“Buitenhof Den Haag,” by FaceMePLS
I spent a lot of time this holiday weekend catching up on documentaries on Netflix and Amazon Prime. One of them was a film called Divorce Corp. I had seen it in the queue before but never gotten around to watching it. Frankly, the fact that it was narrated by Drew Pinsky gave me pause. I don’t like “Dr. Drew.” He’s made too many condescending and misogynistic remarks for me to trust his point of view. On the other hand, there aren’t that many documentaries about divorce out there. I was curious.
The film begins auspiciously enough. I actually agree with its opening premise, that “no fault” divorce law has not reduced the cost of litigating contested divorces.
About midway through, however, Divorce Corp takes an inexplicable turn. After mentioning a man who’d been forced back to Scandinavia to live with his parents following an expensive divorce, the focus of the film changes abruptly from judicial misconduct and attorney greed to child support and shared custody time:
- Scandinavian women asked why they should ask a man to pay child support when, after all, the parenting time was equally shared.
- Various interviewees acknowledged that it wouldn’t “hurt children” to have a lower quality of life after divorce.
- Viewers were asked to sympathize with the plight of men arrested for failing to pay child support without knowing the circumstances.
- The film showed a graph of two towering stacks of cash, indicating that women’s income was just a few dollars short of men’s without providing any statistical information whatsoever.
It was bizarre. I felt like I’d stumbled down the rabbit hole. And in a way, I had. The whole film, which represented itself as a gender-neutral examination of the divorce industry, seemed designed to promote one of the underlying promises of the Father’s Rights Movement — to do away with child support by mandating equally shared custody time.
Doing away with child support is not, of course, an openly stated goal of the movement. Father’s Rights is ostensibly about something quite admirable, the desire that dads be considered equal to moms as parents. The premise is that fathers have been maligned since the advent of no fault divorce because courts are biased toward the mother.
This premise can’t be supported by the facts, however. The fact is that courts are awarding more equally shared custody time, not less, and that sole custody for mothers is declining.
Moreover, the reality Divorce Corp doesn’t want its viewers to know is that contested divorce is not the norm. I scoured a number of state websites in order to figure out how many divorces go to trial, and the figure ranges from 5-10 percent. In most non-contested cases, fathers willingly grant more custody time to the mother; sometimes this result is achieved after mediation.
The most shocking statistic I uncovered, though, comes from Cathy Meyer, writing for the Huffington Post: 27 percent of men are not involved in their children’s lives post-divorce at all. Meyer also points out that fathers spend considerably less time — roughly half the time — with their kids, even in intact families.
Mothers spend more time raising children. When they decide out of court, parents’ choices generally reflect this status quo. That is the reality of the situation.
Unlikely Legislative Agenda
There will always be some cases where individual men — and women — are unfairly treated by family court. But when the Father’s Rights Movement reacts by exerting pressure on individual state courts to mandate equally shared parenting time and remove judicial discretion, you have to wonder what’s up with that.
For one thing, let’s consider what it means to go to trial in a contested divorce case. It means that you and your ex hate one another’s guts. There’s a strong possibility that one or both of you regard your children as collateral possessions rather than as human beings with needs and feelings. There is almost certainly an ongoing pattern of verbal and psychological abuse.
To make a contentious situation permanent is not in any child’s interest. A child does not need to be shuffled back and forth from house to house, their lives and loyalties divided. Most state family courts that have commissioned studies find that shared parenting time only works when ex spouses can co-parent amicably. That is the main reason mandated laws are failing to gain much traction.
In short, the very cases the Father’s Rights Movement wants to mandate equally shared custody time for are the ones where children are most likely to be hurt.
I repeat: What’s up with that?
The Bottom Line?
Let’s hope it’s not to create a new reality where men can push for custody hearings, knowing that the outcome will be equally shared custody time and less (or no) child support.
Reading the websites, one has to wonder:
- Right on the main page of Fathers and Sons for Equal Custody Rights, beneath the flapping hundred dollar bill, is a link called “How to Minimize Child Support.”
- One of the biggest problems with shared custody, according to Dads America, is “[Dad] must still PAY CHILD SUPPORT (original emphasis).”
- “Even more tragic is that there are no laws in the Texas Family Code requiring that the person receiving child support actually spend the money supporting the child,” complains Fathers for Equal Rights, a national organization with headquarters in Dallas.
- The “Fathers Rights Survival Guide,” offered by Father’s Rights Inc, contains information about how to get to know the support enforcers and avoid penalties and jail time for non-compliance.
I don’t want to make any blanket statements here. My guess is that most men agree that child support is designed to make the child’s time with both parents roughly equitable, even if not every child support dollar goes to purchasing food and clothing for the kiddos. My belief is that most fathers, including my own ex-husband, see how economic equity benefits their kids and, in the long run, themselves.
But after reading a lot of Father’s Rights websites and literature, I have to conclude that, whatever else is going on, there is an underlying, palpable hostility toward women that is scary. My main concern is that support for the group’s positive objectives — making a society in which dads are more involved in their children’s lives — obscures these darker legislative and personal agendas.
Divorce is an unfortunate reality, and I agree with Divorce Corp‘s director Joseph Sorge that it should not become a multi-billion dollar industry on the backs of American families. Surely, though, there has to be a way for men and women to work together to minimize the hardships and mental strain of the process rather than increasing hostility between the genders, with our kids caught in the middle and, ultimately, paying the price.
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Cover image is a detail from “Portrait of an Old Man with His Grandson,” by Domenico Ghirlandiao