Like the gay rights ("Marriage Equality") movement, black civil rights movement, and feminist movement, the Fathers' Rights movement is grounded in constitutional rights and imperatives. It has grown out of the very real changes in men's traditional roles in Western society, and the current generation's more egalitarian attitude towards shared parenting, which has resulted in gender neutral custody laws in virtually every state of the United States. Despite the changing laws on the books, there is still a perception that there is a gender bias in family law, and that fathers are discriminated against in custody decisions.
As a family law attorney in New York, I am regularly on the front lines of custody disputes. Although I represent mothers and fathers in equal number, I am no longer surprised when fathers are awarded custody rights. Sole custody agreements are a vanishing breed in my practice. Today, most fathers I meet with are seeking at least some form of joint custody, whether it is decision making or shared parenting. In the past six months alone, I have successfully represented men in a full gamut of Fathers' Rights issues: a father who was awarded primary residential custody of his triplets, a father seeking to prevent a relocation by the mother from New York to Texas, a father who had his teenage daughter deemed "constructively emancipated" due to her refusal to have a relationship with him, and a father seeking payment of child support arrears. During the same time period, I have defended fathers in cases involving parental alienation, interference in parenting time, and false sexual abuse allegations.
In a more typical case, a change of custody to the father occurs when a teenager declares that she'd rather live with Dad. (Those cases are usually resolved pretty quickly -- in most courtrooms, teenagers get what they want.) I have found that Judges, law guardians, and forensic psychologists are more enlightened these days about the rights of fathers, and the rights of children to be raised by their fathers. The fact is that fathers who are active and involved in raising their children are almost always given the opportunity to continue that role post divorce.
On a personal level, as a working mom of four, I rely everyday on my husband as a co-parent in the high wire juggling act that is our life. While I would describe our gender roles as very traditional in many important respects, our parenting roles are very flexible and collaborative. My two sisters -- both professionals in demanding careers -- also benefit from active co-parents in their children's lives.
The value of fathers cannot be denied. But neither can the economic incentives that play a major role in custody disputes. For every father I meet that has a good faith motivation for seeking primary custody (he is more bonded to the children, or the mother is mentally ill or drug addicted), there is a father who hasn't seen his children in months but declares upon being served with divorce papers that he should have custody. After all, he can do as good a job as the mother, and so why shouldn't he receive child support?
Recently, I did a radio program about fathers' rights. Many of the callers were men who felt victimized by high child support payments, and harsh child support enforcement measures, including wage garnishments, and incarceration. While the Family Court can grant relief in limited cases, the truth is that the government is unyielding and unsympathetic to so called "deadbeat dads" who owe child support. The sad reality is that many of these fathers do not even have a relationship with their children. Statistics show a strong correlation between active and involved fathers and those who willingly pay child support. (It must be mentioned that the system is just as punitive to mothers who owe child support, and more and more, mothers are being jailed for contempt for violating custody orders.)
My advice to those fathers who are concerned about child support? If you are seeking financial relief from your child support obligations due to a change of circumstances (such as job loss, or illness) run -- don't walk -- to Family Court. Do not let arrears accumulate, because there is very little that can be done to address it retroactively. But more importantly, be an active and involved father to your children. Children need mothers and fathers. They need financial and emotional support from both parents. Raising kids costs money --- lots of it. But the non-monetary rewards to both children and their fathers are incalculable.