/month.
One thing is for sure, however. The parents who don’t have custody – 80 percent of whom are fathers – are struggling to make the payments. And what happens to “deadbeat dads” if they don’t pay? They go to jail. Where they can’t earn money to pay their child support.
Ned Holstein: “It’s an iron fist system…”
But states are beginning to soften their approach. Just last month Maryland stopped past-due charges for child support accruing to men who are serving time. And Georgia has put in place Parental Accountability Courts that work with bound-for-jail dads, helping them back on track.
In the UK the fight is about getting access
In Britain, it’s not so much about money and child support, as it is about custody and access. According to the Office for National Statistics, fathers are absent from the lives of one third of children in the UK.
Britain’s Children Act 1989 says the welfare of a child is best served by maintaining a relationship with both parents, but the legislation includes no statutory right to contact. Instead, the parent who doesn’t live with the kids – usually the father – has to prove it is in the children’s best interest to see him or her.
Sean, an ex-soldier from the north of England, could not be identified under British law because his court case is still open. He said his partner promised 50-50 child custody. “But as soon as our daughter was born, my partner completely changed, and tried to limit my role, and then stopped all contact. After four years of legal battles my access is now weekend access.”
Sean feels that the British court system did not treat him as an equal to his partner, in part because he has no legal right to see his child. According to him, the system is “massively sexist.” A court staff member “described men as rapists and pedophiles to me in an interview. She explained that her two children were without a father and so that proves they weren’t needed.”
It wasn’t always this way. “Until the 20th century, women had almost no custody rights,” said Pat Thane, research professor in contemporary history at King’s College, London. Even after World War II, if a woman was accused of adultery in a divorce case, she was automatically assumed to be unfit to look after her own children. It wasn’t until 1973 that mothers gained equal guardianship rights with fathers.
But the pendulum has swung the other way over the past three decades, in part, Thane says, due to the growing awareness of domestic violence.
Change in the UK
When it comes to dramatic protests, Britain is ground zero for the fathers’ rights movement. It was in 1974 that Families Need Fathers was formed to address “the problems of maintaining a child’s relationship with both parents during and after family breakdown.” But it wasn’t until the very media savvy Matt O’Connor formed Fathers 4 Justice in 2000, putting Dads into high-profile stunts like scaling public buildings in superhero costumes and throwing a condom full of purple powder at the Prime Minister, that people began to take notice. The movement hasn’t been without controversy: there were allegations of a plot to “kidnap” Tony Blair’s son; the group split and then reformed.
Ray Barry – who once trained to be a priest and now helps divorced couples work out custody and child care arrangements both informally and in court- joined Real Fathers for Justice in frustration over his being cut out of his children’s lives. His particular stunt was to climb the steeple of a church in his home town of Wolverhampton.
Ray Barry, an early activist in the UK movement, talks about their stunts
And now politicians, it seems, are responding to the outcry from fathers although they insist in interviews that they are simply being fair to both parties. In January the British government announced moves to amend the Children Act 1989 so that fathers and mothers are both entitled to a legally binding “presumption of shared parenting” after separation.
In the US, the mad dads also lobby legislatures. Like some fathers’ groups in the UK, they may ask for an automatic 50/50 custody split. One such bill went before the New Hampshire House of Representatives earlier this year.
“This kind of 50/50 has been tried before and failed,” argued Marie Sapienza, (R-Hampstead) who helped quash the bill. “In California they tried it…and they changed to a system that’s more like what New Hampshire has now: the best interest standard.”
Australia made shared custody apply to all divorced parents, but there have been problems with the system. In 2011, it was amended so that the safety of the child was given priority in any settlement.
Rep. Marie Sapienza believes in a pre-nup.
Sapienza, a divorce lawyer, has now been thinking about the subject, and putting her mind to a possible solution: a statutory pre-nup filed with the court, outlining property and parenting deals if you divorce. Of course, it’s going to take a certain kind of loving-but-cynical couple to contemplate this before their wedding day. But there’s also an argument to be made that the clarity that comes from contemplating the worst is a good way to start a marriage. What do you think?