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Do Dads Still Get Screwed Over in Divorce Court?

Child custody and alimony have historically been a point of radicalization for MRAs, but how much of that is still true today?

After 16 years of marriage, Rudy wanted to divorce his wife and secure custody of their 3-year-old son, since — according to him — she had demonstrated neither an affinity nor a proclivity for parenting. “She didn’t want to be a part of his life when we were married,” the 44-year-old tells me. “So I didn’t think she’d take care of him when we weren’t.”

Going through with it, though, was another matter. Rudy was spooked by horror stories of family courts being biased against men — particularly, the self-immolation of Thomas James Ball, who in June 2011 had lit himself on fire on the steps of a New Hampshire courthouse to protest what he considered a rigged system that had destroyed his family. Ball screamed as he stumbled from the courthouse steps, engulfed in flames, before eventually falling silent, smoldering on his hands and knees.

I better lawyer up, Rudy thought.

The attorneys he consulted, however, wanted anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000 to represent him, which he couldn’t afford. But one day, as he was exiting the freeway in L.A., he spotted a sign nail-gunned to a telephone poll. “FATHERS: We can help,” it read, followed by three things it could help with — “child support,” “custody” and “visitation.”

While the marketing technique might be novel, the sign’s message is familiar. “Divorce for Men” (and fathers in particular) has become a distinct legal niche across the country over the last 20 years, as more and more law firms look to monetize the perception that family courts are engaged in gender discrimination. A 1994 report, for example, found that family courts awarded sole custody to moms 49 percent of the time as opposed to just 12 percent of the time to dads. (Even joint custody was granted only a quarter of the time.)

At the time of the report, this had more or less been the case for 160 years. Or more specifically, since the 1830s, which is when a prominent social reformer and feminist named Caroline Norton campaigned for the right of women to have custody of their children, arguing that women were more naturally equipped as parents. (Until then, English family law had given custody of the children to the father after a divorce because he was able to better provide for them.) In 1839, Norton was eventually able to convince the British Parliament to enact the Custody of Infants Act, establishing a presumption of maternal custody for children under the age of seven years while maintaining the responsibility of financial support to their husbands. Forty years later, the Parliament extended the presumption of maternal custody until a child reached 16.

Meanwhile, the doctrine quickly spread throughout the world — and per fathers’ rights attorneys and men’s rights activists, it hasn’t changed much since. “As a society we’ve made progress regarding gender in a number of areas,” Joseph Cordell, founder of the largest men’s divorce-focused firm in America, told The Guardian in 2016. “But the dark corner of the room when it comes to civil rights, I can tell you, is dads’ rights in family courts.”

The darkest grievances have included fathers becoming nothing more than ATMs in a divorce; fathers rarely getting equal access to their children; and fathers falling victim to false abuse allegations. (Cordell estimates that 85 percent of temporary restraining order requests against men during divorces are mere “tactics.”)

The manosphere, of course, is happy to amplify these fears. One MRA redditor, for example, was urged to kill his wife after he claimed the State of California made him “homeless and a slave” after a loss in court. “A man entering family court expecting to come out the other side fine is like a cow entering a slaughterhouse expecting to come out the other side fine,” explains JoeBender1, one of many Men Who Go Their Own Way (or MGTOW), a loose coalition of predominantly straight men who have sworn off women.

“Slaughter,” however, isn’t the preferred term among MGTOWs and those who belong to the Return of Kings and TheRedPill subreddit (the other two-thirds of the MRA trifecta). That would be “Divorce Rape,” which is used to describe a wife who manipulates divorce courts to seize a husband’s assets and deny him access to his children.

With all this in mind, Rudy called the number on the sign (866–72-DADDY) and reached Reginald Brass, the founder of My Child Says Daddy, a support and advocacy group for divorced fathers seeking an active role in the upbringing of their children. Brass’ social media presence led Rudy to believe he was on the level. His fee — $2,700 — also seemed reasonable, so Rudy agreed to meet for a $95 consultation.

Brass explains to me that the majority of what he does is mentor men when they can’t see their kids and inspire them to keep fighting as he guides them through the court system. He also provides a support network, he says, holding informational and educational meetings on Monday nights where dads can learn from experts in the field — i.e., family court judges, divorce lawyers, officials from Child Services, etc. “When a child is born out of wedlock, fathers have no rights to that child unless they take the mother to court,” he claims.

“I think we’ll see a lot more places like My Child Says Daddy in the coming years, because the bias in family courts is just terrible: Mothers weaponize the kids; lawyers weaponize the family; and fathers get turned into wallets,” says Paul Elam, the founder of A Voice for Men — essentially the flagship site of the MRA movement. “So it doesn’t surprise me at all that there are [lawyers] looking to exploit the misery of men.”

While all of this seems plausible — the most legitimate gripe among MRAs has always been how men are treated by family courts — it does feel outdated. If not 1950s old, at least 1990s old. Primarily because relationships between men and women have changed so much over the last 25 years — specifically in terms of child-rearing and household income. That is, both parents are now actively in engaged in their children’s lives as well as splitting much of the financial burden. “Back [in the 1990s], judges were older and grew up in a traditional family where the father worked and the mother was a homemaker,” says Michael Brennan, a fathers’ rights attorney who Brass has regularly featured as a guest speaker over the years as well as the author of the 1994 book Custody for Fathers. “As a result, in divorce courts, mom nearly always got the kids and dad paid a certain amount in child support.”

Today, though, Brennan says things are different. “[Contemporary judges] realize fathers are just as involved in parenting as the mothers, taking turns cooking, cleaning and parenting.” In fact, in Southern California, he says the default for most judges has shifted from every other weekend to as close to a joint-custody situation as possible.

It’s not just a progressive California thing either. After eight years of practicing divorce law in the Twin Cities, attorney Zach Smith confirms that there’s “unquestionably” a trend toward more equal parenting time. “The laws have always been written gender-neutral,” he says. “It’s the enforcement that hasn’t been. That’s changing now.” (In addition to California and Minnesota, Alabama, Alaska, Kentucky and the District of Columbia have also enacted laws that presume shared parenting time.) Thus, these days, when fathers protest that they’re “being screwed by the court system,” Smith says they’re often being unreasonable. “Some dads live an hour away in traffic and say, ‘Why can’t I have equal parenting time?’ Well, how are you going to get the kid to school every morning? Are you really proposing the kid wakes up at 4:30 a.m. to get driven an hour in traffic to school, just to be able to say you have ‘equal parenting time’?”

Overall, Smith believes joint custody does a disservice to kids. “It might be what the parents want,” he explains, “but there are many scenarios in which it just doesn’t make sense to do equal parenting time. Close to half of my cases, for example, involve a parent with a serious drug, alcohol or mental health issue.” Other limiting factors, he adds, include parents having inconvenient work schedules and one parent simply being uncomfortable with the kids — and vice versa.

In the end then, a lot of this comes down to — what else? — money. “Since child support is determined by the number of overnights the children stay with each parent, moms and dads both want the children so that they don’t have to pay as much,” says Kathey Batey, creator of Divorce Support Anonymous, a group for people going through the trauma of divorce. These financial proxy wars obviously can be very detrimental to the children, she says, which is why she advocates circumventing the courts entirely by way of mediation, where a neutral party like Batey meets directly with the mother and the father to negotiate asset distribution, debt liability and parenting protocols.

“Mediation puts control back into the hands of the parties rather than the courts,” she explains, enabling both parents to make decisions that will affect them and their children for the rest of their lives. It also eliminates any bias in the court — perceived or otherwise — since taking care of your own business means others won’t do it for you.

None of this, though, really gets at the perception, which for most men (and certainly for most MRAs) is that family courts are still royally fucking them. “Men are treated so unfairly, and they need help,” says Aaron Mello, president of Rocky Mountain MRA, a grassroots organization dedicated to “creating meaningful positive change in the lives of men and boys.” Nor does his narrative change much when I explain that all seven of the lawyers I’d spoken to had offered some variation of the following: It remains an uphill battle for dads in family court and some biases still exist, but compared to where we were 30 years ago, family courts are much more equitable.

So I ask Mello again: Is the perceived bias against fathers based on outdated concept? And if not, can he point me to current data that demonstrates otherwise?

“I honestly don’t have data,” he admits, though he promises to send me something if he can come up with it. In the meantime, he offers 30-year-old anecdotal evidence of his own dad getting a bad deal. “My parents divorced in the early 1990s. My mother was granted primary custody, and my dad paid child support but only saw us on the weekends. It created a lot of conflict, as my dad, who grew up pretty poor, had worked very hard to put himself through college and earn a good income. When they divorced, he lost control over how the money he earned for his family was spent. That was really hard for him. I agree things have gotten somewhat better. It’s just frustratingly slow, and the upstream causes that contribute to the divorce epidemic haven’t improved a lot.”

Rudy says his main advice to dads would be to do everything possible to make the relationship work and be completely sure you want to get divorced, which he calls an “uphill battle through a slow, convoluted process.” It didn’t help that he alleges Brass disappeared on him, taking $2,700 in cash for about one hour of work. (All but two of the Yelp reviews for My Child Says Daddy are one star, most being some variation of Alfredo R.’s: “Reginald Brass can best be described as a liar, a crook and a CON ARTIST.”)

In the end, Rudy went out on his own — pro per — and got the results he wanted in less than a year: Full custody of his son with no visitation for the mom. Or as he advises, “If you and your partner are remotely in the same boat financially, don’t pay for an attorney because the court is going to divide everything 50/50—no matter what anyone says.”