The statistics are one-sided, and the impact immense.
Twenty-four million children in America — one out of three — live without their biological father in the home. Forty percent of the children living in fatherless homes haven’t seen their father in over a year, and 26 percent of absent fathers live in different states than their children. Children in an intact family have unlimited and unrestricted time and access to both parents. However with divorce or separation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 82.2 percent of custodial parents are mothers, and 17.8 percent are fathers. Additionally, the percentage of children born outside of marriage has skyrocketed often leaving non-custodial parents (mostly fathers) with limited parenting time.
What does all this mean to the family unit and the children therein?
Bottom line, fatherlessness is a national epidemic affecting millions of children every year. Virtually every major social pathology has been linked to fatherless children: violent crime, drug and alcohol abuse, truancy, unwed pregnancies, psychological disorders and even suicide.
According to the publication “A Call to Commitment: Fathers’ Involvement in Children’s Learning” published by the U.S. Department of Education states, “When fathers are involved, their children learn more, perform better in school and exhibit healthier behavior. Even when fathers do not share a home with their children, their active involvement can have a lasting and positive impact.”
Researchers from Princeton, Cornell and Berkley, in their “The Causal Effects of Father Absence,” concluded in part that problems experienced by children of divorce, including the issue of school shootings, are caused by father absence. Recently actor and economist Ben Stein wrote “A World Without Fathers: That’s Why Our Country is Falling Apart.” In it he writes, “Fatherlessness predicts trouble for kids of any race. But roughly 30 percent of white kids grow up fatherless. Roughly 3/4 of black kids do. This is a national catastrophe. One out of every three black youths will spend time behind bars, a rate astronomically higher than that of whites. A large majority in some urban areas are illiterate. Fatherlessness is behind much of this.”
Tragically for kids today, not much is being done to deal with the “fatherhood crisis,” often putting the children in harm’s way.
Government policies addressing father absence have been ineffective because the root cause of fatherlessness is not child abandonment by fathers (as widely quoted), but instead courts denying both parents equal rights and responsibilities through shared parenting. As well, laws and policies ignore the need for shared access and parenting time. In introducing a shared parenting bill in Missouri, Republican Sen. Wayne Wallingford plainly said, “Most fatherlessness is not caused by abandonment; it’s created by an outdated court system.”
Nothing highlights failed laws and policies and family court injustices more than the recent death of 2-year old Mason Wyckoff by his mother Stephenie Erickson. Mason’s father Dillon Wyckoff had tried to keep his child in his care, but the laws and policies of the state were against him. According to a news story by WHO-TV, Dillon feared this day would come, noting that Erickson had made threats that he would never see Mason and “bad things would happen,” Said Dillon, “I was ungodly afraid and everywhere I reached out from the law offices, everywhere that I had called, had them do the courtesy checks to DHS, everywhere said they can`t do anything until something happened. I was scared to death that this was going to be the thing that happened.”
In a recent news conference, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad called Mason Wyckoff’s death a tragedy, saying, “I think it’s appropriate we take a look at and see if there are changes or improvements to be made in the law. These are always difficult situations when you have custody battle. They were never married; it was another factor going against the father. We need to make sure the safety of the children should be paramount and primary focus.”
If change is to take place on this front, Branstad could be instrumental in assuring that both parents are integral parts of their children’s lives by passing a shared parenting bill in Iowa. Shared parenting has received tremendous support as an overwhelming amount of research shows the practice is best for children, families and society. Shared parenting has been endorsed by 110 world experts, is supported by 43 peer-reviewed papers and was the solution in the conclusion of the largest study ever on child well-being, reviewing 150,000 children who experienced separation or divorce of their parents.
Realizing that the best parent for a child … is both parents … 20 states considered shared parenting bills in the last legislative session. In fact Utah, Missouri, and Arizona recently passed laws enabling children to spend more time with their fathers. Moreover, Arizona lawyers now tell fathers their children have a 90 percent chance of being allowed equal (50 percent) parenting time. Reports have shown that all agree: the new law is working well.
In a divorce or separation, children are often seen as assets rather than humans. Our laws should stop the practice of empowering judges to make value judgments between two competent parents in order to label one “custodial” and the other “non-custodial.”
This goes against the common desire of what is “best for the children.”
Despite parental differences, the needs of children must come first. It should be up to parents, our lawmakers, and the courts to do everything possible to see that children suffer as little as possible as a result of the parents’ decision to divorce or separate. The future of our society lies in our children, and the key to that future rests primarily with stability within families. Due to family breakdown, it is more important than ever to make sure that children who don’t have a voice remain the center of our focus.
Families change when parents separate, but parenting does not end. Separation and divorce is a time to begin new parenting responsibilities and a new parenting relationship.
Shared parenting will ensure that both parents have equal access, rights and responsibility to continue to be actively involved in the raising of their children. If not, our children’s difficulties won’t just play out exclusively in their homes and schools, but also in their communities.
One can go through the litany of pathologies that the government has to spend money on to try to cure. Every single one of them is linked to family breakdown and parental absence. We can come together to strengthen families and communities by fostering and encouraging the role of both parents being emotionally, physically, and economically involved in their children’s lives through shared parenting.
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It’s time. It’s time for the statistics to be balanced and for the negative impact on children to be diminished. It’s time for shared parenting.
• Dianna Thompson is an expert on families, stepfamilies, and divorce-related issues. She has testified all over the country on Shared Parenting and is a member of Leading Women for Shared Parenting and the President of Family Reunion, a 501(c) (3) organization that reunites families that have been estranged due to divorce, separation or by destructive family laws and policies. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org