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Would Proposed Mass. Fathers' Rights Rule Help Dads or Hurt Kids?

According to many in the fathers' rights movement, dads hardly have a chance if they want primary or even joint custody of their kids after a divorce. It's great to hear more talk about how important it is to have fathers involved in their children's lives, but family courts nationwide seem heavily biased toward granting primary child custody to mothers.

In Massachusetts this year, a number of fathers' rights groups are championing a proposed new law that would require judges to start with the assumption that mothers and fathers will spend equal time with the kids, unless evidence urges a change.

The bill, often referred to as the "bill on rights of parents," is currently being considered by the Massachusetts legislature's Joint Judiciary Committee. The committee is expected to take action on the bill this summer.

Would a 'Bill on Rights of Parents' Promote Better Child Custody Policy?

There isn't much research on whether Massachusetts family courts (the probate courts in that state) really do tend to favor mothers in child custody decisions. However, advocates on both sides of the issue point to a 1999 doctoral thesis that analyzed child custody decisions made in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1993.

According to that thesis, the Worcester Probate and Family Court awarded joint physical custody only 8 percent of the time. Mothers were granted sole physical custody 83.2 percent of the time, with fathers getting sole physical custody only 8.8 percent of the time.

Those numbers certainly don't look very fair. However, opponents of the bill and legal experts say that limited study does not paint the full picture.

Nancy Allen Scannell, director of policy and planning for the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and an opponent of the bill, argues that the system already presumes joint custody, but reality is messy. After a divorce, circumstances often make equal parenting time difficult, if only for financial and logistical reasons.

Moreover, Scannell argues, the best solution is for courts to consider every case and every family individually. Her group and others that oppose the bill believe that the change would hamper judicial discretion and put force judges to focus on writing up reports explaining their child custody decisions -- and taking the focus off the best interest of the child.

Thomas Barbar, co-chairman of the Massachusetts Bar Association's family law section council, agrees that judges need to keep their focus on the individual family. He believes most judges already work hard to be fair to both parents while promoting the children's interests.

"What I've noticed,'' he told the Boston Globe, "is the court tries to make sure that the kids are spending time with each parent and nobody is being prejudiced. They try not to make decisions rashly.''

Even if that's true, argues Ned Holstein, executive director of Fathers & Families, a Massachusetts-based fathers' rights advocacy group, the bill on rights of parents could actually enhance judicial perspective. Requiring judges to explain their child custody decisions in writing might clarify their reasoning and help parents understand their decisions.

Related Resource:

"Fathers back bill on rights of parents" (The Boston Globe, July 5, 2010)

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