The Fathers' rights movement is a stream in the men's movement primarily interested with family law and gender bias issues as it affects biological fathers. Historically related to the men's rights movement and to masculism, some of its advocates see it as a necessary corollary to the women's rights and children's rights movements. Fathers' Rights advocates see the movement's encouragement of shared parenting as complementary to, and not at odds with, equity feminism's goal of more equally sharing parenting responsibilities by both parents and destroying the notion that only women possess a strong parental instinct.
The Fathers' Rights movement emerged in the 1970s as a loose social movement providing a network of interest groups, primarily in western countries, established to campaign for equal treatment by the courts in issues such as child custody after divorce, child support, and paternity determinations. The movement is particularly strong in the United Kingdom, Republic of Ireland, Italy, United States and Australia.
The fathers' rights movement received international press coverage following the formation and high profile style activism of the Fathers 4 Justice group in the UK.
Supporters include divorced (and subsequently widowed) Live Aid founder, Bob Geldof, Irish writer and journalist John Waters and ex-UK Home Secretary David Blunkett.
Waters fought a legal case for access to the daughter he had by rock star Sinéad O'Connor, and highlighted what he saw as injustices in the treatment of men in his weekly column in The Irish Times.
David Blunkett resigned as Home Secretary on 15 December 2004 following attempts to remain in touch with his youngest son, born of a relationship with his ex-mistress. His efforts, which he mentioned in an interview with the BBC, unwittingly made him a champion of the fathers' rights movement. Mr. Blunkett said about his son, "He will want to know not just that his father actually cared enough about him to sacrifice his career, but he will want to know, I hope, that his mother has some regret."
The father's rights movement is generally viewed as the confluent result of a number of changes in both the law and in societal attitudes, including:
The introduction of no-fault divorce in the 1960s, resulting in a rise in divorce rates throughout the world.
The increasing entry of women into the public sphere, a situation which has upturned traditional gender roles which view women as primarily domestic in nature.
The increasing social acceptance of single parents and their increased proportion of all families. The number of single parent (particularly war widow) households increased after the Second World War, and more recently increased social welfare and income support arrangements became more generally available.
In the 1980s Parents Without Rights was formed by scientists at Kennedy Space Center. In the 1990s, the Million Dads March Network was formed in Topeka, Kansas, United States.
Fathers' rights campaigners argue that their own and their children's rights and best interests are breached, they cite research to argue that even after separation and divorce that children gain critical mental and emotional health benefits from continuing quality involvement by their father. Father's rights activists state that it is destructive to deny children the right to know and be cared for by both parents when both are available.
Marriage breakdown, family law, divorce and child support
According to "Americans for Divorce Reform", as the divorce rate soared, so did the number of children involved in divorce.
The number of children involved in divorces and annulments stood at 6.3 per 1,000 children under 18 years of age in 1950, and 7.2 in 1960. By 1970 it had increased to 12.5; by 1975, 16.7; by 1980, the rate stood at 17.3, a 175 percent increase from 1950. Since in 1972, one million American children every year have seen their parents divorce.
Application of family law
Due to roles whereas the mother is the primary giver of child-care and the father a stronger commitment to work and providing financially, fathers can be denied what is perceived as a caring role but required to maintain their financial support through child support in continuing pre-existing arrangements in care and income generation. Thus many claim to seek an increased involvement with their children, some to the extent of shared parenting and sole custody. In response to difficulties in achieving satisfactory arrangements (perceived as being ousted from their children's lives, or reduced to a role where they cannot be effective parents) a number of those affected men have become involved in the fathers' rights movement.
Critics of the movement have argued that since most men still earn higher incomes, and most mothers stay at home with young children or provide the most care even when working, it makes sense to award primary custody of young children to women more often than to men.
Support provided by fathers' rights meetings
At the local level, many father's rights groups spend a large portion of their time providing support for newly separated fathers. In many cases these groups also campaign for a greater consideration of the rights of grandparents and women (especially step mothers) in second marriages.
Father's rights group meetings have an ethos of self-help. Some fathers advocate their own cases with some success, but problems can easily arise at times where self-representation occurs with delays and attempts to address issues outside family law.
Main beliefs and goals
Fathers' rights activists typically believe that the application of the law in family courts is biased against men.
On family law and the family court
Many Father's rights activists assert that the application of family law is Kafkaesque, with secretive in camera hearings and long delays which grant mothers initial custody, then delay final resolution.
Irish singer and political activist Bob Geldof has written on the subject of the extended length of time for family courts to resolve issues:
Shared parenting advocates argue that the family court system is slow and delays endemic. This allows a status quo to be established which many courts are reluctant to later modify. As the process labors on it becomes difficult to alter. Shared parenting advocates argue that this is unfair. It is then deemed in the child's interest not to break this routine at the cost of losing sight and touch of their father, we must really examine all our assumptions without fear. Then we can move to building a more equitable system benefiting all equally.
Father's rights activists argue that time would be better spent dealing properly with the trauma of the parents' initial separation and allowing the children to maintain their relationships with both parents continuously.
On the adversarial court system
The adversarial system, such as currently exists in the UK, encourages each parent to identify their fears, real or imagined, about what will affect their children now that the parents have separated. Some hold that when a parent expresses these fears about the other parent in this circumstance, even when fears are unfounded, they can nevertheless be treated as fact. Fathers' rights campaigners believe this system is biased toward believing the mothers' expressed fears. The father must then try to demonstrate that he presents no risk to the children, and that the advantages that he will confer on them are real. Although such considerations can play a part in making compassionate decisions about children in the aftermath of a family break-up, fathers' rights activists believe the law as it currently stands in the UK takes on a wider remit by linking the interests of the child with those of the mother.
Fathers' rights proponents say that in such circumstances, the case can easily become a witch-hunt. Any aggression that the father may have manifested in the past can be claimed as justification for limiting his involvement in his children's upbringing. If he is inexperienced at parenthood, or because this is a first child, the result may be that he is initially not trusted to provide basic care. In one case in the UK in 2003, a judge ruled that it was in a child's "best interests" to have no contact with her father, because such contact caused the mother to feel depressed and anxious. A second judge, Mathew Thorpe, said that while he had "every sympathy" for the father, he could not overturn the original ruling. Lord Justice Thorpe added "It's also a tragedy for the child, who is being denied an ordinary right to know her father and develop understanding, interests and affection with him."
Many fathers' rights campaigners say they have had experiences that follow a similar pattern, and they are aiming that the law should be changed to prevent situations such as theirs from arising.
Fathers' rights activists further claim the idea of adversarial court cases to resolve family disputes has led to a sub-culture they consider to be completely absurd. They may also question the assumption that it can ever be legitimate for the state to collude in disrupting a loving and natural relationship between a father and his children.
Kevin Thompson, a non-custodial father in Massachusetts, has written a book called "Exposing the Corruption in the Massachusetts Family Courts," which details his journey through a judicial system he feels is "anti-father." The book is highly critical of the judge in his case, Judge Mary McCauley Manzi. Judge Manzi later issued an order restraining the book's distribution, on the grounds that it violated the involved minor's right to privacy. It seems unlikely that Thompson will obey this order, and the book appears to still be available in both print and PDF formats.
On child custody/residence and parenting time
Main articles: Child custody, Shared parenting, Residence in English law, and Shared residency in English law
On child custody, a priority on continuity of care and/or residence leads to primary custody often being awarded to the mother. However the arrangements prior to the relationship breakdown presupposed a number of factors, stereotypically, fathers being the primary breadwinner and mothers the primary carer and presupposed other things such as daily contact between fathers and their children. Currently family law in the U.S. and U.K. awards primary custody to mothers more often than it does to fathers, reducing many divorced fathers' involvement in their children's lives to the role solely of providing financial support, with minimal parental involvement when the mother demands this.
Fathers' rights argue that children tend to do better if they are nurtured by both parents, they believe children's normal cognitive development (particularly that of very small children) and identity formation are dependent on a level of relationship with traditional significant others, including their father. Longitudinal studies tend to support this.
The argument for shared residency needs to be seen against the view that it is generally in the children's best interest to maintain for the children a living situation that comes closest to what the children have already known, the "single base" argument. In the increasingly rare situation where the mother was a stay-at-home mother who ended her career to raise children, equal timeshare would require that mother be encouraged to return to the workforce to support her children or that father worked less hours in order to maintain truly "equal" timesharing. Recent research (cf. Flouri and Buchannan) has shown that father involvement is more important to children's welfare than having a single base, and the argument of preserving the status quo prior to the parents splitting can be based in part on how much time the father spent at home with his children before the split, as well as on how much involvement he is able to have in future.
When the two parents have earning's capacities that are unequal, then the lower earning parent can become further disadvantaged in having to provide adequate "equal" housing for their "equal" custodial time without equal means (income) to do so. When remarriage occurs, especially when mothers remarry, it argued by Father's Rights activists that the mother's household income should be offset against his child support contribution in order to preserve equal living standards in both the children's homes.
In situations where the two parents are willing to parent collaboratively, equal or shared parenting is a distinct advantage for the children, although the Court of Appeal has ruled that this advantage is conferred regardless of the prior level of collaboration between the parents when the perceived unequal distribution of power inherent in the contact model itself contributes to their hostility.
Where clear guidance is provided in a court at the outset regarding outcomes, the result is less hostility and a reduced workload for the courts. Fathers' rights campaigners claim that vested interests in the legal trade are politically operative to preserve lawyers' revenue streams from this type of business. Judicial powers already exist to endeavor to ensure that continuity is maintained in relationships between children and fathers. Interim contact orders can be issued before the establishment of a routine that excludes the father from the children's lives.