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Fathers, break ups, equality and US law

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As most of you will be aware, the so-called Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, has changed England’s GCSE curriculum and removed some superb and inspiring North American writers from the syllabus. In what will no doubt turn out to be a disastrous move, he’s insisting our children’s minds are anaesthetised with hard to comprehend, pre-twentieth century British writers.

There are no such restrictions on US-based writers on Dadbloguk and so I’m delighted to publish this guest post from Maren Wryn, who is based in Oregon. Stick with me for a moment because there’s a reason why I’m publishing this post.

Every now and again, I am contacted by men who are either in dreadful custody battles with ex-partners, or have major issues gaining access to their kids following a relationship break up. It’s a highly charged issue and one I have no experience of. As a result, I’ve always stuck away from writing about it.

Maren, however, has 20 years experience working in family law. Thinking that she must have a story or two to tell about fathers’and their treatment under Oregon’s legal system, I invited her to write a guest post based on her knowledge and understanding. As you’ll see, it seems to be a very progressive system in which both partners are expected to play a role.

On that note I shall leave you to enjoy Maren’s piece. Maren is an absolute joy to follow on twitter so please do consider conversing with her that way (details at the end).

Oh, and I’ve not edited Maren’s post at all. In a move I am sure the Education Secretary would disapprove of, I have left Maren’s American spelling and grammar untouched.

equality, US law, state law, Oregon law, fathers, mothers, Maren Wryn
Family break up and access to children were a specialism of Maren’s, the author of this splendid guest post.

I was flattered when John Adams (@dadbloguk) asked me to contribute to his popular blog. He suggested the subject of the legal status of fathers here in Oregon, USA. Having recently retired from over 20 years as a paralegal in the area of Divorce and Family Law, I responded that I would be happy to put something together. It was only when I began my research that I quickly realized the topic was more complicated than I remembered! Remember, stop reading if your eyes start to bleed. Here goes:

Oregon views parents as equals. There is no preference given to moms that cannot be extended to dads, except perhaps in the case of very young children, such as nursing infants. The mode through which the parents reach the court is also not exclusive. The court recognizes married parents, unmarried parents, divorced parents, petitions to establish paternity; and to establish a parental relationship (usually for step-parents) as well as LGBT parents – although sometimes that last category includes adoption law as well. I am happy to note that Oregon has just recognized universal marriage, so it won’t be necessary for same sex couples to adopt or establish a “parental relationship” anymore! The majority of cases reaching the court are self-filed – meaning the parties, or one of them, petition the court to rule on issues such as paternity, child custody, and parenting time plans for both parents.

My experience lies in the dissolution of marriages and other domestic partnerships, as well as post-dissolution amendments to child custody and parenting time.

It is Oregon’s goal to avoid changing the lives of the children as much as possible, while at the same time recognizing the powerful and often negative change inherent in the severance of their parents bond, as well as the unequal circumstances which can result. There is no official preference as to mom or dad ending up as the custodial parent. Ironically, it is a statute covering the establishment of paternity in the circumstance of unmarried parents, that best sets out the criteria of what a “father” is under Oregon law. (See Oregon Revised Statutes, Title 11, Chapters 107 and 109, and specifically ORS 109.070. http://www.oregonlaws.org/ors/109.070 http://www.oregonlaws.org/ors/volume/3

The ultimate award of custody is based on which parent is in a better position to personally provide the child with nurture, shelter, discipline, education, medical care and “incidental necessaries” which include such things as clothing and shoes, but also, interaction with the child which is regular and sustained over time and supports their “psychological and emotional need for a parent.” Over the 20 years I was in practice, the percentage of fathers who became the custodial parent has increased significantly; although I doubt it will ever overtake that of mothers.

One of the most important decisions that the court makes, besides custody, is the award of parenting time. In the bad old days it used to be called “visitation” and was almost exclusive a description of the father’s role. I specialized in drafting Parenting Plans for the separating couples. All counties in Oregon are required to have drafted a model Plan, and not all Plans are the same. In my county, Marion County, we enjoy having the original Plan, known widely as “Marion County SLR 8.075″ It can be found at http://courts.oregon.gov/Marion/docs/RulesAndFees/SLR14Final.pdf The Plan is so well crafted it has stood the test of time and, for nearly 15 years has served as the basis for all other parenting plans in the State.

While the ideal is 50%-50% parenting time, the reality is more like 65% to Custodial, and 35% to the Non-Residential parent. The court will entertain nearly any parenting plan the parties come up with, as long as the children do not go more than 14 days between physical contact with the non-residential parent, whenever possible. However, even that falls by the wayside if the designated custodial parent, typically mother, moves more than 60 miles distant from the childrens’ residence at the time the Plan was instituted. In fact, such a move is a fairly common post-divorce trigger for a request to re-examine custody. I have participated in many cases in which the father was awarded custody in that circumstance, especially if the move seems to be designed to place artificial distance between the father and his children.

If the Court is satisfied the move is legitimate, it will generally award compensatory parenting. Since weekends and special days are no longer available, the non-custodial parent will get the entire Summer and most, if not all of Christmas vacation. There are also credits to be had against child support for such things as air fare and other expenses newly incurred because of the move. The bottom line for our courts is maintaining regular, reliable contact between the children and both parents. This effort typically benefits fathers.

Fathers, generally, are not as actively discriminated against these days as they used to be insofar as child rearing is concerned. There are, for instance no rules at all about keeping them away from the maternity process. Quite the opposite, most fathers are encouraged to participate in everything – and being in the birthing room nowadays is nearly a requirement (if they don’t faint).

Seeing dads at the Mall with a baby strapped to their chest is a common sight. Visit any major grocery store on a Saturday mid-morning, and you will see a lot of dads wheeling little ones around in the cart. In those cases where parents are no longer together, the success of either parent is dependent on the goodwill of both parents (and often of their parents!) However, at least our laws and practices here in Oregon support equality, and insist on equity.

I’ve noticed a strong trend away from the concept that fathers are simply walking checkbooks or “Disneyland” dads by comparison to moms’ role. Families in which Dad is the stay-at-home primary parent are relatively rare in the US, although not unheard of. The majority of these seem to be happily partnered couples in which such a decision has been taken deliberately. Given the lack of employer understanding as to a single father’s role – either as custodial or non-residential parent, it is still doubly hard to award sole custody to dads, unless mother is simply unfit or unwilling.

At least, in Oregon, when that partnership fails, our courts do everything they can to make sure both parents maintain their relationships with their children to the greatest extent possible.

@OregonMJW on Twitter
Maren Wryn on Facebook

Photo credit: Musoromana Published under Creative Commons agreement.

4 thoughts on “Fathers, break ups, equality and US law”

  1. An interesting post. I’m wondering what happens if one parent moves out of the state, perhaps with the aim of making it more difficult for the other parent to maintain contact with the child? Do the different states have reciprocal arrangements to enforce agreements and orders?

    1. In a word – yes. All states have the same laws in that regard. See http://www.uniformlaws.org/shared/docs/child_custody_jurisdiction/uccjea_final_97.pdf

      Oh, you can move; and, if you’re custodial parent, you can take the child, But the onus and expenses of maintaining contact are on you – including air fare, etc., if you are found to have moved primarily to sever ties you could lose custody, and people do lose it all the time for that reason. But it’s an epic battle to get there from here.

      In real life, of course, it works differently. The aggrieved parent must petition the court for assistance. That’s expensive. The court will often consult – by direct telephone -with a jurist in the other state and get that state to agree to send a sheriff to go get the kid. Then, the withholding parent has to countersue to keep the child. It can get really REALLY expensive. Many times one or the other parent will be granted “supervised” parenting, meaning a third party monitor appointed by court is physically present (at a distance) to observe the interaction and report back. Nasty custody battles some times take years, and $10-20k.

      Just so you know, our courts are not my unwilling to sever parental rights altogether if one or the other is seriously abusive. But there is a long road ahead of that. Every family. broken or not, is given many many chances to do the right thing. Sometimes, they just don’t

      Thanks for asking! ;-D

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