The fathers’ rights movement advocates for fathers who feel deprived of their parental rights and subjected to systematic bias as men after divorce or separation. The term fathers’ rights is relevant to interpersonal violence primarily in custody and visitation cases involving domestic violence.
The fathers’ rights movement emerged in the 1970s as a loose social movement with a network of interest groups primarily active in Western countries. Established to campaign for equal treatment for men by the courts on issues such as child custody after divorce, child support, and paternity determinations, this network is also part of the broader men’s rights movement. While there is no written history of the movement, it is generally viewed as stemming from changes in both the law and societal attitudes. These changes include the introduction of no-fault divorce in 1969 and the attendant rise in divorce rates; the increasing entry of women into the workforce, upturning traditional gender roles; and the increasing social acceptance of single parents and their increased proportion of all families.
Fathers’ rights activists typically believe that the application of the law in family courts is biased against men. Because mothers have historically been seen as the primary caregivers for their children, they have often been granted custody of their children, causing some fathers to feel marginalized. Thus, one longstanding goal of fathers’ rights groups is obtaining “shared parenting,” asking that courts uphold a rebuttable presumption of joint custody after divorce or separation. Under a shared parenting arrangement, children would be required to live with each parent for the same amount of time, unless there were valid reasons not to do so.
Fathers’ rights advocates claim that women often falsify allegations of domestic violence to gain advantage in family law cases, and misuse protection orders to remove men from their homes or deny them contact with their children. Attorneys and advocates for abused women note that while it is not uncommon for family court proceedings to be accompanied by allegations of domestic violence and the use of protection orders, this is largely representative of the prevalence of domestic violence in our society, and of the fact that domestic violence often increases (or begins) at the time of separation or divorce. Many battered women seek protection orders as a last resort, after being subjected to continuous violence, because the orders can provide an effective means to gaining safety from the batterer.
While many mothers are awarded custody, there are many contested custody cases. In these contested cases, fathers often seek and win joint or full custody of the children. One way that a mother might lose custody is through the father’s use of a theory called parental alienation syndrome (PAS). Fathers’ rights groups see PAS as occurring when the mother has “poisoned” the minds of their children toward the other parent by brainwashing them into reporting abuse. When this legal tactic is used, the mother often loses custody or is forced to accept joint custody based on the father’s allegations of PAS.
While the fathers’ rights movement presents PAS as a credible theory, it is recognized as deeply flawed, based on extreme gender bias, and rooted in a disbelief of women and children who report abuse. Neither the American Psychological Association nor the American Psychiatric Association recognizes PAS as a credible theory, and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges has rejected the theory and recommended that it not be used when considering custody matters.
Women’s rights groups and profeminist men argue that fathers’ rights groups want to entrench patriarchy and undo the advances made by women in society. Those opposed to the fathers’ rights movement believe that the bias fathers’ rights members speak of in family courts either does not exist or is such that single mothers in particular are not advantaged as a class to the extent stated, especially in the face of sexism and male privilege and power.
- Dominus, S. (2005, May 8). The fathers’ crusade. New York Times Magazine, pp. 26–33, 50, 56–58.
- Flood, M. (2004). Backlash: Angry men’s movements. In S. E. Rossi (Ed.), The battle and backlash rage on: Why feminism cannot be obsolete (pp. 261–278). Philadelphia: Xlibris Press.
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