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Fathers’ rights advocates are pushing legislation and class actions across the country in an effort to correct what they see as a judicial bias that overwhelmingly awards custody to mothers. Since last month, constitutional challenges have been filed as class actions in 41 states to assert divorced fathers’ rights to equal custody of children. Legislators say that 27 states have already reformed custody laws to assert a preference for joint custody, barring cases where it would not be in the best interest of the child. But advocates say their goal is to create a nationwide standard where judges start with a presumption of a 50-50 custody division, modifiable in the best interests of the children. However, some lawyers and children’s rights groups are waving red flags, saying that approach imposes a one-size-fits-all standard that only takes the focus off the children. “Courts should not approach custody decisions from the perspective of the parents,” said Marvin Ventrell, a lawyer and executive director of the National Association of Counsel for Children. “The focus here should be the welfare of the children.” Research does not support the view that fathers are disenfranchised and courts require a serious showing of unfitness to award sole custody, Ventrell asserted. But fathers’ rights groups claim that 84% of custodial parents are mothers. The pro se class actions filed in 41 states purport to represent 22 million fathers and 3 million mothers who have been denied equal access to their kids. An identical complaint was filed in federal courts in each state, said Torm Howse of the Indiana Civil Rights Council, a nonprofit fathers’ rights group which is coordinating the effort. “It’s the identical suit everywhere because we’re approaching it from an angle of having it combined as multidistrict litigation,” Howse said. The effort is winning applause from related groups like the American Coalition for Fathers and Children, the largest shared-parenting group. The group’s executive director, Michael McCormick, said a number of U.S. Supreme Court decisions assert parents’ fundamental right to shared custody of their children. “We agree with the assessment that 50-50 would not work in every case,” McCormick said. “But there is a strict set of guidelines that a judge must follow before they abrogate your parental rights and proportion your life.” Pennsylvania Representative Tom Stevenson has initiated a bill that would bring his state in line with the 27 other states that have adopted a legal presumption or preference for joint custody, where it is in the best interests of the child. Stevenson said he was motivated to introduce the bill out of a concern for judicial bias in family divisions and an increasing fatherlessness that he said is the single greatest cause of juvenile delinquency. Judges say there is no magic percentage or single right formula to apply in every case. “We are required to look at trying to develop a parenting plan that provides the child with frequent and continuing contact [with both parents],” said Judge Dolores Carr of the Family Court Division of Santa Clara County Superior Court in California. California has a public policy preference for contact with both parents where it is in the best interest of the children. “Ultimately, we try to give people the freedom to sort out their lives on their own,” Carr said. “But in the event that they can’t resolve it, we recognize that in most cases there is no single right answer.” No easy fix Divorce lawyers agree there is no easy fix. “They’re trying to put a cookie-cutter solution on a complex issue,” said Lynne Gold-Bikin of Philadelphia’s Wolf, Block, Schorr and Solis-Cohen. Shared legal custody is a difficult concept because it requires sparring couples to agree on what is in the best interest of their children, Gold-Bikin said. Gold-Bikin added, “I have clients who litigate over everything. “One recently wanted to file for contempt because the other parent let the kid stay up late to watch the Academy Awards.” Family courts have to look at the family after divorce, and the only pattern they have is when the family was intact, said Jane E. Lessner of Philadelphia’s Fox Rothschild. “Often what they see is one parent with the bulk of the child rearing and the other with more financial responsibility,” she said.

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