“There is no accountability or oversight in Family Court today. There is no integrity. Who is looking out for our children while everyone is getting rich at their expense?” - Kelly Rutherford, Actress and Co-Founder of The Children’s Justice Campaign
Last week, The Good Men Project posted an article about non-custodial fathers. The article discussed how a man named Marc Hudson was creating a documentary about how non-custodial fathers face terrible stereotypes and an unfair system of custody. While I found Mr. Hudson’s brief video both interesting and important, one of first things I noticed about what these men was that none of what they said needed to be painted as gender specific. Many of the things that these fathers talked about, I have also heard from women when they are discussing the terrors of the Family Court system.
This week, I raise this issue because I would like to challenge those of us who have been touched by this broken system to break down gender barriers. A person could walk into any given court and see a father who is being mistreated and stereotyped. Then, that same person could walk into a courtroom down the hall or even in another state, and see a mother being stereotyped and mistreated as well. Even though these two courtrooms might have very different gender politics occurring, they both have one thing in common – a complete and utter disregard for the civil rights of the child.
We often get so hung up on which gender is being mistreated on a given day in court (trust me when I tell you that Family Court does not discriminate when it comes to the poor treatment of men and women alike), that we completely miss the point. Getting caught in gender wars and trying to argue about which gender is treated worse, is the same as throwing those small circle bandaids at a huge gaping wound. It might make you feel better to peel open the package, and stick that useless bandaid to your terrible cut; however, almost as soon as you stick it on, it is going to fall off and continue to bleed.
Real Life Examples:
Many of you are likely still reading this post thinking, ‘This Cappuccino Queen has no clue what she is talking about! I am in the middle of some crazy sh*t and I know my gender is treated worse when it comes to Family Court.’ To you folks, hang in there. I have compiled the list of below anecdotes and quotes, and I have intentionally withheld the gender of the individual this happened to. As you read through this list, I ask that you try and guess the gender of the person speaking before you look at the reveal beneath each quote.
1) “My son told the social worker that “Daddy” sexually abused him. I need to get him out of that house. I am afraid he is going to be hurt, but I don’t have custody. I am living pay check to pay check just to make sure I don’t fall behind on child support. I can’t afford a lawyer.”
Reveal: This quote came from a non-custodial father. His son’s mother had asked the child to call his step father “Daddy”. So when the child reported that “Daddy” abused him, everyone initially thought it was the child’s biological father. When this father found out that his son was being abused by his ex’s new husband, he fought many years in court trying to protect his son. In addition to fighting for his family attorney, he was placed under investigation for sexual abuse before the authorities were able to clear up that it was the stepfather and not the biological father who had abused the child.
2) “I now have supervised visits because the family court system would not protect my children. One evening, I called my son, and he was ordered by father to get off the phone. The phone was never hung up and I sat there on the other end of the line listening to my son getting beat up, my ex screaming, my son crying.”
Reveal: This story comes from a woman who was placed on supervised visits for eight years. Her children sadly endured years and years of abuse before she was able to regain custody of them.
4) “I don’t have primary custody of my children, even though my ex frequently has to be hospitalized for mental breakdowns and tries to hurt herself. When my ex has a breakdown, Social Services takes my children from the house…then they call me. I have fought to get custody, but have run out of money and now just try and do the best I can for my children.”
Reveal: This story came from a father. Even though his ex-wife had a clear history of being a danger to herself and potentially her children, the court refused to protect the children by putting them in the custody of their father.
5) The final story is an anecdotal one: Two parents had shared custody when one parent began to act erratically and started to speak about committing suicide and killing the children. The healthy parent pleaded with the court to get a protective order against the parent who continued to make threats. The court stated that a protective order could not be issued until the threatening parent proved that he/she posed a threat to the children by actually physically hurting them. After the protective order was denied, the threatening parent brought the three children to a hotel, and drowned them one by one.
Reveal: This happened to a woman named Amy Castillo. Her ex-husband is now serving multiple life sentences in prison for the murder of their three children.
I have heard many people throw out amazingly ridiculous comments like, “99 percent of women who come to court lie about abuse” or “most men are deadbeat fathers”. Outlandish comments like these ones are sexist propaganda. When dealing with the health and safety of children, such statements undermines child safety.
Throwing around those types of stereotypes are dangerous, especially when mentally healthy fathers and mothers have to then face those very stereotypes playing out in their personal custody case.
While I can certainly understand how one can become bitter after a terrible experience in Family Court, it is dangerous to try and paint an entire gender or an entire system based on your individual experience. If I did that, I would assume that all men killed their children just because my ex has been charged with drowning my son. Even though my experience was unimaginably terrible, I understand that it was just that – my experience.
Finally, Family Court Judges are people too. Given that there is little to no oversight in our flawed system, many families are at risk of terrible court decisions at the hands of biased judges. I have spent many hours thinking about how to reform the Family Court system in America. One of the first things I wish for is that good parents could come together for reform, and recognize that these gender wars cloud the issues and stop real progress from happening.