Law firms that champion men’s rights — and particularly those of fathers and their child custody rights — are a growing breed across the U.S., marketing themselves to men who are increasingly empowered in their role as dads. More state legislatures are rethinking child custody laws amid the latest scientific research showing that fathers are important to their children’s physical and emotional well-beings.
As the nation marks Father’s Day on Sunday, evidence is growing that when marital bonds sever or cohabiting couples with children split, more men are unwilling to accept the visitation and child-support arrangements of yesterday and are doing what they can to remain relevant in their kids’ lives.
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“Guys are living in a world where there are equal rights in the workplace. They live in families where their wives’ pay is as much as theirs. Now, they’re becoming insistent that their role be respected in family court and that the traditional stereotypes have to go,” says Joe Cordell, co-founder of a St. Louis-based law firm whose website notes its “dedication to leveling the playing field for men in family law cases.”
Jeff Robinson, an IT manager in Allen, Texas, hired a men’s firm when his 27-year marriage broke up. His two daughters, Amanda and Jessica, are 24 and 21. But son Kyle, 12, is a minor.
“My fear was to be kicked out of my home, and she’s going to try to keep my son away, and (I) have to fight for any visitation,” says Robinson, 52, whose divorce became final last June.
At Seattle-based firm Goldberg Jones (with offices in Portland, Ore., and San Diego), co-founder Rick Jones says clients “know they’ve only got one shot. Clients come to us with the security of knowing that’s the mind-set we come in with already.”
Child custody laws vary so much across the USA that “shared custody” in one state doesn’t necessarily carry the same provisions in another, family law attorneys say. Cordell & Cordell’s lawyers say some states have changed the language of their statues from “sole custody” and “joint custody” to terminology such as “parenting time” or “legal decision-making.”
And though some states — including Arizona, Colorado, Delaware, Missouri and Maine — have taken steps to be more gender-equal in their decision-making, no state is considered “a beacon of being father-friendly,” according to Cordell & Cordell.
“Child custody decisions vary not only state to state, but even greatly within a state and within a county from judge to judge,” says Jennifer Paine, an attorney in Ann Arbor, Mich.
WHY THE SHIFT?
One reason for the interest in fathers getting their due, suggests Alan Boudreau, who teaches at Northern Illinois University’s College of Law in DeKalb, Ill., is that many of today’s lawyers and judges come from homes where divorce played out.
“They were children of divorce at a time when the presumption was very much (that) the mother would stay in the marital home and have pretty much full-time custody of the kids, and the father would have visitation and maybe some overnights,” Boudreau says. “I think those kids — when divorcing — want a different experience for their kids than they had.”
The recession accelerated this trend, he says.
“You’ve seen more households that had two working parents, and if a parent was out of work, it happened to be the father, and he was therefore taking over more of the parenting duties,” Boudreau says. “This has changed, in many ways, men’s relationships to their children, and that has been reflected in some of the growth of firms catering to men and fathers’ child custody rights.”
But not all attorneys think these niche firms have the right idea.
Katharine Maddox, a family law attorney in Vienna, Va., represents “both sexes but slightly more men,” she says. And she worries that this men’s mind-set “promotes the gender war and can promote more conflict in the divorce and child custody arena when you’re focusing on gender.”
“Whether I represent a man or a woman, I’m going to ask, ‘Have you been involved in schooling? Have you taken the child to doctor’s appointments? Do you volunteer in school?’ “ Maddox says. “I do think men overall face an uphill battle. I don’t think it’s equal, nor do I think it’s right or fair. But when you’re presenting your case to a judge or trying to negotiate a settlement, you have to focus on the parenting as opposed to the gender.”
Data support these changing perceptions:
A recent Pew Research Center study found that almost 2 million fathers in 2012 reported being a “stay-at-home” dad, up from 1.1 million in 1989. Although 23% of stay-at-home fathers in 2012 said they were home because they couldn’t find work, the sharpest increase in the reasons for being home was among fathers who were caring for their family. In 1989, only 5% of stay-at-home fathers said they were home for that reason; in 2012, it was 21%.
Changes in child custody are shown in a new study based on court records in Wisconsin, published online last month in the journal Demography. Researchers reviewed all divorce records involving minors from 1986 to 2008, totaling 9,873 cases. In that period, mothers receiving sole custody dropped from 80% to 42%, while instances of equal shared custody increased from 5% to 27% and unequal shared custody rose from 3% to 18%. An additional 9% are fathers with sole custody, and the remaining 4% is split custody with multiple-child families and different arrangements for each child.
Author Paul Raeburn of New York City says one goal of his new book, “Do Fathers Matter? What Science Is Telling Us About the Parent We’ve Overlooked,” is to update old thinking with fresh facts.
“The new science of fatherhood shows that fathers have very strong emotional and even physical connections with their children that are very important for their children’s healthy developments and even for lowering their risk of disease and obesity and for supporting their mental health,” he says.
CUSTODY OUTSIDE OF MARRIAGE
For fathers such as Kirk Hamilton, 30, of Broken Arrow, Okla., who had not married the mother of his two older daughters, now ages 8 and 3, not having to deal with a divorce simplified the process.
“It made it a little easier, because when you’re married, you have to divide assets and the house, and it would have prolonged the litigation and made it more expensive had we been married,” says Hamilton, a senior claims adjuster who is now married with an infant daughter.
Cordell says cohabiting fathers have “no defined rights at the outset. They have to take an offensive step.”
“Unlike a husband, they have to bring an action in court to be able to establish rights. Once they do take that step, the court is very open-minded and doesn’t consider that person a second-class father just because they were not part of a marriage,” he says.
Kory Borde’s divorce was final in 2006. He didn’t use a men’s law firm. But Borde, 44, of Ashburn, Va., says a major concern when he and his first wife separated nine years ago was not to relinquish the involved father role he had played for his two sons, now 11 and 13.
“I wanted to maintain the normalcy in their lives as best as possible,” he says. Maria Cognetti of Camp Hill, Pa., president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, started practicing law 36 years ago. “Moms were staying at home, and in the court’s eye, that made them the better parent,” she says.
“Now, what you’re seeing is the court is very much open to a request for a 50/50 — true shared child custody,” Cognetti says. “Are they just automatically granting it? No, and neither should they be. What fits one set of facts and one set of children doesn’t fit another.”