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The health of fatherhood

By Dr. Gordon E. Finley
web posted June 12, 2006

As we look forward to the quantity and quality of our lives in the 21st century we face an unprecedented challenge. As a nation, it is critical for all men, women, and children to cease denying the silent epidemic of the demise of fathers from the lives of our children and acknowledge the consequences for both children and fathers. Here are the horns of the dilemma we are facing.

On the one hand, we have a vast empirical research literature showing that both children and fathers benefit on almost all conceivable outcome indices when they are involved in each others lives as the children are growing up and being guided by their fathers into adulthood and beyond.

On the other hand, we have the following widely accepted contemporary demographics: one third of children are born to women who are not married at the time of delivery (and presumably do not have a father involved in the child's life on a continual basis); 50 per cent of first marriages end in divorce and another 17 per cent end in permanent separation yielding an effective two thirds marital dissolution rate for first marriages; the divorce rate for second and subsequent marriages is about 10 per cent higher; and the cookie-cutter formula used by most states grants physical custody to mothers about 85 per cent of the time with the father being awarded infrequent visitation along with child support and alimony obligations.

Along with these demographics, we also have a vast empirical research literature showing that the outcomes for both the children and fathers of divorce along with never-married fathers unquestionably are negative as compared to the children and fathers of intact marriages. The negative outcomes for fathers of divorce specifically include deep depression, alcohol abuse, substance abuse, joblessness, and a sharp rise in suicide rates.

Focusing more narrowly on Men's Health Week beginning June 12 and ending on Fathers Day June 18, 2006, we are left with the question: What can be done to improve the lives of children and fathers in 2006? While there likely are as many proffered solutions as there are authors, I wish to focus on three.

First, by any public health standard, the one-third non-married birth rate represents an epidemic worthy of intervention. As a point of comparison, the rate was 4 per cent in the 1950's. What this comparison illustrates is that the non-married birth rate is a social behavior which is subject to change by changing social conditions and political activism -- such as the sexual revolution, the women's movement, and welfare incentives all of which began in the 1960's. By the same token, the rate can be reduced by changing social attitudes and financial incentives.

Second, a minimum of two out of three divorces are initiated by wives. In my view, this is because mothers get all of the marbles in divorce. Specifically, and with some state to state variability, mothers not only get the children (about 85 per cent of the time) but they also get half of the marital assets (sometimes mostly the father's assets) plus the father's income to support her and the children often in the former marital home along with the tax benefits associated with the children. By contrast, the father gets to pay for and furnish an apartment and, if lucky, is awarded alternate weekends with his children, perhaps an evening in between, and perhaps half a summer and other holidays. Critically, when the children are with the father he must feed, shelter, clothe, and entertain them with whatever he has left over after he continues to pay child-support and alimony to his ex-wife.

Clearly, all the current legislative incentives to divorce belong to the mother and none to the father. The solution to increasing father-child relationships post-divorce -- and as a critical fringe benefit to reduce the divorce rate as the incentives to divorce disappear -- is to change existing state family law on three fronts: (a) Establish a presumption of equal shared parenting; and (b) establish equal financial responsibility for both mothers and fathers along with legally mandated financial accountability for both; and (c) change the child support models from income sharing models to child cost sharing models.

Third, the greatest threat to intact families in America today is the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and particularly the unfettered granting of groundless ex-parte restraining orders against fathers which removes the father from his home, his children, and requires him to immediately begin making child support payments or face debtor's prison. VAWA is - for women - an exquisitely and intricately well-crafted man eliminating machine the full scope of which is beyond this brief piece but the details of which may be found in a series of Special Reports and Op-Eds at www.mediaradar.org. The simple antidote to VAWA is to neuter the Act by making it victim service oriented rather than gender destruction oriented so that it serves victims rather than targeting boys and men.

In closing, the bad news is that the health of fatherhood in 2006 is grim. The good news is that we got where we are today not through natural disasters but through woman-made disasters -- which can be reversed. Thus, we have the opportunity this Fathers Day, as we have every Fathers Day, to enhance the quality of life of America's children and fathers through new political initiatives and public policy. However, we must act quickly, lest Fathers become yet another member of an exponentially expanding Endangered Species List.

Gordon E. Finley, Ph.D. is Professor of Psychology at Florida International University.

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