Fathers Become Vocal on Parents' Rights

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There has been growing pressure from divorced fathers around the country to change child custody laws. Activist groups like Fathers 4 Justice, which first gained attention in Great Britain, are demanding equal time with their children. Host Jennifer Ludden talks about the trend with Susan Dominus, the author of a New York Times Magazine article on the subject.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jennifer Ludden.

Across the country small groups of angry fathers have been pushing for changes to child custody laws encouraged by similar groups in the United Kingdom. In the past year class-action suits have been filed in 40 states demanding expanded rights for divorced fathers. Susan Dominus writes about the movement in today's New York Times Magazine, and she joins us from our New York bureau.


Ms. SUSAN DOMINUS (The New York Times Magazine): Thank you very much.

LUDDEN: You go back in history a bit, and you note that until the mid-, I believe, 1800s, under common law, it was almost always the father that got custody if there was a divorce.

Ms. DOMINUS: Children were almost treated as a property right for fathers, and then it sort of switched a little bit later on towards the turn of the century towards the tender years doctrine, which basically said that young children needed to be with their mother. And that changed again in the '70s when people started talking about equal protection. And then for a while there was a presumption that the child would just go with the primary caregiver, which, as one lawyer told me, was really maternal presumption in drag because although it didn't explicitly state that women were going to get custody, of course, the vast majority of primary caregivers are women.

LUDDEN: Because they were less likely to work. I mean, is the fact that there are more working mothers now also part of what's driving these fathers' groups?

Ms. DOMINUS: Yes. Because so many more women work, of course, fathers are more involved in their children's lives, and, therefore, they want more custody in the event of a divorce.

LUDDEN: So what sorts of changes are these fathers' groups pushing for?

Ms. DOMINUS: They really are asking for joint physical custody, which is as close to 50-50 as possible. They don't actually dictate that it must be 50-50.

LUDDEN: These fathers' groups have had a bit of success in Iowa and Maine. Can you tell me what's happening there?

Ms. DOMINUS: There's a presumption in favor of granting joint physical custody if one parent requests it, unless the judge can find some kind of compelling, convincing reason why that's a terrible idea. And then, of course, there are fathers who've filed these suits in over 40 states claiming that it's unconstitutional for judges to grant custody in any arrangement that isn't 50-50.

LUDDEN: What's been the outcome of some of those class-action suits?

Ms. DOMINUS: Most legal analysts don't think they have a very strong case. And it seems like it's more of a movement than it is anything that's actually going to effect change, and it speaks to the desire of many fathers across the country to have their parental rights recognized.

LUDDEN: What about the reaction of the women, the mothers? I mean, for so long we've heard women pushing, you know, divorced fathers because they want more child support. They're not getting the courts to give them as much as they want. Even if they're awarded child support, sometimes the check doesn't arrive.

Ms. DOMINUS: Feminist groups, in general, as you might expect, are pretty hostile to fathers' rights groups. Many people believe that the push for joint physical custody has stemmed from fathers groups' desire, really, to see lower child support payments because the more time you have with your child, the less you're expected to pay. So it's very often interpreted as a bid for lower child support payments, whereas the men's groups say, `Well, it's true that we don't want to pay exorbitantly high child support payments and never see our children. That seem like a terrible arrangement, you know, all around.'

LUDDEN: You write a bit about some men in the United Kingdom, and they've taken on some pretty unusual tactics there. There's one man, and he's with Fathers 4 Justice. He dresses up as superheroes and scales buildings to draw attention to his cause.

Ms. DOMINUS: And he's not alone. I mean, there are dozens of men across the UK who've put on superhero costumes and scaled family court buildings and cranes and bridges. And they're incredibly well known. They've really put the issue of fathers' rights on the agenda in the UK.

LUDDEN: Are those high-profile tactics likely to cross the ocean and be used here?

Ms. DOMINUS: They are definitely trying, and I think that some of the aspects of their protests, like the humor and the costumes--I think that there's an American chapter of Fathers 4 Justice that's just trying to get off the ground. I'd be pretty surprised, although I certainly could be proven wrong, if they thought it would really help their image to break the law and climb something like the Brooklyn Bridge, even if they were dressed as a superhero.

LUDDEN: Someone would say, `He's not fit to be a father climbing up there like that.'

Ms. DOMINUS: Yeah, exactly, although, they--you know, of course, the fathers say they've been driven to these kinds of--any loving parent would, of course, be driven to extreme behavior if they weren't allowed to see their child.

LUDDEN: Susan Dominus is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine. Her article on the rise of the fathers' custody movement appears in today's issue.

Thank you for joining us.

Ms. DOMINUS: My pleasure. Thank you.

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