Dianna Thompson: Where have all the dads gone? Ask America's judicial system

June 15, 2001 1:40 am


LAKE FOREST, Calif.--Father's Day, our national celebration of fatherhood, traditionally evokes warm memories of the times we spent with our fathers; taking that first bike ride, catching our first fish, or the look on Dad's face when he solemnly handed over the car keys for
the first time.

These recollections last a lifetime; indeed, they are integral threads in the fabric of our lives. Unfortunately, too many American children will never experience these fond memories.

In 1966, President Johnson declared the third Sunday of June Father's Day. But now, startling research shows that 35 years later, half of America's children are living apart from their fathers. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 1960 20 percent of all marriages ended in divorce; in 1990, that number was up to nearly half of all marriages.

And 1999 marked the first time that a full one-third of all U.S. births were to unwed mothers, according to the National Center for Health and Statistics.

Moreover, it isn't always a happy Father's Day for the 14 million noncustodial parents in this country. Many fathers won't even get to see their children Sunday unless the day falls on their every-other-weekend visitation schedule.

These days, traditional parental roles become somewhat blurred. Fathers nurture and make dinner, mothers work and pay the bills. Unfortunately, many of society's institutions haven't caught up in this evolving social landscape.

The courts must recognize that we are no longer living in the 1950s. With more women than ever in the work force, fathers are actively involved in the day-in, day-out caring for their children. Yet in custody battles, women receive custody 84.1 percent of the time, according to the Census Bureau.

Nothing stuns a divorcing father as deeply as hearing a judge relegate him from caring role model to mere "visitor" in his children's lives. More important, no child should ever lose a parent as a result of a divorce in which he or she had no choice.

Furthermore, noncustodial fathers routinely have to contend with access denial and visitation interference. This has reached epidemic proportions, yet the courts do little to stop it. According to Joan Berlin Kelley and Judith Wallerstein in their book "Surviving the Breakup," more than half of mothers report they see no reason for their children continuing to have contact with their father following a divorce. In the book "Fathers' Rights," one of us, Jeffery Leving, notes, "Only one in six divorced fathers sees his children once a week or more. Almost 40 percent of children who live with their mothers haven't seen their father in at least a year."

The effects of fatherlessness are alarming. Statistically, fatherless children are twice as likely to drop out of school; three of four teen suicides occur in single-parent families; 70 percent of children in juvenile detention grew up in fatherless homes; girls are 164 percent more likely to become pregnant before marriage and 900 percent more likely to suffer rape/sexual abuse. The
list goes on.

Father absence affects everyone in society, a fact increasingly recognized by the public. According to a 1996 Gallup Poll, 79.1 percent of Americans feel "the most significant family or social problem facing America is the physical absence of the father from the home."

Grandmothers, sisters, friends, and second wives are also affected. Many custodial mothers live with noncustodial fathers, and some women are noncustodial parents. Thus, women have become vocal supporters of fatherhood issues. In fact, women make up half of the membership of the largest national organization representing noncustodial parents and promoting shared parenting--the American Coalition for Fathers and Children.

Another court-made debacle involves the increasing number of men now being made to financially support children that DNA testing has proven aren't theirs. Why? Because state agencies need to comply with federal welfare laws directing them to identify 90 percent of the fathers of children born out of wedlock or lose federal funding.

Governmental institutions have a long way to go toward offering parity between the genders. Last year, a U.S. Senate resolution was passed unanimously to designate Father's Day as "Responsible Father's Day." The measure, as reported in the Washington Times, "lists the consequences
of fatherlessness and calls for fathers to 'use the day to reconnect and rededicate themselves
to their children's lives.'"

Unfortunately, the resolution didn't offer any suggestions to fathers who have limited visitation schedules, compounded
by access and visitation interference, on just how they can "reconnect and rededicate themselves."

Where have all the fathers gone? Are they becoming an endangered species? No. Fathers are right where the courts put them--locked out of their children's lives.

Rather than demoting fathers to mere visitor status, we need to let policy-makers know that we as a society value fathers, and that Father's Day is really every day for millions of children who need their dad.

DIANNA THOMPSON is executive director of the American Coalition for Fathers and Children. JEFFERY LEVING, an attorney, is the author of "Fathers Rights."

Copyright 2006 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.