Migrant and American children both struggle against U.S. family court systems
- According to U.S. data fathers account for less than 20% of custody awards
- Despite efforts of legislators to hold circuit judges accountable judges continue to rule with immunity and favor from higher courts
- Despite studies showing that a shared custody arrangement is best for the child only New Hampshire uses shared arrangements as the standard
Recently, video of Timothy Burch, a father from Illinois, went viral among father’s rights groups and individual viewers racking up more than 12 million views in just a few days time. The video, seen below, was posted on June 20, 2018 by the Facebook page “Chaney”. It shows a heartbroken father holding his equally distressed son, sitting on the pavement outside of a court house where a judge had ruled that, although he had been the boy’s only parent for 7 years, custody was to be returned to the mother. The child, aged 7, had been raised by his father and his father’s family prior to this ruling. The mother, according to Timothy, has been in prison since his son was 4 months old and was only recently released.
While most attorneys in the family law setting will attest to family courts operating under a “Best Interests Standard” where gender bias does not exist, the implied equality of those standards stands in sharp contrast to the most recent data from the U.S. consensus bureau that was collected in 2015 . The data from the chart below indicates a number sampling of custodial mothers at 10,918, while custodial fathers are represented by only 2,655. Scanning further across the chart that dates back to 1993, those figures have not changed much showing custodial fathers never achieving a figure of 3,000 within the sampling group. The anecdotal evidence from the fathers that have been through the family court system shows that, while the wording may have been changed within the court systems to reflect an equal balance between the genders, the attitudes and biases of family court judges has not.
Furthermore, some states have taken added measures to ensure that custody remains where judges have placed it. Take Minnesota for instance where, under state statute 518.18, a parent may not petition the court for a modification of custody until 1 year AFTER the original custody settlement. Furthermore, if a modification has been filed, whether granted or denied, the filing parent must then wait 2 years before filing any additional modifications. Modifications of custody are tools that allow the filing parent to petition the court for a change in custody when they feel it is in their child’s best interests. Essentially, Minnesota’s statute denies non-custodial parents, a majority of those being fathers, from exercising their rights to parent their child effectively and keep them from perceived harm or trauma. Not only do such statutes work against the best interest of the child in some cases, they make it harder for a modification of custody to be achieved. Family court judges perceive change to a child’s day to day activities to be out of line with a best interest standard, and application of such standards is subject entirely to the judge ruling on the case. While a parent may appeal to the higher civil court of appeals, it is often a costly endeavor and unsuccessful. On appeal, a circuit court judge enjoys the presumption of correctness in their decision when the case is heard by a Civil Court of Appeals, based on the Ore Tenus Rule, where the circuit court judge has seen and heard witnesses directly and, presumably, has accurately determined the truthfulness and credibility of them and has therefore made the proper decision in their ruling.
Whereas an August 2017 study from Stockholm University’s Demographics Unit shows that a shared custody arrangement is in a child’s best interest, only New Hampshire operates under the principle that joint custody arrangements should be the standard for custody rulings. Likewise in 2017, Alabama legislators attempted, and failed, to pass a bill which would require judges to explain their decisions where an award of joint custody was not awarded. The bill, which would have held circuit court judges accountable for their decisions, is a legislative denial of judicial review and gives family court judges near total immunity from oversight and justice. Michigan, in comparison, has introduced House Bill 4691 that would make a joint custody award required of judges, barring abusive parents. MI state rep. Jim Runestad of White Lake weighed in on the bill. ““We looked at county by county statistics on what happens in custody situations and what we found out is that the custody arrangements are not determined by the kind of parent that you are, but the judge in the county,” he said. “We have study after study of the benefits of shared parenting. It’s a tremendous benefit for the children“. The proposal in Michigan was met with harsh critics, saying that such a requirement ties the judge’s hands in the matter. Supporters of the efforts in Michigan, however, claim that having two active parents is the right of the child, and would help to lower the ability of an alienating parent to cut contact with the targeted parent, helping to lower the number of absent parents in children’s lives.
Unfortunately, for children and fathers nationwide, reform within family court does not appear to be happening soon enough. While statistics show that children are far better off when their father is actively involved in their lives, many fathers find themselves in minimal roles, at best. At worst, the mother can stop all contact between the father and the child, often without seeing judicial repercussions for doing so. The United Kingdom and Canada have recognized cutting all contact with the other parent as a form of child abuse, subject to reversal of custody and even jail time. Meanwhile, U.S. critics of the term “parental alienation” refer to it as “junk science”.
Currently, Timothy is trying to raise funds for, what will likely be, a lengthy and emotionally exhausting custody battle. Statistically, the odds are stacked against him. He’s just one more father in America, trying to protect his child. His son, like many others before him, will have to try to cope as his life turns upside down. Many who have seen the video have asked “how is this best for the child?”. Its a question many fathers over the decades have asked, and still are asking the same today. While our government and media advocate for children at the border, it appears that very few are advocating for our children at home.