AQUIET revolution is brewing in America's families.
It's sweeping the nation's family courts, where dads are fighting to spend more time with their children when relationships with the mothers fail. Divorced dads are hurting, too, and more of them want to co-parent.
And, finally, the courts appear to be shifting toward balancing parental responsibilities.
Reader Rob Thomas responded to my column a few weeks ago about "deadbeat dads," horrified that no one was telling his story. He asked me to write about the struggle of dads who are fighting to gain full custody of their kids. In part, he wrote:
"The laws appear to be stacked against us to do the right thing, but there are a lot of us out here that go through hell to do just that."
Thomas sent me a copy of the judge's custody order for his daughter, which allows him only every-other-weekend visitation.
He says he has custody of his two oldest children, but wants more time with his 6-year-old daughter. He and her mother are due back in Family Court in a few months, but his letter inspired me to examine the plight of broken families with a fresh pair of eyes. It also prompted further exploration into how far views on child custody issues have evolved.
At one time, the courts leaned heavily toward awarding custody of children solely to mothers, with weekend visitation for dads.
But, these days, more fathers are asserting their parental rights and petitioning courts for full custody. While I remain a hopeless romantic who really wants every family to be whole, I realize that for many ex-couples, there's been far too much damage to put a crumbled marriage back together.
The level of a father's involvement has a tremendous impact on children and is one of many hot-button topics covered in "Real Men Talking," a multimedia play directed by Flemuel "Fleetwood" Brown being staged on Saturday at Penn's Irvine Auditorium.
In his own life, Brown refused to get the courts involved, and he and his ex-wife share self-imposed joint custody of their two children. He says they don't need a judge to supervise their family, and they are friends who still meet regularly and successfully co-parent from separate homes.
Unfortunately many ex-couples aren't as evolved, being forced, instead, to spend time in Family Court, one of the most toxic places in the city.
Although it's a place where broken families go to try to settle their domestic disputes, tempers often fly and children get caught in the middle as victims of their parents' strained relationships.
With so many parents at war, it's no wonder we see so many unhappy children. Having once had a bird's-eye view of Family Court, I know how nasty the battles can get between divorcing parents. Children's emotions get ripped to shreds. As a former single mother, I also remember how tough it is to raise kids alone.
Although plenty of parents in broken relationships do successfully rebuild their own lives, the residual affects can leave their offspring devastated. It's exhausting, particularly when one parent won't co-operate.
But in recent years, the courts have come to recognize the effect that fathers have on their children's lives.
"Especially fathers of daughters," said Father's Day Rally Committee Founder Bilal Qayyum, who sees a new generation of dads stepping up. "No one is talking about the impact of fatherhood on girls, and we're finding that more teenage girls are acting out when their relationships with their fathers are strained."
The committee marks 20 years of celebrating fatherhood at it Fatherhood Reception on Thursday (followed by Sunday's annual picnic). The ceremony will honor first daughters Sasha and Malia's dad, President Obama, as father of the year, with a special award to Sen. Bob Casey, who has four daughters.
Former judge John Braxton, an arbitrator and mediator who left the local bench more than a decade ago, said that, in society's interest, more families should work together when couples split up. These days, family courts view parenting as an equal opportunity.
"What's in the best interest of the child has always been first and foremost," said Braxton.
He found the state of some children's lives so heartbreaking that he left the courts because he got tired of crying at night. *
Fatimah Ali is a regular contributor. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.