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10 ways to make divorce fairer for fathers

Wednesday, May 24th, 2017

Today is D-Day. The day when divorce lawyers are flooded with enquiries from couples who can’t stand the thought of spending another Christmas together.

In around 95pc of those cases, mums will retain custody of their children and be defined by the Child Maintenance Service as “the receiving parent”, while dads will become “the paying parent”.

In total, one million children in the UK have no significant contact with their fathers and by the time they reach 15, only 57pc of children are still living with their dads.

Divorced family
Credit: Alamy

At a time when men are more hands-on with their kids than any previous generation, it seems separated fathers are still being sidelined from their children’s lives. So, here’s a list of 10 ways can we can make divorce and separation fairer for dads and their children.

1. End ‘maternal gatekeeping’

Almost the entire focus of feminism, since Mary Wollstonecraft declared “let women share the rights and she will emulate the virtues of man” in 1792, has been about  “dismantling the patriarchy” and tackling “male privilege” to give women equality in the “masculine realm”.

What the world continues to overlook in its quest for gender equality is the areas where “matriarchy” and “patriarchy” conspire to disadvantage men.

“It’s a little known fact that in 2015, men still don’t have equal parental rights”
Glen Poole

Nowhere can female privilege be seen more clearly than in the “feminine realm” of parenting where, where, through a process known as “maternal gatekeeping”, women have the power to either cultivate or curtail the involvement of fathers in their children’s lives. If we are serious about gender equality then it requires every individual, organisation and institution in the country to become aware of the female privilege of maternal gatekeeping.

• How do men cope after divorce?

We must find ways to support mums who cultivate father involvement and challenge those women who curtail it.

2. Give Dads Equal Rights From Birth

It’s a little known fact that in 2015, men still don’t have equal parental rights. New mothers are given the right to make decisions about where their child lives, their education, religion and medical care. They are also have the privilege of deciding whether or not to grant those rights to the father of their child.

When a woman consents to marry a man, she grants him parental rights. When an unmarried woman allows a man’s name to be recorded on the birth certificate, she grants him parental rights. But if a new mum is unmarried and fails to name the father on the birth certificate, then dad has no parental rights.

UK birth certificate
Credit: Alamy

The legislation to overturn this sexist law was drafted in 2008 and the Labour MP, David Lammy, is campaigning for dads to be given the same automatic parental rights as mums.

3. Close The Paternity Leave Gap

Dads do not have an equal opportunity to take paid parental leave when their child is born and this forces most couples into unequal parenting arrangements – which acutely disadvantage dads who don’t live with mums. This imbalance can be best seen in contrast with Sweden, where the state promotes a culture of shared parenting. Swedish dads who divorce and separate are three times more likely to share parenting than in the UK.

According to the Women’s Equality Party (WEP), the current system discriminates against dads, with most working mothers entitled to six weeks leave at 90pc of their full pay, while fathers get just two weeks paid at the statutory level of £139.58 a week. WEP is campaigning for longer, better-paid paternity leave with a proportion of parental leave set aside for dads on a “use or it lose it” basis.

Dads receive only two weeks paid paternity leave
Dads receive only two weeks statutory paid paternity leave Credit: AP

WEP also proposes the extension of parental leave to separated dads who aren’t living with their “baby-mother”. This is a radical proposal, but it isn’t made on the basis of “equal rights for dads”, rather it aligns with the feminist principle of “my baby my rights” and would give single mums the right, as maternal gatekeepers, to bequeath “partner leave” to any adult they wish to nominate at the time.

4. Stop The Fatherhood Tax

The UK benefits system has been designed in a way that makes it harder for separated dads to stay involved in their children’s lives. According the Centre for Social Justice, a couple earning £10,000 each, per year, would receive around £7,000 of benefits and tax credits and bring home £26,500 between them.

If they separate and continue to share parenting, with their child sleeping at dad’s 182 nights a year and with mum 183 nights a year, they would receive nearly £12,500 in benefits and tax credits between them and take home nearly £32,000.

“We believe the repeated, regular and wilful breaching of family contact orders is a form of controlling and coercive behaviour and falls under the new Serous Crime Act”
Mark Brooks, Chair of The ManKind Initiative

But here’s the crunch: a staggering 90pc of those benefits and credits would be paid directly to the mother. In addition, the dad would be required to pay his 10pc to the mother as child maintenance, plus an additional 50pc on top of that from his own pocket.

This is just one way our tax and benefits system makes it harder for separated dads to stay in their children’s lives. More broadly, research tells us that families in the poorest neighbourhoods are up to three times more likely to be fatherless, while separated dads find it easier to stay in contact with their children if they are home owners with multiple bedrooms and the resources to pay child maintenance.

5. Introduce The No Blame Divorce

One of the major problems with Family Law in England and Wales is that at a time when parents need help to work together for the sake of their children, the law requires them to apportion blame for the failure of their marriage. The introduction of a “no fault” or more accurately a “no blame” divorce would send a very clear message that divorce is time when the grown-up thing to do is to sit down together and resolve matters, not hide behind lawyers blaming each other.

6. Mediation and Early Intervention

Mediation has long been touted as a panacea to the problems caused by divorce and separation. As the saying goes, “jaw-jaw is always better than war-war” – but mediation is limited by the fact that while it can help parents to find a smoother path through an unfair and unequal system, it doesn’t do anything to address that inequality and unfairness.

Early divorce
Credit: Alamy

One mediation model favoured by some campaigners is the “early intervention” scheme which is said to promote speedy resolutions by giving parents an early indication of a judge’s likely decision, were they to continue to take their fight through the courts.

7. Get Tough On Abusive Mums

One of the most common complaints of separated fathers is that mothers feel entitled to adopt the maternal gatekeeper role and interfere with the time that dads spend with their kids. This interference can range from imposing conditions about what the father can and can’t do with his child, to blocking or restricting “access” and in extreme cases alienating children against their father. (This can also happen to mothers who don’t have custody).

Some advocates for male victims of domestic violence, such as Mark Brooks, Chair of The ManKind Initiative, believe that more severe examples of this behaviour should be recognised as abuse. Mark says:

“We believe the repeated, regular and wilful breaching of family contact orders is a form of controlling and coercive behaviour and falls under the new Serous Crime Act. We have already had dads contact us about it. We would suggest that men in this situation keep a full record of all of these incidents and decide with their solicitors on any next steps bearing in mind this new law. We would expect a test case in the next 18 months on this.”

8. Modernise The Judiciary

When it comes to gender equality, the main problem with the “patriarchal” judiciary in England and Wales is said to be the fact that 75pc of judges are men. What nobody asks is what percentage of judges have personal experience of sharing the responsibility of parenting. How hands-on was their dad? What are their personal views about how involved dads should be as parents? How many judges support dads having equal opportunities as parents? How many acknowledge and seek to address the barriers that hinder a dad’s involvement in their children’s lives? How many take account of the role that maternal gatekeeping plays in both cultivating and curtailing involved fatherhood when they are passing judgement on how much involvement a dad should have in his children’s lives?

High court
Credit: Rex

If we want to reform the way family law operates in the UK, then one crucial step is to address the judiciary’s bias towards a family model of male breadwinners and female carers.

9. Strengthen Marriage and Relationships

While the best defence against divorce is to avoid getting married in the first place, it’s important to note that married families are generally the most stable, with parents who tie the knot being less likely to separate. The idea of “socially engineering” family life by incentivising marriage through the tax system has become a politically divisive idea. Yet if we are to protect adults and children from the negative impacts of separation, we need to find ways to strengthen families and relationships that can garner support across the political spectrum.

10. Create a Culture of Shared Parenting

Many fathers’ rights campaigns believe that introducing a “presumption of shared parenting” is the key to family law reform. What this means is that, all things being equal, any dad who is willing and able to share custody of his children, should have a legal right to do so.

In reality, the courts cannot deliver this solution in isolation. As a nation we are strongly wedded to a parenting model of male breadwinners and female carers. According to the British Social Attitudes Survey, for example, 76pc of people think mums should stay at home or work part-time when they have kids, while 5pc think dads should do the same.

Divorced parents can still care for their kids equally
Divorced parents can still care for their kids equally Credit: Alamy

The one carer/one breadwinner model of family life is held in place by a web of factors including: biological sex differences; psychological preferences; cultural beliefs and expectations; unequal parental rights; our unequal parental leave system; our tax and benefits system; the economy; corporate culture; and the behaviour of individual men and women.

Some equality campaigners believe the ultimate ideal is for mums and dads to share earning and caring responsibilities equally, irrespective of their personal preferences. A more equitable ideal, now that women in their 20s and 30s are earning as much as men, is to smash the matriarchy and give dads an equal opportunity to care for their kids – whether they are separated or not – just as we have “dismantled the patriarchy” to give women an equal opportunity to work.

Glen Poole, 10 ways to make divorce fairer for fathers (2016, January 4), The Telegraph.



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