Over the past few decades, research has shown the importance of fathers to their children’s well-being. These studies show children in father-absent environments are almost four times more likely to live in poverty, are more likely to use drugs and alcohol, have significantly lower educational attainment, and are more likely to be sexually active.
Children in father-absent environments are also more likely to engage in juvenile delinquency, have higher risk of being victimized by crime including sexual assault and domestic violence, and are more than twice as likely to commit suicide
Despite this information, many people still fail to understand the importance of fathers. According to research by Joan Berlin Kelly, 50% of mothers “see no value in the father’s continued contact with his children after a divorce.”
In light of this alarming statistic, it is perhaps not surprising that a study published by the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry found that “40 percent of mothers report that they had interfered with the noncustodial father’s visitation on at least one occasion, to punish their ex-spouse.”
A recent report by the Federal Administration for Children and Families describes a harmful phenomenon called “maternal gatekeeping,” in which mothers interfere with fathers’ access to their children. According to this report, “more than half of nonresident fathers offered accounts of gatekeeping behavior, ranging from refusing to grant physical access to making frequent last-minute schedule changes.
Gatekeeping also came in more indirect forms, such as refusal to communicate in person or by phone, withholding information from the father about the child, or berating the father.”
Motives for maternal gatekeeping vary. In some cases, mothers use children as a weapon and deny fathers access to their children as a way to punish them. In other cases, mothers use children for financial gain. According to the ACF report, “mothers would sometimes restrict access when a father failed to provide ‘extras’ over and above the required child support.”
Given the importance of father-child relationships, Nebraska judges need to do more to protect them. First, judges need to ensure fathers who live apart from their children’s mothers have adequate parenting time with their children.
According to a 2013 Nebraska Supreme Court study that reviewed ten years of Nebraska custody data, mothers were awarded sole or primary custody in 72% of cases. The study also found judges grant noncustodial parents about 17% of the parenting time on average, which is only half the minimum time recommended by mental health research. According to the research, judges should grant at least 35% parenting time to each parent except in limited cases.
Second, Nebraska judges need to enforce parenting time orders more rigorously. Mothers who violate parenting time orders often are not punished until the third or fourth violation. Not only is this harmful to the children involved, it is also very different from how judges enforce child support orders.
While mothers often get two or three warnings before they are punished for violating parenting time orders, fathers often are punished immediately even if they are unable to comply with child support orders. To make matters worse, the state provides free legal services to mothers to enforce child support but provides no help to fathers to enforce parenting time.
In situations where parents repeatedly violate parenting time orders, judges should be quicker to change custody and reduce the offending parents’ parenting time. Judges should also show greater willingness to award attorneys’ fees in situations where parenting time orders have been violated.
Third, judges should be far more sensitive to situations in which one parent interferes with the child’s relationship with the other parent. These situations, sometimes called “parental alienation” or “parent-child relationship problem,” require immediate intervention. Unfortunately, many judges fail to act or unintentionally enable the bad behavior, which often causes lasting harm to the children and targeted parent.
Finally, judges should have a greater awareness of false domestic violence allegations, which is a common tactic in maternal gatekeeping situations. A 2005 study in Family Court Review found 59% of domestic violence allegations made in contested custody cases were not supported by evidence. Similarly, an analysis of domestic violence restraining orders concluded 81% were unnecessary or based on false allegations. This is consistent with other evidence that “between 50% and 80% of abuse allegations cannot be substantiated in child custody cases where a high conflict exists between the parents and there is a young child involved.”
Father-child relationships are critical to healthy child development. Nebraska judges must do more to protect these relationships.