Fathers are short-changed by family courts, according to the organization Illinois Fathers. The group of noncustodial parents and grandparents met at the Capitol in Springfield this week to observe Fatherless Day, their effort to make the public and lawmakers aware of the difficulties noncustodial fathers face in building solid, meaningful relationships with their children.
As one member described it, the legal system seems to have more control over the noncustodial parent than the custodial parent. For Illinois Fathers, that control extends to child support payments, visitation and custody disputes from the minute the parents split up. The courts, another member said, put a father in the position of always having to prove that he is up to the job, that he is fit to spend more time with his children.
The courts might disagree. One judge who has worked with families for a dozen years maintains that the courts give no more weight to mothers than to fathers in custody and visitation decisions. The guiding principle is always the best interest of the child. And, he adds, in his experience frequent contact with both parents is most often in the child’s best interest.
Still, the needs of the noncustodial parent should be considered, said a doctoral student and researcher. Studies show that good relationships with children are based on good self-image and a sense of identity as a father. Those things only come with role definition, contact with and control over the children and active parenting. When dads are denied those things, they suffer emotionally and psychologically; that, in turn, has a negative effect on the kids.
Battling misconceptions about deadbeat dads is another mission of the group. Not every dad fails to pay child support, and not every dad who cannot pay is a deadbeat. The system, one man says, works against dads.
It is unclear what exactly Illinois Fathers wants legislators to do, but lawmakers may have come up with an idea already. The General Assembly considered a number of bills that would adopt in full the Uniform Collaborative Law Act. By participating in divorce mediation rather than adversarial proceedings, both parents can make clear what arrangements will allow them to be the best possible parents to their children.
Legislators did not vote on the bill before the session ended. That, however, does not mean that Illinois family law practitioners do not offer collaborative solutions in divorce and custody matters.