By Tom Fontaine
Sunday, June 20, 2010
Divorced dads increasingly are seeking legal and political remedies from a legal system that they feel has been slanted toward mothers, say attorneys and lawmakers.
“It’s a trend and a voice coming through that’s very strong. I think they’re tired of paying out money and not having the same rights when it comes to their children,” said Karen Stewart, author of “Clean Break” and founder of a company that assists divorcing couples.
Maria Cognetti, an attorney in Camp Hill, agrees.
“There is no group out there that is as vocal and in the face of legislators as the fathers’-rights groups. There’s nothing even close on the women’s side.”
Kevin Sheahen, 55, of Bethel Park is former Pittsburgh chapter president of the National Congress for Fathers and Children. He depicts fathers’-rights groups as underdogs in their efforts.
“Very few (fathers) stick around beyond the heat of their own issues. Once their issues are resolved and things calm down, they move on with their own lives,” Sheahen said.
In Pennsylvania, which averages about 30,000 divorces annually, groups such as the NCFC and Fathers-4-Justice have focused on child-custody laws.
In Pennsylvania, the battle has centered on a proposed policy called “presumption of joint custody.”
The proposal would require custody cases to begin with the legal presumption that the parents are entitled to joint custody.
“Unless there is an unfit parent, a parent shouldn’t have to fight to see their own child,” said Jeffrey Dick of West Mifflin, a board member with the Pennsylvania chapter of Fathers-4-Justice.
Cognetti, however, pointed out that “many presumptions often lead to a not-thorough-enough review of a case being done.” She added that a presumption becomes much harder to overcome, “and it almost gives the court a basis not to look at each case individually.”
Downtown attorney Jay A. Blechman, past president of the Allegheny County Bar Association, agrees.
“Custody should always be determined on a case-by-case basis,” he said.
Cognetti said the proposed policy, however, wouldn’t help good fathers.
“Whenever I represent a good dad, I want to go in and get primary custody for him. I don’t want to get shared custody. If you have a presumption, it could be hard to overcome, and your good dad is not helped,” said the Camp Hill attorney.
A custody bill by Rep. Kathy Manderino, D-Philadelphia, which unanimously passed the House on Monday, doesn’t include a presumption policy.
Manderino wants the courts to “ensure that both parents are treated equally” by ignoring gender in custody cases.
“Both parents — when fit, willing and able — should share in raising a child, even after separation or divorce. This legislation would make that concept the cornerstone of Pennsylvania’s child-custody law,” Manderino said.
Other measures include requiring judges to give written explanations of custody decisions; requiring parents in contested cases to put proposed parenting plans in writing; allowing for the appointment of a children’s attorney; and identifying factors to be weighed in custody decisions.
Rep. Bob Belfanti, D-Northumberland County, said the bill doesn’t go far enough. But legislation he sponsored — which includes a presumption policy — has failed to generate enough legislative support.
Thomas Tessaro of Franklin Park, a board member with the local National Congress for Fathers and Children chapter, said Manderino’s bill “does nothing to stop fathers from being excluded from the lives of their kids.”
He said federal statistics show Pennsylvania mothers win custody 75 percent of the time. Joint custody is awarded in 10.8 percent of the cases. Fathers win custody in 8.2 percent of the cases.
Two local attorneys said most measures in Manderino’s bill are standard practice in Allegheny County.
“The bill is simply taking what is common law and making it statutory, so it would be simply a continuation of the work being done here,” Blechman said.
Attorney Carol McCarthy agrees.
“Equally shared custody can only work if parents can work cooperatively together. That’s what creates problems for kids — the state of friction between their parents,” she said.
“And the case law is clear — it’s all about the children’s best interests, not about the parents.”