I had lunch yesterday with Charlie F.P. Segars-Andrews, who mentioned she had been contacted to do work with an agency, Responsible Committed Fatherhood Initiative, attempting to assist fathers establish visitation at the same time the Department of Social Services establishes child support. Given my interest in assisting such fathers obtain court-ordered visitation–my most recent volunteer case for Pro Bono Legal Services was just such a case–I offered my help. We both recalled the Father-To-Father Project, run approximately a decade ago by Lisa Potts, which attempted to similarly systematize the creation of visitation orders concurrent with DSS child support orders. That effort fizzled out (no fault of Ms. Potts’) with limited success.
Child support cases brought by DSS do not allow counterclaims by the father for visitation. Thus the system creates and supports a system in which child support will be set without visitation being set and requiring fathers to bring a subsequent lawsuit to establish visitation. Further, the state provides attorneys to establish and enforce child support without providing attorneys to establish and enforce visitation. Thus, child support against unwed fathers is established routinely; visitation for such fathers is established on an ad hoc basis.
I have a firmly held opinion that you can see what anything (a human, an animal, a culture, an institution, a government) truly values by observing what that entity is willing to devote resources (time, money, intellectual and emotional energy) towards. You can swear on your grandmother’s honor that you love your cat but if all I observe is a neglected cat I am not going to believe you. I suspect most adults view such situations the same way I do. That being the case, I wonder how unwed fathers view our family court system.
That system devotes substantial resources to making sure such fathers pay child support (as our society believes children need the financial support of their fathers) but devotes almost no resources to make sure such fathers have a relationship with their children. If I was an unwed father, I would take this to indicate that our culture places little value on my role as a nurturer of my child but places great value on my role as a wallet. Suddenly, the cynicism such fathers have for the family court system becomes completely understandable.
It gets worse for such fathers. Almost no justification will excuse a father from a child support obligation. Short of a finding of disability or being indefinitely hospitalized, child support will be ordered. A father’s substantial increase in income will lead to an almost automatic increase in child support if the mother requests it. A father’s substantial decrease in income will be closely scrutinized and often will not lead to a decease in child support if the father requests it. The family courts routinely used to jail fathers who fell behind on child support, even if a father fell behind on child support due to a faultless and sudden temporary drop in income. Recently, with the recession, family court judges have become a bit more understanding towards such fathers: thinking they are being merciful by not incarcerating them if their prior payment history had been good but doing little (that I’ve seen) to ameliorate the problems of paying child support based on an income the father no longer makes.
In contrast, when such fathers seek visitation orders, the system sets roadblocks. Almost no excuse can be used to justify a father not supporting his child. Mothers raise many an excuse to justify denying fathers visitation. There are, apparently, a number of fathers not too addicted or violent to hold wage-paying jobs but too addicted or violent (or so it is claimed) to have court-ordered visitation with their children. Other than disability, I know of no defense a father can use to justify denial of a mother’s attempt to seek child support. There are numerous defenses I have seen mothers raise, and the courts consider, to deny fathers’ attempts to obtain visitation.
Further, there often is a double standard when enforcing visitation orders. As noted above, the court will accept few excuses from a father who fails to pay child support. However a mother who denies court-ordered visitation will be allowed to raise all number of justifications as to why the court shouldn’t enforce its order (often the same justifications that were used to try to deny such fathers court-ordered visitation in the first place). When mothers are found in contempt for visitation interference the court routinely awards attorneys fees, and requires hour-granted-for-hour-denied substitute visitation as its sanction, but does nothing further to change the mother’s unjustified attitude towards the visitation denial. I have had fathers unjustifiably denied visitation on their wedding day granted an extra day of visitation as though that made up for father having his child absent from his wedding. Some judges, whom I applaud, have started using criminal contempt as a sanction against mothers who repeatedly interfere with a father’s court -ordered visitation. In my experience such criminal sanctions (i.e., jail) tend to get such mothers’ attention. However fathers are vastly more likely to be incarcerated for failing to pay child support than mothers are for denying court-ordered visitation.
I would finally observe that I am almost uniformly awarded attorneys fees when establishing child support in a contested hearing and cannot ever recall being awarded attorneys fees when establishing visitation in a contested hearing. The lesson I take from this is that the family court places great importance on establishing child support and much less importance on establishing visitation.
As I wrote above, folks see what a culture values by observing what it supports and devotes resources to. If I was an unwed father caught in the family court system I would see our society as valuing me as a wallet and little else. Only when our society devotes as much resources to helping unwed fathers develop a relationship with their children as we do to establishing that these children receive financial support from their fathers can we truly say that we value fathers. Until then their cynicism is appropriate.