When Doug Richardson remarried, he waited nearly a decade before having a child. "We got married under the agreement we'd have no kids," says Richardson, 42, of Essexville, Mich. "But my wife is 10 years younger than myself. I didn't want to shortchange her because of my own experience."
That experience, which began when he was 19 and married his pregnant girlfriend, got even worse in 1991 when Richardson divorced her, and took a nightmarish journey through the court system. He ended up paying tens of thousands of dollars in child support and health insurance, and then never seeing his two children. "For the first 16 years I buried it so deep, along the lines of a rape victim," Richardson said. "It hit me when my child was born (to his second wife), about what was really taken from me."
Angry and bewildered fathers who want more rights after they divorce – to either right the wrongs of paternity fraud, or to be awarded equal or shared parenting with their children – have been fighting back through high-profile court cases, founding shared parenting organizations and lobbying extensively for new laws.
Shared parenting assumes that both parents will be awarded joint custody, unless other factors (proven abuse or domestic violence) weigh against it. "It is the case that there's a growing awareness of the injustices in the system," says Ronald K. Henry, co-founder of the Calvert Institute for Policy Research, and who has argued and written papers for decades arguing for shared parenting rights.
SUPPORT TOO HIGH?
"The awareness may be because child support is at unsustainably high levels," he says. "Or that people are catching on that it's silly that the child is deprived of one parent."
Thanks to the lobbying efforts of Dads and Moms of Michigan ( www.dadsofmichigan.org), formed in 1998 by frustrated fathers, Glenn Steil, a Republican state senator in Michigan, recently introduced shared parenting legislation ( www.legislature.mi.gov/documents/2007-2008/billintroduced/House/htm/2007-HIB-4564.htm) in that state. "I introduced the bill personally," says Steil. "There is a group of dads and moms of Michigan that believe that primary fathers don't get a fair shake in equal parenting, and I believe that to be the case."
Steil is unsure of the bill passing a Democrat-controlled legislature, which recently nearly shut down the state government because of budget issues. But James Semerad, 51, chairman and charter member of Dads and Moms of Michigan, vows it will pass. "Our organization was originally just called Dads of Michigan," he says, "and then we found out women were getting abused by the system. Forty percent of the people who call us are women, step-moms, non-custodial moms."
The law must change, he says, because nothing else will unless it does.
After working on a strategic analysis of other states that have some form of shared parenting legislation, Semerad says his attention fixed on how and why it became so hard to change the laws that assumed a mother's right to custody, as well as the structure of the mammoth child support system itself. "There is an institutionalized infrastructure that has a lot of reinforcing components," he says, from "the woman's movement, domestic violence, the TV, the media – even the federal laws are constructed where they criminalize men."
POP CULTURE DOESN'T HELP
Pop culture, he says, supports what Ronald Henry argued recently in the American Bar Association Journal (Spring 2006) are skewed assumptions about fathers reinforced by federal legislation girding up the welfare system. "Congress has operated on the belief that federal welfare expenditures can be offset by recoupment of child support payments from noncustodial parents," Henry wrote. "Accordingly, federal law requires that a recipient of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) must assign to the government the right to receive child support payments."
This is not all. Although ostensibly arguing to change paternity fraud laws in states to use modern DNA evidence, Henry's argument also attempted to show how federal law doesn't encourage a change in child custody laws and accompanying support payments – that is, shared parenting. "Eligibility for receipt of federal funds under TANF and under the incentive formula depends only upon tagging the largest possible number of men, and there is no review or requirement that it be the right men," he wrote. "With the enormous sums of federal funds that are at stake, the result is not difficult to predict."