Over at Slate, the usually vapid/left-wing Dahlia Lithwick asks a surprisingly apt question: why is it that the court cases the fathers’ rights movement rallies around are almost entirely unsympathetic, weird guys?
I can’t speak from personal experience here, but knowing a few divorced dads (or in one case, a father who never was married to the mother), I can offer some insight.
The basic setup of the system - or at least the way it leans by judges - is to default to letting the woman keep the kids. There’s some presumption that men lack a form of parenting instinct, or that the men were “less involved” in the kids’ lives (especially if the woman wasn’t working as well), or something.
Starting with divorce proceedings (the most common way to get into this mess, though not the only way) the man is at a disadvantage. If he doesn’t get custody, a large portion of his income is going to wind up spent anyways, paying for the “privilege” of probably no more than alternate-weekend visitations. Lithwick points out the inherent problem here:
Even without abuse allegations, simple rules of physics (one child cannot be split into two and two cannot be split into four) make it likely that many good fathers will be downgraded from full-time dads to alternating-weekend-carpool dads. They will be asked to pay at least one-third of their salaries in child support for that privilege. Simple rules of modern life make it likely that an ex-wife will someday decide that a job or new husband demands a move to a faraway state. At which point the alternating-weekend-carpool dad is again demoted—to a Thanksgivings-if-you’re-lucky dad.
Adding to the problem is that the formulas used by most states assign child support based on the income of the non-custodial parent, and then subtract a “proportional” amount based on “percentage of time” - so if you get 20% custody, you’re paying less child support than someone who only has alternate holidays.
Another problem is the idea that in order for a man - even if he was the primary caregiver before - to get custody, he has to prove that the mother is somehow a ‘bad mother’. This puts men in a hell of a bind: if they want things to be reasonable, they have to be very careful about what they say in court lest they have the mother attacked/insulted and less likely to respect their visitation rights; the catch-22 is that the mother can take the very same court record and later use it as evidence to claim the father is “poisoning the children” against her during any visitations he gets.
And while there are a million ways in the court - wage garnishing, arrest warrants, etc - to “enforce” child support payments, there’s almost no mechanism for enforcement of visitation rights; far from it, in order to go through asserting his rights, the father has to go through yet another series of agonizing custody hearings and court proceedings.
Most family court lawyers advise the men to simply take whatever they can get, to stay in contact with their child by phone and email if nothing else and however they can, and wait for the kid to become a legal adult before asserting any back rights or suing for recompense for lost visitation, because the chance of that they’ll lose even more if they take it to court while the kid is still a legal minor is quite real. As long as the system is that tilted, I can’t blame them.