In custody battles, women usually get the kids — but not the money to raise them

By Kelly Hayes-Raitt

Kelly Hayes-Raitt with her mother and brother in 1966

Kelly Hayes-Raitt with her mother and brother in 1966

David Pisarra is a Santa Monica lawyer who specializes in the worst type of legal practice — family law, where mean divorces and children played as pawns dominate his days. He’s an expert in men’s legal rights and argues — correctly, I believe — that not all women make the best parents.

Although judges are not supposed to have a biological bias when awarding custody, an estimated 83% still award children to their mothers. Cultural biases of stay-at-home moms and full-time working dads are hard to shake.

It’s not necessarily that judges are biased, argues Pisarra — it’s society. A whopping 91% of custody cases are decided between the parents; the courts just approve these decisions. Only 4% of custody cases go to trial, and of those only 1.5% is decided by a judge.

“Courts don’t want to decide custody. They do everything they can to force the participants to get to an agreement on their own,” Pisarra says. “So much of the family dynamics were already determined years ago. Courts default to the status quo. That usually means husband-earner / wife-stay-at-home or part-time-earner.  Courts rubber stamp that unless there’s something that’s changed in mom’s dynamic.”

This wasn’t always the case. Historically, women had no legal standing to fight for custody of their children and men used that dominance to hold women “in their place.” But custody is just part of the issue. Determining and collecting fair child support is more problematic.

Women may get the kids — and all the responsibility that goes along with that — but they don’t necessarily get the cash to raise them.

“Money is what fuels the fight in child custody cases,” says Pisarra. “If you look at Denmark, there’s a max child support of $180 a month in child custody cases. Nobody fights over custody there — it has no monetary value.”

My father was a deadbeat dad. After he and my mom divorced when I was five, he rarely paid the $30 per week child support for my younger brother and me. Forced onto food stamps, Mom did her best to hold it together financially. Her day’s wages barely covered the cost of the day-long babysitter.

Mom went through cycles of trying to get Dad to contribute to his children’s upbringing by hiring lawyers and hauling him into court.

Mom would dress up, traipse the 40 miles to Buffalo, pay for parking and watch her ex-husband led out of court in handcuffs — not realizing that Dad and the judge were drinking buddies, and that by happy hour the two men would be toasting each other at their favorite watering hole, according to my Dad’s sister.

In 1971, Mom responded to a letter-to-the-editor in the Dunkirk (NY) Evening Observer by a woman fed up with trying to force her ex-husband to feed their kids. The woman invited any other moms from our small community with the same predicament to a meeting at her home.

A dozen or so women showed up, and from that kitchen table Mothers For Fair Child Support was born. Mom was elected the first chairperson.

The all-volunteer group raised money by throwing bake sales. The owner of the local supermarket allowed us to put up folding tables in the baked goods section of his grocery store; I made funky “flower power” signs advertising the prices. Mom sent me around the store with a petition on a clipboard: Who could resist an 11-year-old with a pitch to “sign here to get deadbeat dads to pay child support”?

Although rarely enforced, federal child support laws had existed in the U.S. since 1950 as amendments to the Social Security Act, an interesting holdover from England’s Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601 that allowed parishes to recoup public money spent on children whose fathers had financially abandoned them.  Particularly vexing was when divorced dads moved across state lines.

“It was impossible to collect [child support] between states,” my mom, Carole Hayes, said recently. “We had nothing. We needed more enforcement. The significant thing [Mothers for Fair Child Support accomplished] was the reciprocity between states. No longer
could men cross state lines
and be immune from their responsibilities.”

Before long, Mom and the other women were answering hundreds of letters from
women all over the U.S. and Canada.

Other Mothers for Fair Child Support groups formed and more states’ laws were changed.

In 1975, Congress passed a significant law to enforce child support collection, particularly between states.

Forty years later, I ask Pisarra, the family law attorney, “What could improve this situation?”

Without hesitation, he answers: “Greater earning capacity for women. If women had [equal] earning capacity, there would be greater equality in parenting.”

Learn more about Pisarra at MensFamilyLaw.com.

Kelly Hayes-Raitt, a Santa Monica resident, blogs at LivingLargeInLimbo.com.
She can be reached at KellyArgonautColumn@aol.com.