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Old 06-20-2006, 03:48 PM
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Default Keeping Divorced Dads at a Distance

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/18/op...in&oref=slogin

Keeping Divorced Dads at a Distance

By STEPHEN PERRINE
Published: June 18, 2006
EVERY other weekend for the past four and a half years, I've spent three
precious days with my two adolescent daughters. We play tennis in summer,
ski in winter, travel when the school schedule allows. But no matter where
we are, we're all keenly aware of the thin membrane of secrecy that keeps us
from being as close as we were before their mom and I divorced.


Like most divorced fathers, I'm caught in exactly the kind of nightmarish
situation that experts on stress say to avoid - a great deal of
responsibility, but very little power. I'm the major source of support for
my children; my financial obligations are set by the state, and my wages
automatically garnished. (If I lost my job tomorrow, and couldn't keep up
with my payments, a warrant for my arrest would be issued within two
months.) But my influence over how my daughters are being raised is limited,
sometimes by decisions their mother makes that I have no input into, and
sometimes by their allegiance to her when she and I are at odds.


In fact, there are times when these two girls, whom I've loved for a decade
and a half, seem like little strangers to me. They'll forget to tell me some
detail of their lives - or downright lie if they have to - so I won't feel
sad that I've missed something they shared with their mom, or raise issue
over some decision she's made with which I might not agree. As a result, I
sometimes come away from visits or phone calls feeling shaken, saddened and
angry.


My ex and I have been to court over support issues, and we've been to court
over custody issues, and the legal battles inevitably trap our children in
the middle and force them to choose sides. Sadly, this is exactly what not
to do if you want to foster a loving parent-child bond. In a study by a
child psychologist, Robert E. Emery, divorcing parents were assigned - by
flip of the coin - either to mediate or litigate their custody disputes.
Twelve years later, he found, that in families that went through mediation,
the noncustodial parent was several times more likely to have weekly phone
contact with his or her children.


Unfortunately, the system that our government has set up essentially forces
divorced parents into litigation. We need to bring children and their
divorced parents, especially fathers, closer together by revisiting our
reckless support and custody laws, and the haphazard approach we have toward
enforcing them.


Since 1998, the federal government has provided matching funds based on a
percentage of money the states collect in child support - a powerful
financial incentive for states to mandate and maximize support payments. As
a result, parents are discouraged from negotiating a settlement: only 17
percent of current support agreements deviate from state-imposed guidelines,
even though studies show that when couples set their own support figure,
it's more likely to be paid (and tends to be higher than the state's
figure).


And the court's involvement doesn't stop there. If Dad gets a raise, Mom
takes him back to court to get more money; when Dad suffers a financial
setback, he sues Mom to get his support decreased. Each time, the acrimony -
and the legal fees - grow.


But while courts will jail men who can't meet their support payments,
mothers who interfere with a father's custodial rights rarely face similar
penalties. Often, the only recourse for a dad who wants to see his children
more often is to sue, and sue and sue again.


Some fatherhood advocates argue that when mothers fail to carry through on a
custody ruling, they should face fines and imprisonment, just like fathers
do. That's started to happen: last fall, an Arkansas court sentenced a woman
named Jennifer Linder to six months in prison for "willfully and wantonly"
refusing to obey visiting orders and awarded custody to her former husband.
But sending more mothers to prison can only result in more anger, and more
confusion and alienation for the children in question. What is needed is
less court involvement, not more.


The first step toward fostering a father and child reunion is to make
private mediation of the parenting provisions (physical custody, legal
custody and visiting) the standard procedure. Allowing parents the chance to
negotiate their support - and possibly give fathers more of a say in how
their support is spent - will decrease the vitriol, and let fathers feel
more like parents, not just paychecks.


Second, we need to enact and enforce sensible penalties for interfering with
visits. Jailing a mother is no way to solve the dispute; neither are
financial penalties that hurt her ability to care for the child. But
mediation - perhaps compelled by the threat of financial penalty - might be
the solution. It's estimated that one in five children of divorce has not
seen his or her father in the past year. Without substantial rethinking of
our current support and custody law, children will continue to be alienated
from their fathers, and lawyers will remain on hand to soak up the resulting
legal fees.


Just this month, I received a summons to attend a custody conference at the
Allentown, Pa., courthouse, and another letter informing me that an
accounting error has left me short on support payments, and that my passport
may be suspended. I want to shield my daughters from these harsh truths. So
these are the secrets I'll be trying to keep from them as we gather together
for Father's Day.


What secrets will they be keeping from me?


Stephen Perrine, the editor in chief of Best Life magazine, is the author of
the forthcoming "Desperate Husbands."