by Booth Vance
Comedian Robin Williams once said, “Ah, yes, divorce … from the Latin word meaning to rip out a man’s genitals through his wallet.” While extreme, it is an unfortunate perspective shared by many men when faced with the emotional and financial strains of dissolving a marriage.
With an estimated 50% of all marriages ending in divorce and a pervasive attitude that the courts don’t always render decisions that are gender neutral, men are often relegated to feeling powerless in the face of the legal system.
While the financial ramifications of divorce are certainly of great concern to men, it is often child custody issues that cause the greatest stress. With the U.S. Census Bureau reporting that five of every six custodial parents are mothers, many fathers find themselves not only dealing with the emotional and financial stresses of divorce but also with the uphill battle of fighting to attain sole or joint custody of his children.
The National Center for Health Statistics reports that “Children who grow up without a father present, even when adjustments are made for income, are 75% more likely to need professional assistance for emotional problems, twice as likely to repeat a grade of school, and more likely to suffer a wide variety of other disorders including anxiety, peer conflict, and hyperactivity.”
Other statistics are just as alarming. According to the Center for Disease Control, 90% of all homeless and runaway children are from fatherless homes and the National Principals Association Report on the State of High Schools states that 71% of all high school dropouts come from homes where there is no father present. Perhaps most shocking is the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reporting that 63% of youth suicides are from children who have no paternal influence in their lives.
In his many years of experience as an established family law practitioner, David Pisarra, Esq. has seen the harsh inequities men face in divorce and child custody cases as well as the often detrimental effects on the children. These experiences led him to create the Men’s Legal Center in Santa Monica, CA to better address the special needs of men in the area of family law.
“It isn’t right that men not only have to fight against the potentially devastating financial ramifications that come with divorce but also against social prejudice in regards to their children,.” says Pisarra who advocates shared custody and responsibility. “Fatherhood is the single most important relationship a man can have and this idea that women are automatically considered better caretakers just doesn’t hold weight in today’s society.”
While it is usually in the best interest children of divorced parents to have both parents involved in their lives, a surprising number of mothers don’t feel the same way. In the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, Sanford Braver, Ph.D. notes that 40% of mothers reported that they had interfered with the father’s visitation to punish their ex-spouse and Judith Kelly wrote in her landmark book “Surviving the Breakup” that more than half of all mothers see no value in the fathers continued contact with his children.
“There is a huge difference in being a Father,’ who is viewed as a checkbook and a Dad’ who provides love and support,” says Pisarra. “I counsel men daily that want nothing more than to be actively involved in their children’s lives yet are restricted due to resentful wives or misguided legal decisions.”
So what are some of the considerations men need to be aware of when entering into a custody battle? Pisarra says that proving an active involvement in a child’s life goes a long way in establishing a man’s credibility as a parent. “We encourage highlighting the standard considerations such as job security and credit rating but also elements that prove strong parenting skills. Notes from teachers and school counselors, proof of participation in their child’s activities and community involvement show the court the type of parent a man has been and will continue to be.”
Another growing concern is that of paternity fraud where the mother of a child claims that a male is the biological father of her child without advising him or the courts that someone else could also be the father. Currently, there is no federal law requiring full disclosure of all pertinent facts to the alleged father and men are being coerced to pay child support for another man’s child. Those that don’t comply are faced with punitive damages and even jail time.
In the year 2000, The American Association of Blood Banks reported that 30% percent of paternity tests concluded that the man being tested was not the biological father. While some states have changed their laws regarding paternity fraud and release men who are not the dads from court orders others, like Pisarra’s home state of California, adhere to a policy fraught with conditions.
“The current California law states that unwed men named in default judgments have only six months to contest paternity while men who have signed declarations under the mistaken belief that they were the fathers have only two years to contest the ensuing judgment,” says Pisarra. Obviously, a man who is unaware of any impropriety on the woman’s part can go blindly along thinking he is the biological father and incur complete financial responsibility whether the child is his or not.
“I would think that any honorable person would find the manipulation undertaken by some women to receive financial support in this manner absolutely appalling,” says Pisarra who has worked with countless “Duped “Dad’s.” He adds, “Women are not just impacting the man’s life by demanding eighteen years of child support and obligation for what they know to be a lie but are also greatly effecting their children who may not ever be aware of who their real father is.”
Some advice Pisarra offers to men who may have doubt about their supposed fatherhood is to request a legal paternity test, don’t sign the birth certificate or affidavit of paternity until learning of the test results and to make sure to read all documents carefully before signing. Also, if served with paternity papers, respond to all court orders immediately so as to avoid a default judgment.
There is no question that men face a difficult and challenging time in regards to custody issues and need to be ready to fight for the right to be a parent as well as be prepared to protect themselves against paternity fraud. Unfortunately, what often times gets lost in the fight over money is what is best for the child. Therein lies the real tragedy.