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Fathers' rights
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Fathers' rights

The Fathers' rights movement is a loose network of groups, primarily in western countries, established to campaign for equitable treatment of fathers and their families following parental separation or divorce.

Table of contents
1 Underlying principles
2 The issues
3 Supporters
4 International situation

Underlying principles

Nearly everyone in the fathers' rights movement has spoken of personal experience of how the law in their circumstances granted primary control over children following divorce or separation to the mother, leading to imbalances which proponents claim are not in the children's interests - the main thesis being that children benefit from the love and care of their natural father in addition to that of their mother. Given that it may be in the interests of one parent to claim custodial rights over the children, because that parent usually then becomes entitled to the family home and financial support, and because of the power it effectively gives them over their ex-partner, some mothers refuse to mediate, and precipitate the situation so that a court battle becomes inevitable. Whilst about 75% of divorces are initiated in the UK by women there are frequent applications to courts by fathers concerned about arrangements to see their children. The aim of the litigants in a number of cases may also be to ensure that the involvement of the father is reduced solely to providing financial support for a family from which he is otherwise excluded. Fathers' Rights campaigners also point out that even when given limited opportunities to be involved in their children's lives by court judgments, these are rarely enforced where the mother refuses to co-operate, completely cutting children off from their fathers, to the major detriment of the children concerned. However, see [1] for an exceptional piece of news in this context.

Whilst the fathers' rights movement has been around since the 1970s, it has not been particularly successful at countering the state bureaucracy that is in place to take difficult decisions in child custody disputes. The view has traditionally been that there are a small minority of cases where a judge, who is assumed to be high-minded, must make decisions that will affect children's lives drastically. Rather than being criticised, these judges should be commended for performing this undesirable role. For users of the system, i.e. parents involved in litigation, there is frequently the perception that the system is a monstrous bureaucracy of Kafkaesque proportions. Government ministers have been loathe to intervene in this area, tending to exhort people to believe that family court judges know best and should be left to get on with their difficult job. Fathers' rights campaigners are following in the wake of other democratically based movements which have tended to question the notion of anyone else knowing best, particularly when that claim is made by a politician. When it comes to children it is claimed that the people who know best in their regard are their parents, and therefore the government is failing in its duties by allowing it to be otherwise.

A particularly difficult part of attaining credibility for the fathers' rights movement cause has been the avoidance of confusion between the anger which parents can feel toward each other in the aftermath of a relationship and anger against the system for being so inhumane. That is why the support of an international celebrity like Bob Geldof has been very welcome. Whilst claiming merely to be an iconoclast, Geldof has used the language of rant to express his feelings towards the system itself, and his family's own tragic circumstances leave little room to interpreting his claims as mere personal bitterness.

A traditional idea has been that children are better off if their lives do not have to be arbitrarily cut in half in order to satisfy their parents' foibles, and this results in the notion that the child should "live" with one parent and "visit" the other. Following on from this principle, case law indicates that, all things being equal between parents in dispute over child residency, it is going to be in the child's interests to stay with the mother. However this view fails to take account of the merits of shared parenting supported by shared residency orders, and such arrangements have recently started to become more common. A study by the Economic & Social Research Council showed that shared parenting can be a happy experience for children, although it was not always the children's preferred option and in some instances children found, after having tried a shared residency arrangement, that having a main 'base' with one or other parent suited their lifestyles better.

Commentators have pointed out that fathers are still the main breadwinners in many homes and that it may be impractical for them to perform mothers' traditional caring duties as well, particularly when the children are small. However there has been a trend for fathers' childcaring role in many families to increase considerably since the latter part of the 20th Century, i.e. gender equality has led to a reduction in the extent of the division of labour within families. This is borne out by research done at the University of East Anglia which highlights some stress caused to fathers who feel the need to pursue a career as well as to relieve the mother of part of the burden of childcare. It has been argued that a push for legal reform that reflected such trends would help both mothers and fathers cope with the problem of their separation as it affected their children's upbringing.

It is claimed that the judicial system in general does not acknowledge the role of working men, and that the child's normal cognitive development (particularly of very small of children) and the formation of their identity, is dependent on having familiarity with traditional significant others, not omitting the father, particularly when the parents have parted. Longitudinal studies, such as that researched by Dr Eirini Flouri [1] and Dr Ann Buchanan [1] at the University of Oxford, have provided strong statistical evidence to show that fathers' involvement in their children's lives has a positive bearing on outcomes when they reach adolescence and adulthood. Fathers' rights campaigners indicate that the scale of relationship breakdown is of such an extent that proactive initiatives are required if we are not going to have a whole generation of feral children [1].

Most problems arise when there has been a relationship which has become abusive. Aside from any allegations made by the parties concerned it becomes apparent to certain observers that the abuse effectively continues even after the partners have separated, perhaps in reaction to the hurt they feel. Any negotiations which should be taking place to ensure that the children are properly taken care of have to occur in an atmosphere where one or both ex-partners are in an emotional turmoil.

The issues

Parenting time

Fathers' rights campaigners argue that parenting time should be used indiscriminately to replace contact and residence. The reasoning here claims that there is a stigma associated with treating one parent as resident and the other as non-resident. The term absent parent is felt by many to be particularly pejorative, since it implies that their absence from their children's lives is voluntary when it isn't. There is much strong feeling about language usage in the context of parental disputes and it is believed that the principles of
political correctness can usefully be deployed to alter people's perceptions in much the same way that other groups, including feminists, have used these principles to good effect in their quests to eliminate discrimination. Other terms which have raised the hackles of fathers' rights activists include single parent family - the preferred term here being single parent household, based on the truth that there are always two parents to a child. Male role model and father figure are other terms which campaigners feel are used as unacceptable euphemisms for father, pointing out that step-fathers and casual partners might come and go, but natural fathers retain a unique position in the eyes of their children. One seldom hears the term mother figure. Some have also called into question the term biological father because the term natural father means the same thing, has been around for a long time, and doesn't have the clinical associations that the former has, though it may be that the association this term has with paternity testing will make it catch on.

Flexibility seems to be one of the keys to success in bringing about social change in this area. For instance, in at least one case in the US, an order has been made that the children should remain in the family home and the parents should alternate their presence there. In the UK, the contact model is that most usually adopted and pursued by the courts in private law cases. Whilst it is acknowledged that a system that gives one parent the limited opportunity, but not the obligation, to remain involved in the children's lives after separation might suit some situations (perhaps where the father's circumstances do not permit him to provide a full range of care for his children) this model does not suit all cases. Fathers' Rights campaigners argue that shared residency agreements or orders should become the norm.

Getting on with one's children

The relationship between a child and a parent is not always plain sailing, and to frame such a delicate matter in terms of rights may seem inappropriate to some people. One might say that in some circumstance it really would be better for all concerned certainly that children should not be forced to be looked after by their father when they are upset at the prospect. Although such considerations can play a part in making compassionate decisions about children in the aftermath of a family break-up, the law as it currently stands takes on a wider remit. In a case in the UK in 1999 (RE K (Contact: Mother's Anxiety) [1999] 2 FLR 703) the father of a six-year-old was granted permission by a court to see his child and things were going well. The mother found this contact very stressful and her distress was very apparent to the child, who felt guilty for enjoying being with his dad - with the result that court then ordered that the father should be disallowed from seeing his child again.


Supporters of the movement, which is particularly strong in the United Kingdom, Republic of Ireland, Italy, United States and Australia, include divorced (and subsequently widowed) Live Aid founder, Bob Geldof and Irish writer and journalist John Waters. Waters fought a legal case for access to the daughter he had by Rock star Sinťad O'Connor, and highlighted what he saw as injustices in the treatment of men in his weekly column in The Irish Times. The most prominent Fathers' rights group in Ireland is called A-men.

Itís actually fatherhood that makes humanity different from most primate species. Usually itís the females who look after the young, while a few weeks after birth many males donít even recognise their own children. Motherhood is biological and almost always strong. Fatherhood is cultural and almost always in need of support. Source: Chief Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks on Thought For the Day on Radio 4, 19 March 2004.

The UK Conservative Party leader Michael Howard was quoted by the BBC [1] on 12 July 2004 as saying,"There should be a strong presumption in favour of equal rights for parents to have an influence on the upbringing of their children," Also see [1] in this context.

International situation