Lately, fathers' custody rights have been the subject of news headlines... mostly because of the Alec Baldwin case. Baldwin's voicemail message to his daughter Ireland shocked many who heard him call her a "thoughtless little pig." He later accused his ex-wife, Kim Basinger of leaking the message in violation of a court order and said his words were delivered out of misplaced frustration at his former wife.
Alec Baldwin: The New Face of Fathers' Custody Battles?
The Baldwin-Basinger case is now back in court. There was one hearing, which essentially reinforced the previous court order forbidding either party from communicating or leaking information to the media. There are rumors another custody hearing could happen in the future.
Men Make up Custodial Minority
Alec Baldwin is far from being alone in his fight for equal access to his children after a divorce. According to a Census report, only 15% percent of custodial parents in the United States are women. The other 85% is made up of women, grandparents and other relatives being in sole custody of children after a divorce.
The fathers in the "other 85%" often have little or no contact with their children. The Department of Health and Human Services reports that "40% of children whose fathers live outside the home have no contact with them." The children that do see their fathers spend an average of only 69 days a year with them.
"Parental Alienation vs. Our Family Court System
Some of these men claim they are victims of "parental alienation," a term brought into the media via the Baldwin case. Parental alienation is not a trendy catch phrase; it is an actual condition that is a frequent side effect of contentious divorces. A number of psychologists have written about it. Essentially, the non-custodial parent's relationship with the children is damaged or destroyed by the custodial parent's behavior. Those behaviors can range from making derogatory remarks about the other parent to cutting off communication. Experts say the child eventually adopts the attitude of custodial parent and either mistreats or alienates the non-custodial parent.
Many parents, particularly fathers, say this is common and often aggravated by our legal system. A growing father's rights movement criticizes the U.S. and other Western nation's family court system for what it views as a bias towards mothers. In particular, many courts favor geographic stability, meaning children should stay in the home to which they are accustomed, in custody decisions. Many times, this is the maternal home. If there is a conflict, or if sole custody is given, the majority of the time courts give custody to the mother.
The Call for Reform
Groups have been calling for legal reform in family law. The most notable change they have asked for is a presumption that there ought to be 50/50 custody in divorce case. Fathers' rights groups would like to see judges move from a sole custody presumption which (they say) favors mothers, to a shared parenting presumption.
This issue and some of the others advocated by father's rights groups have garnered support. Live Aid Founder Bob Geldof and former UK home secretary David Blunkett are among a growing number of men in the U.S. and abroad who have shown support for the movement in the past. They may soon be able to count Alec Baldwin as another high-profile member of the movement. He announced that he wants to take a break from acting to dedicate his time to drawing attention to the parental alienation and father's fights issues. His ability to draw attention could help or hurt the movement, but that remains to be seen.