Fatherhood brings both reward and responsibility. When families are split, though, custody issues come to the forefront, and fathers need the facts to understand their custody rights.
In English common law, children were viewed as the property of fathers, who had a legal obligation to protect, support and educate the children. In fact, fathers largely maintained undisputed child custody rights in the United States throughout much of the 1800s. The trend changed with the arrival of the twentieth century. Most people favoured maternal custody of children by the 1920s. The new approach remained untested as all of the country's then 48 states passed statutes asserting maternal preference in child custody cases. In the 1970s, most states shifted again and withdrew any preference. States replaced their statutes with a standard of focusing on the "best interests of the child."
Fathers now possess the same rights of custody as mothers. In some cases, parents reach an agreement regarding primary child custody. In other cases, they work out an agreement through a mediator. When the parties cannot reach an agreement, family law court judges hear from both parties and then award primary custody.
Courts generally favour awarding custody to biological parents, but custody also can be awarded to stepparents, grandparents and other individuals with an interest in the well-being of the children.
While fathers share the same rights as mothers, statistics show courts award custody to biological mothers seven out of 10 times. In fact, fathers receive primary custody only 10 per cent of the time. Joint custody is awarded approximately 20 per cent of the time. The trend poses concerns for those trying to reduce prison populations. According to 1992 statistics compiled by the Texas Department of Corrections, 85 per cent of all youths housed at one county jail in urban Georgia grew up in fatherless homes.
Judges base their decisions on a range of factors. Their primary focus is representing the best interests of the children, and that generally means awarding primary custody to the most suitable parent. To establish which parent is most suitable, judges look at financial conditions and often listen to testimony from psychologists, who evaluate children. The age of the child, the child's preferences, the time constraints on a parent and household stability also factor into decisions.
When it comes to custody, there are two primary options. Fathers or mothers receive primary, or full, custody, or they share custody. In joint custody, children live with each parent for a portion of the year. Typically, children spend certain weeks, weekends or certain months with one parent and other weekends or months with the other parent.
Physical and legal child custody rights differ in what they entail. Physical rights relate to where the child lives. Legal custody rights, on the other hand, relate to which parent is awarded the right to make decisions for the child. Decisions could apply to education, health care, religion and extra-curricular activities in which the children are allowed to participate.
While statistics indicate that mothers win custody of children most of the time, the numbers fail to consider that many times fathers do not contest custody of the children. In fact, many fathers wilfully agree to allow mothers primary child custody. According to the Fathers Custody Center, a non-profit organisation dedicated to helping fathers gain custody of their children, fathers often win custody when they seek it.