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Divorced Dads


By Catherine Edwards
Thanks to our friends at Insight Magazine for this article.
The story of dads and divorce is being ignored even as ongoing studies confirm that fathers in nuclear families are vital to the welfare of children. John Barrymore III, the son of actor John Barrymore Jr. and half-brother of actress Drew Barrymore grew up in a home without his dad. John III parents divorced before he entered first grade. His dad left for Italy and came back to discover that he had been given visitation rights only at the mother discretion. John was at the door to manhood before his dad came back into his life. He tells Insight he was living in an apartment above his mother garage when his father started toshow up at his window.

''He probably figured since I was almost 18 he could just disregard having to ask my mother permission to see me,'' Barrymore says. ''That was 30 years ago, and we been the best of friends for those 30 years. I still speak to him almost every day by telephone and see him every time I go to Los Angeles.'' If you have any doubt what these two have meant to each other from the beginning, go back and take a look at Insight cover. That the Barrymores in 1958 before the divorce.

John story may be more high profile than most, but it is not atypical. Although the number of single fathers raising kids increased in the last decade by 62 percent, according to the latest Census data, that number still does not compare to the number of single moms raising their children. While more fathers are starting to assert their rights in courts during custody battles over children, physical custody still is more often awarded to mothers than fathers, despite the important role dads need to play in the lives of their children. Stories of deadbeat dads readily are available, but the story of divorced fathers trying to be good dads is one not often told. And new studies reveal that custody battles and divorce have more long-term negative effects on men and children than they do on women.

Today, 50 percent of all white children and 75 percent of all black children likely will live some portion of their childhood with only their mothers. In 1950, about half of all black women lived with their spouses. Forty years later the percentage had dropped to one-third. A 15-year study published in 1995 concerning families and divorce found that 70 percent of children who experienced divorce had worse outcomes on a number of social measurements than if their parents had stayed married.

The importance of fathers has been well documented. Fatherless children are twice as likely to drop out of school as their classmates who grew up in a two-parent home, 72 percent of all teen-age murderers grew up without fathers, and fatherless children are 11 times more likely than children from intact families to exhibit violent behavior.

Although more Dads are getting access to their kids after a divorce, a majority are not. ''When you are dealing with equally fit parents, four out of five times the mother will be awarded physical custody of the children with the father sometimes sharing the legal custody,'' says John Bauserman Jr., a family lawyer in Northern Virginia. Bauserman has noticed that dads often lose custody battles and end up just writing checks for child support without so much as access. He blames the courts and the legal system which he sees as ill-equipped to adjudicate family life.

''The problems of alleged court bias can be partially blamed on myths about divorced men,'' says Diane O, a New York journalist who collaborated on Divorced Dads: Shattering the Myths with Arizona State University professor Sanford Braver. He conducted a 15-year longitudinal study of divorced couples and their behaviors. O says they found the allegations that most men refuse to pay child support wildly exaggerated. While many men do default on child support, the majority pay on time and when a father is awarded joint legal custody despite protests of the mother the payment record almost is perfect, she says. Other myths dispelled by Braver and O include the canard that men are the instigators of divorce and that divorced mothers emotionally are paralyzed and divorced fathers carefree.

University of Iowa law professor Margaret Brinig and Stephen Nock, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, found that in two-thirds of divorce cases women file to terminate the marriage. And in another report to be published by Cambridge University Press this year as part of a book by Robert Rowthorn and Antony Dnes, Divorce and Marriage: An Economic Perspective, Brinig and Nock found that men tend to suffer from postdivorce depression much more than their former wives. They also have a much higher suicide rate in such circumstances.

''Fathers have to try harder, learn more and be a lot better at the court system than mothers do on the whole,'' says Darryl Hand, a California child-custody expert. His organization, Win Child Custody, helps parents navigate the court system and prepare for custody battles. ''And no one in their right mind would be involved in a custody battle which can be so costly unless they thought it was best for the children.''

That is what a dad from Columbia, Md., thought. Craig Deanto is an electronics engineer with two children. After almost 15 years of marriage he filed for divorce and custody of his children on grounds of the mother adultery, child abduction and child neglect. ''I just had to get my kids to a safe place,'' he tells Insight over the phone from Florida.

Deanto wife confessed to all three allegations during a deposition. Court testimony revealed that he had been a good father and had engaged in no misbehavior. A court-ordered psychologist diagnosed his wife as depressed and having difficulty connecting with her children. Both children indicated that their father was a better parent and the one they would like to take care of them. Therefore Deanto was shocked, he says, when a female judge in Maryland not only awarded custody to his wife but ordered his wages garnished and his car and house given to her.

With the evidence at hand, Deanto was quizzed at length by the judge about his acceptance of paternal responsibility, but the only questions she asked his wife were, ''How often did he fix dinner for you,'' and ''Over the course of the marriage how often did he do your laundry?''

Jeffrey Leving, a family-law attorney in Chicago, says ''The problem we have in the courts is that there is gender bias. The courts should not be pro-mom or pro-dad; they should be pro-child.'' Leving says more and more fathers are being cut out of the lives of their children as a result of blocked visitations to the children by the custodial mother. ''If a father defaults on child support he can be incarcerated, but if a mother defaults on his visitation rights a father has to take her to court at great expense that could have been spent on the child,'' says Leving.

Jed Abraham, author of From Courtship to Courtroom: What Divorce Law is Doing to Marriage, says that because of these statistics the odds are not in favor of men who want to stay married in America. ''I think divorce rates and child-custody battles make it a gamble for men to get married and become dads,'' he tells Insight. ''If they get divorced, 80 percent will lose custody of their children and will incur great financial burden because of legal fees.''

Abraham insists he is in favor of marriage, but warns gravely of the statistical reality of divorce and custody battles. He, too, believes that the so-called family courts are ill-equipped to deal with social and cultural problems and only have contributed to the breakdown of American families.

''If divorce law makes men realize the odds of their marriage succeeding are low, they will be less likely to commit in the first place, which is a common complaint of women today,'' Abraham says.
''The bureaucracy is chewing up people lives,'' another father who asked to remain anonymous tells Insight. The court awarded custody of his son to the child mother despite the boy desire to live with his dad, who paid child support well before he was ordered to do so by the court. It wasn until his son was 14 years old and allowed to testify in court that he would like to be with his dad that custody was awarded to the father.

Many fathers interviewed by Insight complained that court-ordered visitation never was enforced, with the practical result that they were allowed to see their children less than 25 percent of the time scheduled.''Standard visitation is only 40 hours a month, and it is difficult to get that sometimes,'' complained one father. ''How can you have a relationship based on 40 hours a month?''

After his house and car were taken, and wages garnished, Deanto was forced to move in with his parents in Florida. He since has been able to get back on his feet and move into his own house, and has started to write songs about the problems of divorce in America. He is in the process of making a CD with the Commodores which he hopes will be released soon.
Here are the words to one of his songs, ''Who Hears the Cries'':
  Hey now people, lend me your ear,
Got a story so painful to hear.
Work real hard to make a good life,
Slashed to pieces by a judicial knife.
We both get lawyers and the kids get one too
At a standoff and don know what to do.
They tell you when to come and tell you when to go,
When to say yes and when to say no.
Who hears the cries, of the little children?
Telling all those lies, to the little children,
Never knowing when, you ever see them again.
Pray for them, the little children.*
''Despite the unmeasurable pain behind the statistics, most men would like to be married and be fathers,'' says Stephen Nock. In Nock's book, Marriage in Men Lives, he reports that marriage in America reinforces men masculinity and their reputation. ''The perception is that good husbands are good men,'' he tells Insight.

Nock reports that most men find their identity in their marriages and their work. When either is taken away as a result of divorce or custody battles they have emotional difficulty. ''We conducted a study and found that women have much more emotional support from their families and may have difficulty at first coping with divorce, but fare better in the long run than men,'' he says.

''Times are changing,'' one dad tells Insight. ''More and more men are expressing interest in being good fathers and the courts have got to recognize this.''