Note: I sent a slightly abridged version of this piece to the Pioneer Press, hoping it will run as an op-ed.
Equal and Shared Parenting: A Step Toward Justice
David Weiss, February 15, 2011
I take issue with James Lofstrom’s recent letter (“Children’s best interest,” Pioneer Press, 2/11) opposing the Children’s Equal and Shared Parenting Act (House File 322).
As a father, I endured years of verbal, then physical abuse, before leaving my marriage. Since then I’ve endured another decade of having access to my daughter manipulated by my ex. Five years ago, when I turned to family court for help, I experienced a system that has been as violent toward me as anything I experienced in my marriage.
Lofstrom calls it “silly” to think that custodial parents can wield something close to veto power and isolate children from the other parent. His words trivialize more than a decade of anguish experienced by me and countless other dads. Perhaps in his own divorce and in his own work as a family law attorney he has managed to sidestep this reality. But it is my reality, and I have met dozens of other dads (and a few moms) for whom it has been their reality, too.
He writes, “If a parent is that diabolical and narcissistic, then the problem lies with the parent and not with the parenting arrangement.” Yes—and no. In my experience family court has been completely disinterested in whether its decisions empower the other parent’s “diabolical and narcissistic” desires. It has simply institutionalized injustice that was previously interpersonal.
He claims “family courts have always focused on what is best for the children,” but I have heard multiple family lawyers themselves admit otherwise. The statutes say this, of course. But family law is usually played as a winner-take-all game in which the integrity—and ruthlessness—of each lawyer plays a huge factor. A game in which a guardian ad litem can make or break a parental relationship without even taking the time to understand it. And a game in which judges act with unimaginably broad—and unchecked—power to “interpret” the “best interests” of children in ways that often display more personal bias than objective judgment.
Lofstrom’s conclusion, “If the children are permanently and adversely affected by their parents’ divorce, do not blame the system, blame the parents,” is an affront to every parent who has wept and raged long into the night after watching the system in fact permanently and adversely impact their children.
Therefore, I believe that the proposed Children’s Equal and Shared Parenting Act (House File 322), is a step toward justice. It would mandate family court to award each parent at least 45% placement time. It allows the court to make exceptions in cases of violence or abuse, but it removes the inherent bias against dads and it requires that a case be made for anything other than equal parenting time.
Still, I am a cautious supporter. I am aware that Molly Olson’s (“Change Minnesota law to support ‘equal shared parenting,’” Pioneer Press, 2/8) organization, the Center for Parental Responsibility, while it takes no official stance on gay/lesbian parents, includes resources by writers like James Dobson who are rabidly anti-gay. While I happen to be a straight dad, I know many gay and lesbian parents whose devotion and wisdom is truly admirable. So I am not quick to trust legislation endorsed so enthusiastically by groups willing to promote resources that undermine the humanity of other parents.
It isn’t clear to me how HF322 would impact the lives of my LGBT friends, but I am really only interested in justice for everyone: myself and my daughter, to be sure, but not if it comes at the expense of furthering injustice for others.
On the other hand, I am equally dismayed that both the Advocates for Human Rights and the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women oppose this bill. As a survivor of domestic violence myself, I strongly support efforts to keep women and children safe—as well as working to break the silence about men, who also suffer violence. But their message uses the unquestionably tragic murder of a 5 year-old girl by her father as a broad brush with which to paint me and every other dad whose parental rights—and whose children—suffer beneath a broken system.
I have seen—and challenged—that type of rhetoric when used to demonize LGBT persons. It is just as deplorable when used to demonize divorced dads as though any bill that honors the place of fathers in their children’s lives is a blueprint for murder.
For far too long I assumed that my “misfortune” in family court was just that: bad luck. But as I have read and listened, written and talked, it has become overwhelmingly clear that we have a family court system that is by many measures itself dysfunctional. Both parents and children deserve far better than they often get in family court.
The Children’s Equal and Shared Parenting Act will not magically “fix” family court or transform post-divorce parenting relationships. But plenty of evidence confirms that active involvement by both parents after a divorce is in the children’s best interests. (The Father Involvement Research Alliance, Canadian-based but global and LGBT-inclusive in scope, is a rich portal of resources.) This bill simply requires family court decisions to reflect that. And that’s a winning proposition for both parents and children.