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Fathers Often Gain Custody Through Devious Means, Experts Say

February 26, 1986

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Changes in child custody laws designed to end discrimination against men often allow abusive or inattentive fathers to take children from their mothers, experts said Tuesday.

By threatening custody battles, many fathers impoverish their ex-wives by negotiating small divorce settlements or by withholding child support, said Nancy D. Polikoff, an attorney who runs the child custody project of the Women’s Legal Defense Fund.

Other fathers have taken advantage of legal changes adopted in the early 1970s to win custody, even though they were not the primary caretaker of the children during the marriage, she said.

By the early 1970s, most states had eliminated the legal presumption that mothers would get custody of a divorcing couple’s children. Joint custody laws also have made it easier for fathers to continue to be involved in raising their children after divorce.

″This sex-neutral standard held out the promise of breaking down the sexual stereotypes,″ said Ms. Polikoff.

But she said that fathers who suddenly decide after their divorce that they want custody, use the laws to portray as unfit mothers ex-wives who had stayed at home to care for their children.

Traditional mothers often are losing custody to ex-husbands who persuade judges the women were economically unfit to be parents, she said. ″Fathers actually exacerbate their financial difficulties by refusing to pay child support,″ Ms. Polikoff said.

In addition, she said, ″judges penalize mothers who attempt to pursue career advancement″ by ruling that they are inattentive parents.

Ms. Polikoff said, ″No such judgments are imposed on ambitious fathers.″

″Fathers win custody in about 50 percent of all contested cases for these reasons, not because they have been primary or equal caretakers of their children during the marriage,″ she said.

Rep. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., told reporters, ″Suddenly its become a situation when a dad says ‘I want my children’, it’s considered a heroic act, but when a mother says ‘I want my children,’ it’s expected.″

Psychologist Phyllis Chesler, author of a new book ″Mothers on Trial: The Battle fr Children and Custody,″ said movies such as ″Kramer vs. Kramer″ present an unrealistic picture of divorced fathers.

In the movie, Dustin Hoffman plays a father who wins a prolonged battle for the custody of his son after his wife walks out of the marriage.

″Traditional good mothers are losing custody of their children, and not to Dustin Hoffman. They can lose to very un-involved or very unfit fathers,″ she said.

Both Ms. Chesler and Ms. Polikoff said they favored a West Virginia rule that gives custody to the parent who was the child’s primary caretaker during the marriage.

″I’m all in favor of male co-parenting, but I think it should begin in marriage or in pregnancy, it should not begin long after divoce,″ Ms. Chesler said.

Four divorced women gave tearful accounts of child custody battles with ex- husbands who, they said, had either abused or abandoned them. Three of the women said they ultimately lost custody.

One of the women said she suffered a broken leg, a ruptured spleen and broken arms when she was beaten in front of her children.

When her husband finally moved out, she said, he ″left me with no job, no car, he took all the food out of the house when he left.″

Two years later, the woman added, her former husband started a custody battle that he won only after he had kidnapped the children.

″I have them five weeks in the summer, I am allowed to call them Sundays between 3 and 5,″ she said.

Another woman said she lost custody of her 7-year-old son to an ex-husband who had beaten her when she was pregnant with the child.

The former husband, a lawyer, persuaded the judge that she was psychologicall y unfit to have custody, the woman said.

″Mothers’ constitutional rights are being abridged,″ she said. ″We sit in the courtroom and we feel abandoned and alone.″

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