By Sandra Kobrin
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
Britney Spears has lost custody of her two children amid ghoulish media pleasure in her predicament. It's tempting to think she's a special case, but Sandra Kobrin says the tide is against mothers fighting custody battles in family court.
(WOMENSENEWS)--Divorce your husband? Say goodbye to your kids.
That's the message family courts are sending to women in conflict-ridden families everywhere, including Britney Spears, who recently lost custody of her two children amid the usual torrent of stories about her failings and foibles.
More than just the latest casualty of the media who seem to glom onto "bad mother" stories with alarming zest, Spears is the latest casualty of a family court system which in the past 15 years has been skewed in favor of fathers in high-conflict cases, which often include accusations of abuse and bitter antagonism throughout court proceedings.
While I'm in no position to judge Spears and her individual case--despite the media's portrayal of her as just a hair less offensive than Medea--publicly and privately funded testimony projects and numerous state and local studies show that when men file for custody against women, the majority of women lose their children. Even battered women.
In the United States in 2005, the nationwide marriage rate was just under 8 percent, resulting in 2 million marriages, and the divorce rate affecting them was pushing 4 percent, meaning 1 in 2 marriages end in divorce. About 10 percent of U.S. divorces involve custody litigation and affect about 100,000 children each year.
Whether moms or dads are winning custody is a difficult trend to track because family court data are sealed and no federal agency tracks what's going on. Moreover, most custody decisions are reached by the parents and merely approved by the courts.
But there is enough evidence to convince me that we have moved a long way from the 1950s and 1960s, when women would almost automatically win custody. Now I'd say the opposite is true.
Statewide testimony projects have been conducted--and continue to go forward--around the country. They involve researchers who interview both women and men after a divorce about the outcomes of their custody cases.
An example is the 2002 study produced by the Wellesley Center for Women, a research organization affiliated with Wellesley College in Massachusetts. After three years of in-depth interviews with 40 battered mothers who were unhappy with their custody and visitation orders, judges, guardians and probation officers, the researchers concluded that the courts exhibited a bias against women, particularly battered women.
Such findings tell me little has improved since 1989, when a study by the Judicial Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts described a family court system where the "interests of the father are given more weight than the interests of mothers and children." Or since a 1990 Florida Supreme Court gender bias study that found "many men file proceedings to contest custody as a way of forcing an advantageous property settlement and, contrary to public perception, men are quite successful in obtaining residential custody of their children when they actually seek it."
In fact, things may be getting wo