Friday 7 October 2016

Why More And More Women Are Losing Custody Battles Over Their Children

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Mothers have traditionally been viewed as the best caregiver for their children by the courts. In recent years, this bias has slowly been changing, as mental health experts learn more about the healthy mother-child bond and the unhealthy attachment of a mother 

From the outset, it is important for mothers and fathers to recognize that married parents of minor children start out with joint legal custody rights. This means that both parents have equal rights to their children, and the same right to pursue custody of their children in their divorce case. In a world where many households contain two working parents, and many fathers have an active role in raising their children, the presumption that mothers will automatically get custody no longer exists.

In fact, statistics show that fathers who seek custody of their children, are awarded custody 50% of the time!

Like millions of women of her generation, Karen Martin dared to believe that women really could have it all. 
A high-flying creative director at a London advertising agency, she got married, had two children and while her husband, Mark, played the house husband, she was the family breadwinner. 

For a while, this very modern arrangement appeared to be working out perfectly. 
Then her husband had a fling with a single mother he met at a playgroup and Karen threw him out. 

What followed was a traumatic court battle which saw a judge hand custody of her eight-year-old son and six-year-old daughter to their father, who lives on benefits in a council house. 
To add insult to injury, the judge ordered Karen to pay maintenance to her former husband. 
Kramer vs Kramer

Tug of war: Justin Henry and Dustin Hoffman in the film Kramer vs Kramer which involved a custody battle
'At the end of the court case, the children went home with him,' she says. 'I was utterly devastated. I virtually collapsed with shock.' 
But 43-year-old Karen's story is far from unusual. Every year, the number of mothers who have little or no contact with their children is rising. 
Increasingly, it seems, our courts are favouring husbands over career wives. 
The latest Child Support Agency figures show that women are registered as the nonresident parent in 66,900 maintenance cases. 
Of course we do not know the details of each story, but the support group Mothers Apart From Their Children (Match) says there are 150,000 mothers in Britain who do not live with their children. 
Karen recalls how she was described in court by her former husband's barrister: 'He painted a picture of me as a hard-faced woman who was more interested in board meetings than school plays,' she says. 'It was so far from the truth.' 
The reality, she says, was that her ex, a former building site foreman, had volunteered to stay at home with the children because they needed her six-figure salary to pay the mortgage on the family's three bedroom home in North London. 
'After his affair, my employers were fantastic and accommodated my need to leave work on time to collect my children. 

'The eldest was at school by then and I enrolled the youngest at a nursery. It was a major juggling act, but I was always there to feed and bath the children, and read them bedtime stories. 
'I took them to nursery and school every morning and they saw their dad at weekends.' 
Then, 18 months ago, the couple went head to head in court to fight for custody. 
'Though Mark had not returned to work and was living with his parents in Gloucestershire, the judge ruled it was a more favourable environment for the children than living with a career mother,' says Karen. 

'He lives in a council house on benefits. I'm speechless that the courts feel this is a better environment for my children to be raised in than living with a parent who has a strong work ethic and a lovely home.' 

But observers point out that while the tide may appear to be turning against working women, this shift in custodial arrangements can be seen as a direct consequence of women's fight for equality in the workplace. 
For years men who have fulfilled the traditional role of breadwinner have lost out when it comes to winning custody of their children - regardless of their income. 

Now women have asserted their right to enjoy similarly challenging careers, the question of whether they have the right to complain when they lose custody is a pertinent one.
'There's no gender discrimination in the courts,' says Elizabeth Hicks, partner and head of family law at solicitors Irwin Mitchell. 

'The roles of men and women have changed dramatically in recent years. A couple may decide it's more beneficial for a woman to work and a man to stay at home with the children.' 
But there are consequences to this set-up. 'If that's how they have chosen to arrange their lives, why would it be fair that if they split up, the mother should get custody just because she is a woman?' says Ms Hicks. 

'If the husband is the main carer during the marriage and it breaks down, it is likely that the court will seek to preserve that arrangement. The courts work on the basis of what is in the child's best interest and it is looked at on a case-by-case basis.'
Counsellor Sarah Hart, the author of a new book, A Mother Apart, is also aware of this backlash against working mothers. 
'Custody versus career is so topical and an increasing number of career mothers are losing out in the family courts,' she says. 

'The courts don't necessarily view a mother as a capable primary carer of her children if she also has a successful career.' 
Jane Briggs, a former managing director of a beauty business, gave up her career on the advice of her solicitor when she became embroiled in a custody battle with her former husband, Jason. 

'My solicitor advised me that it would go in my favour if I didn't work because I would gain the court's sympathy,' says the 47- year-old. 
'I couldn't believe it. My career defined who I was. But I took my solicitor's advice, gave up the business and went to university to maintain my self-esteem.' 

The couple got married in the mid-Eighties and had a son, Dominic, a year later. 
Another year on, Jane returned to work to help pay the mortgage. 
'But when Jason was promoted I took the opportunity to have a career break to be with Dominic,' says Jane. 

'After a year of being at home, I yearned for my career again. I'd worked hard for it and had been so used to having money and independence.' 
In the end, her career - and the fact her salary was double that of her husband's - became a major bone of contention in the marriage and the couple split when their son was five. 
'At first, Jason went to live in London and we agreed Dominic would stay with me in Canterbury, but would see his father every weekend,' says Jane. 

'Then Jason dropped the bombshell that he was applying for custody.'
Despite giving up her career, when Jane was in court she found she was being compared unfavourably to her husband and his new wife. 

'In court, the judge mentioned my career and studies and the fact Dominic was left in afterschool clubs until I was able to collect him. 
'The judge didn't care that having ambitions made me happy, which rubbed off positively on my relationship with Dominic. 

'Jason's new wife had a nine-to-five job as an administrator, so the judge ruled that my son would have more of a family life with them. 
'Incredibly, the court deemed that my aspirations made me as unfit a mother as my old, demanding career running a business. I wanted to scream. I was devastated. I've never recovered.' 
At first, Jane saw Dominic at weekends. But she claims her former husband turned her son against her. 

'He spent so much money on him, buying him the latest PlayStation and a puppy. 
'Dominic became resentful when I wouldn't buy him things. One weekend, in 1998, he asked me to buy him computer games. When I refused, he phoned his dad and asked to go home. 

'That was the last time I saw him. I wrote countless, countless letters to him that went unanswered. It was as if he had died.' 
A decade has passed since then and Dominic is now 23. Jane, ironically, hasn't been able to work for five years due to the stress of losing her son. 
But if women are only suffering what divorced fathers have experienced for decades, counsellor and author Sarah Hart points out that the stigma attached to women living apart from their children is far worse than it is for men. 

'People assume they have abandoned their children or been deemed unfit mothers by the courts. They are perceived as bad mums, odd - possibly even heartless - selfish or cruel. 
'Many keep it secret that they have children at all, such is the taboo that still surrounds a mother not living with her offspring. In reality, the circumstances surrounding a mother choosing to live apart from a child can be complex and emotionally charged. 
'Decisions are often made very quickly in times of high stress, few resources and seemingly few choices. Grief, guilt, regret and stress are just a few of the emotions these women contend with.' 

Family law expert Elizabeth Hicks adds: 'People assume that children will be with their mother, and there's still an element of surprise when they find out they're with their father.' 
Jane Briggs, who is still undergoing counselling over losing her son, says: 'Society makes me feel ashamed that I'm not with my son. 

'Other women are the worst critics and assume I must have done something wrong not to be with my child. I don't even know what he looks like now.' 
Polly Coombs, 50, from Cambridge, also believes her career ultimately went against her when it came to custody of her children. 

The publishing executive lost custody of her two daughters, now 18 and 16, two years ago after her marriage to former Army officer Adrian broke down. 
She is bitter because while she bankrolled the six-bedroom farmhouse and private school fees, she also collected her daughters from nursery and took on the role of major carer. 

'Even though he worked nine-to-five while I often wasn't home until 7pm or 8pm, I was the one who cooked for, bathed and clothed the girls and organised their social lives. 
'But as far as the court was concerned, I was a wicked career woman who put her children second. It was utter rubbish: I simply wanted to have both. 

'I listened open-mouthed in court as Adrian's barrister said that leaving my children in a nursery until I'd finished work made me an unfit mother. 
'Never mind that I had a husband who was home from work before me, but still saw it as my role to collect the girls.' 

When the girls were 16 and 14, they went to live with their father and his new wife. 
'Although I miss the girls desperately, I've refused to engage in a tug of war because that would be unfair to them. 
'What astonishes me is that since custody was awarded to Adrian, he hasn't worked and they live in a modest rented house, but the courts still deem him a better role model than me. 

'Although I was granted the access the girls requested, they have little interest in spending time with me. I've seen them only twice since Christmas.' 
Polly has discovered that society is unforgiving of a mother who does not live with her children and has had counselling to come to terms with her loss. 

So, does she regret her career in publishing? 'I bitterly regret how my career has been used against me,' she says. 'I know that if I'd worked part-time, the divorce courts would have looked at me more favourably. 

'Why should I be penalised for having a career as well as children?' 
Men might point out they have been on the receiving end of such treatment for decades. 

On the other hand, it could be argued that thanks to spiralling living costs, in today's society many women are working full-time and shouldering most of the parenting responsibilities. 

One thing is clear: the subversion of traditional roles in the home and at work may be a cause for celebration for feminists, but women themselves are suffering damaging side-effects. 

Karen Martin says her 'saving grace' is that she sees her children every weekend. She refuses to talk about regrets. 
'Why should I?' she says. 'Society deems it's fine for men to work and have children, so why shouldn't women have that right, too?' 
But the truth, however unpalatable, is that equality goes both ways.

Now, here is a list of the seven most common pitfalls of parties going through custody actions. Moms, if you want to lose your custody case, here is the way to do it. If you are a parent and you want to win custody, steer clear of the following:

Disparaging the other parent.

Judges tend to look favorably upon a parent who demonstrates that he/she supports the child's relationship with the other parent. A parent who is constantly denigrating the other parent, "leaking" anger, and negatively influencing the child's relationship with the noncustodial parent will be reprimanded. 

In extreme cases, there will allegations of parental alienation and interference with parenting time. Many judges will consider a change of custody if this type of interference is shown. Bottom line: if you want to show the Judge that you will promote the best interests of your child, then you need to show that you recognize the value of the child=s relationship with your ex, and will take the steps to encourage that relationship. 

Of course, when you are going through an adversarial proceeding with someone you don't like very much, it can be very hard to put those feelings aside for the sake of your child. But that is exactly what you need to do if you want to prevail in your case.

Not being the primary caretaker:

In most households, one parent is most responsible for caring for the children=s basic needs -- the so called primary caretaker. The parent who is the most involved in the children=s daily lives usually has the edge in a custody case. Therefore, if you are not putting in the time to do homework with your child, feeding, bathing, reading, taking him or her to the bus stop, you are at a disadvantage in a custody case. There is no better way to lose custody than to demonstrate to a judge that you are simply not involved in raising your child.

Not being active in your child's schedule and activities:

Do you know the names of your child's teachers? Have you ever supervised your child on a play date or taken your child to the doctor? Do you regularly attend school conferences and school events? If the answer to these is "No", then it is an indication that someone else (i.e. the other parent) is the primary caretaker, not you.

Alcohol, drugs, or other parental fitness issues:

A parent who even casually partakes in alcohol and/or drugs will have a problem in winning custody. Most judges will take allegations of substance abuse seriously, and these allegations will be investigated thoroughly via random testing, psychological evaluations, and interviews. If you have an issue with substance abuse, then seek treatment for it immediately. If you are the perpetrator of domestic violence or abuse (which often goes hand in hand with alcohol use), this also pretty much guarantees that you will lose custody.

Leaving a paper trail that will hang you in Court:

Thanks to new technology, virtually every custody trial features the submission of evidence that can be used to portray the other parent in a very damaging light. Sometimes the evidence can make or break the custody case. The evidence can include text messages, photos and negative emails. Also potentially harmful are video and voice mail recordings. If you are prone to sending impulsive emails and texts, ranting and raving at the other parent, third parties, or your own child, you are at risk of losing custody.

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