REFORM GEORGIA’S FAMILY LAW COURTS NOW

In today’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution, reporter Bill Rankin writes about how Georgia’s jail-time-for-deadbeat-parents policy is creating what some, including former Georgia Supreme Court Justice Leah Ward Sears, are calling debtors’ prisons.

The AJC quotes Seth Harp, chair of the Georgia Child Support Guidelines Commission saying “I recognize many have lost their jobs, literally exhausted all their efforts to find work, exhausted their employment benefits. And I also know courts will often err heavily against the parent who’s being brought into court. The philosophy is, ‘We’ve got to take care of the children.'”

I am puzzled as to how putting a child’s parent in jail helps the child unless the parent was abusing the child. Of course, it’s helpful to the custodial parent—usually the mom—to be able to hold the hammer of the law over a non-paying parent’s head, but even that doesn’t really help family relations; such threats usually escalate tensions which harm children and create a state of war in the household.

Reforming the way divorced or non-married parents support their children should be part of a comprehensive reform of Georgia’s family courts. We need to:

–Remove the profit incentives from divorce and custody cases for attorneys. My ex-husband and I worked out our own agreement (see the following column) because we recognized early on that lawyers were likely to gin up conflict and then bill us for resolving it.

–Assume that both parents have a right to equal time with the kids, unless compelling evidence supports a conclusion to the contrary.

–Put iron-clad, enforceable measures in place that govern what happens when one parent moves away or when a parent refuses to honor visitation agreements. It is often the case that police are called to try to enforce visitation, but they may be handed outdated paperwork by an angry parent. Police really don’t know who to believe in these instances and such episodes are especially volatile (nothing will ever upset you more than not being able to see your child when you’re supposed to). There should be an electronic database on file for police to consult in such instances. Or schools for that matter, some of which treat the dad as if he’s a suspect when he comes to pick up the kids.

Here’s a column I wrote in June 2008 about the parenting plan my ex-husband and I put together. It has been published all over the world and I even did a radio talk show in Australia about it. (The bold emphasis on some words is not mine—it resulted when I cached the piece from Google, sorry):

GEORGIA’S FEMALE SUPREMACIST COURTS

(June 2008, Stephanie Ramage©)

Father’s Day will have passed by the time you read this, but as I write it, I’m making a mental note to take my son shopping for a gift for his dad.

My ex-husband and I divorced when our son was a toddler, and we got what my attorney called Georgia’s “standard boilerplate custody agreement.” It gave me custody of our son 70 percent of the time. My son’s father basically got to see him on weekends.

But as I looked around at other divorced moms, I became almost panicked by what I saw: sons who seethed with resentment against their mothers, whom they felt sure had driven away their fathers, and daughters who so desperately wanted a dad in their lives that they would latch on to just about any male authority figure who came along. Though in some cases the now-departed dads were truly bad news, in others, moms merely cooked up tales of atrocities committed by their former hubbies as part of a propaganda campaign designed to justify Daddy’s exile to their children. When I asked why a father isn’t as much of a parent as a mother, those moms were speechless. Furious, but speechless. A few confided that they were afraid of what people would think of them if they didn’t have majority custody. “Only a mom who’s a heroin addict doesn’t get majority custody and if you tell people it’s equal custody, in their minds it’s the same,” one said.

By the time our son was 4, we were already phasing him into shared equal joint physical custody—not a legally hammered-out agreement, mind you, but our own arrangement, based on a mutual desire that our child not be deprived of either of us, no matter our personal grievances against each another. Such informal arrangements are not a matter of public record, so when the courts look at the number of shared equal joint custody agreements, they draw the conclusion that it’s a rare thing. It’s not, but most of the people who eventually do it have no interest in going back to an adversarial legal system, where only the attorneys win, to make it official.

Our arrangement has worked beautifully for our son. It has also, quite frankly, required substantial sacrifice by my ex-husband and me. I have turned down half a dozen job offers that would have required me to move out of state—taking my son away from the man who means more to him than anything.

I remember once, several years ago, getting the job offer of a lifetime, one that was just astoundingly good. And it came at a time when I really needed something good to happen; I was working two part-time jobs to make ends meet. An old friend had risen in the ranks of his organization, and when there was an opening, he remembered me, recommended me and was assured that I could cakewalk my way into the prestigious position, located about a thousand miles from Atlanta. It would pay three times as much as I had ever made in my life,. But he needed an answer within the week.

I stayed up nights wondering what to do. Finally, I talked with a couple of relatives who told me, “One day your son is going to grow up and go away and what will you have? Be smart, take the job. You know the courts will let you take him with you. You’re his mom.” Friends also said “Take it.” Only a few said, “But what about his dad?”

The next day, I met my ex-husband to talk with him about working out a new visitation schedule based on my anticipated move halfway across the country. As I tried to make my point, I could hear my voice, like the voice of a stranger, oozing across the table, and I felt ashamed. My heart was listening and, no matter which words I chose, what it heard was: “I am a selfish woman who would willingly ruin her son’s happiness by taking him away from you, his father, for the sake of a big, fat paycheck and a respectable job. I am greedy and heartless and too self-absorbed to even acknowledge how important you are to him.”

I felt my face redden and tears stung my eyes. I blurted an apology, said something like “Never mind, forget it. Just forget I ever said anything,” and excused myself. I e-mailed my friend as soon as I got home, saying, “I can’t take the job. My son’s life is here and mine is with him.”

I love my son with the profound love that just about any parent feels for a child, but the greatest example that I have of that love is my decision to share his time equally with his father. (By the way, I have never, ever regretted my decision not to take that job.)

As my son has grown with both his dad and me as equal partners in his life—spending one week with Dad and the next with me (and seeing each of us sometimes when it’s not “our week”)—I have reaped more joy in his well-being than any paycheck could have given me. I know it’s not for everyone, but this arrangement has certainly worked for my son.

When I consider Georgia’s family law policies and that “boilerplate” agreement, I am struck by the idea that even in our criminal courts, a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty, but in our family courts, a father is usually presumed to be guilty of not being as good a parent as a mother, of not being worthy of equal time with his children. It is strange to me that women are treated only as if they have divorced their spouses, but men are treated as if they have divorced their children as well. Women, by virtue of their gender, something as arbitrary as the color of their skin, are assumed to be the rightful custodial parents. I don’t believe that children were intended to have just one parent, although some single moms, out of necessity, have done an amazing job of raising their children alone. Nor do I believe that fathers are less important than moms.

If ours is an egalitarian society, then why do we allow an ideology of female supremacy in the decisions of our family courts?

A brilliant political scientist at Stanford University told me recently that he believes our laws reflect not necessarily the kind of society we are, but the kind of society we aspire to be. If that is indeed the intention behind our laws, then isn’t it the purpose of our family laws to mitigate, as much as is possible, the damage done by divorce? Georgia’s laws cannot put a married couple back together again, but they can go much further than they do toward making sure that children have both parents even after a divorce. SR

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