Clara Harris, a Texas woman who was convicted of murdering her husband in March, was just granted joint custody of her twin five year-old boys. The ruling validates what fathers' and children's advocates have been saying for years--when it comes to children, many courts believe that mothers can do no wrong.
While Clara Harris' murder conviction was not enough to deprive her of equal rights to her children, hundreds of thousands of fathers have been thrown out of their homes and driven out of their children's lives by unfounded accusations of domestic violence. According to Washington family law attorney Lisa Scott, most courts grant restraining orders to practically any woman who applies, and domestic violence accusations are very effective at depriving fathers of custody and visitation rights after divorce. She says:
"Most restraining orders do not even involve an allegation of physical violence. For most judges, the woman saying she ‘feels afraid' of her husband is enough. Men have no way to defend themselves against these accusations. How do you argue against a feeling?"
While both the judge and the attorney appointed by the court to represent Harris' two sons saw value in preserving the bond between the children and a mother who is a convicted murderer, many courts are unable to see the value of the bonds between children and decent, law-abiding fathers. Studies show that visitation interference and move-aways are a major problem for divorced fathers, yet courts are indifferent at best to enforcing fathers' visitation rights, and generally permit divorced mothers to move children hundreds or thousands of miles away from their fathers. This is despite the fact that the rates of school dropouts, teenage pregnancy, juvenile crime, and teen drug abuse are more tightly correlated with fatherlessness than with any other major socioeconomic factor, including income and race.
While in the Harris case a mother was able to win joint custody from a prison cell, decent fathers who have never had any brush with the law beyond a traffic ticket often cannot. Studies show that in contested cases mothers are granted sole custody over fathers by a margin of eight to one. According to research conducted by Sanford Braver, author of Divorced Dads: Shattering the Myths, divorced mothers are five times as likely to be satisfied with their post-divorce child custody arrangements as divorced fathers are. In Braver's study, three-quarters of divorced men and one in four divorced women believed that the system is slanted in favor of mothers, while only one in 10 women and none of the men surveyed thought it favors fathers.
The "woman good/man bad" mentality of our family courts often hurts children by blindly favoring mothers and placing barriers between fathers and the children who love them and need them. The Harris ruling--where even a mother who is a convicted murderer is still not seen as being an unfit parent--demonstrates just how deep-seated and destructive this mentality is.
This column first appeared in the Houston Chronicle (9/19/03).