Child Custody: Avoiding more tragedy
By Fredric Hayward
Nazi Germans demonstrated that almost anyone could do almost anything, given the right mix of circumstances.
Broken lives do not fix broken homes
1995 Sacramento, CA - When I told Sacramentans that I was writing an article about Daniel Berger, few of them recognized his name. Add "He's the guy who recently killed himself and his son," and almost everyone nods knowingly.
It would be nice to think that "we" could never commit such a heinous act as killing our own child. It would be comforting to think that no "normal" person would ever do what Daniel Berger did. After the Germans murdered half my family, I similarly reassured myself that Americans could never commit such atrocities.
Yet the hardest part about meeting Germans while I lived in Europe was realizing that they are not much different from us, and accepting the implication: if they are no worse than us, we are no better than them. Nazi Germans demonstrated that almost anyone could do almost anything, given the right mix of circumstances.
The easy lesson to draw from the Berger tragedy would be that, when there is even a suspicion of danger, we must act quicker and more effectively at separating parents from children. A more subtle lesson might be more valuable, however, and if we blind ourselves to it, young Brendan Berger will truly have died in vain.
It is therefore incumbent upon us to consider - just consider - the possibility that we already act too quickly and efficiently at separating parents from children.
Indeed, there is evidence that this routine separation is what drove Daniel Berger into his madness. During my work with thousands of non-custodial fathers, discussions of suicide reveal that a majority have entertained the notion at least once.
We expect parents, whose children are kidnapped, to consider any option and stop at nothing. We are not surprised when their pain and stress sometimes overcome their rationality. Nevertheless, we naively expect that, as long as the person who has snatched their children from their hearth is also clutching a court order, then pain and stress are neatly legislated away. We should know better. The images of anguished slaves watching their children being perfectly legally torn from them still haunts our nation.
In fact, the pain and stress when the separation is legally imposed are often even more unbearable. The exiled parent lacks public sympathy and police assistance to soothe and encourage them. There are no photographs on milk cartons, no streets lined with yellow ribbons. Their frustration is multiplied by knowing exactly where the children are and yet remaining powerless to see them.
Adding insult to injury is the writing of a monthly check to subsidize the infliction of this pain. Imagine receiving a ransom note which demands money not to insure the return of the child, but to insure that the "kidnaper" can afford NOT to return the child.
Is there a way to meet the needs of children without leaving one parent feeling like the victim of a kidnapping? In most cases, the answer is a presumption of joint physical custody.
In the Berger dispute, allegations of domestic violence were made. Such allegations are almost standard operating procedure in cases where a mother wishes to deprive a father of custody. Carole Wasserman, a family law attorney, estimates that half of the women making such accusations are perjuring themselves.
Susan Steinmetz, a leading authority on domestic violence, estimates that when there really is violence, half the time it is reciprocal. Are we prepared to remove the children from both parents?
A deluge of propaganda about domestic violence keeps us from evaluating these allegations rationally. In 1993, women's rights advocates alarmed us by announcing that Superbowl Sunday is the most dangerous day of the year for American women. Their claim was reported as fact. NBC's donation of advertising time during the Superbowl, some of the most valuable advertising time in television, generated a multimillion dollar bonanza.
Only the Washington Post decided to check the claim. It was a hoax, but no one seemed to care. The mythmakers learned that they could say anything and get away with it.
O.J. Simpson presented these advocates with a fresh opportunity, and we were soon flooded with a long list of new myths about domestic violence. We were falsely told that domestic violence is the leading cause of injury for women ages 15-44, the leading cause of birth defects, the leading cause of visits to hospital emergency rooms, etc.
Television news even reported that domestic violence had become the leading cause of death for American women. Incredibly, not one reporter, editor, producer, or anchor who participated in the story stopped to reflect on the utter impossibility of the claim. The number of women who die of heart disease, for example, is several times as large as the total number of all homicide victims, the total number of homicide victims includes mostly men (about three-fourths), and the female victims include women killed by all sorts of perpetrators in addition to husbands and boyfriends.
Besides repeating as fact a lengthening list of outrageous claims by feminist advocates, the media exercises a disturbing self-censorship. The most authoritative study on spousal violence, which found that 1.8 million wives were abused every year, is commonly cited. Rarely mentioned is that this same study found over 2 million husbands were similarly abused.
Hysteria has created an environment where more fathers are removed from more children with less evidence than ever before. In this atmosphere, Daniel Berger was accused of four counts of domestic violence.
The evidence against him in three of those counts was so pathetic that acquittal was relatively easy. A former husband, who wanted to testify that Berger's wife had used similar accusations in a similar custody battle was not even needed.
In the fourth count, the evidence was a bruise on his wife. Nothing linked Daniel to the bruise, and his wife's credibility had been well impeached by the obvious fabrication of her three other claims. Nevertheless, the myths about domestic violence have so affected us that we are afraid not to take some action anytime a tearful woman points a finger of accusation at a man. No one wants to see another Nicole Simpson.
Perhaps, figuring that no harms comes from a little community service and counseling. Daniel was convicted in criminal court of this one count. But, in family court, that one count is enough to severely cut a father's parenting time.
As I write this, I have a bruise on my arm (from my car door) and a bruise on my leg (from a tennis ball). If I were a woman and you were a man with no alibi, is that all I should need to convict you of assault? The assumption that women won't abuse such power is suspect. In the heat of divorce, this assumption becomes dangerously absurd.
Although they rarely capture as much attention as the Berger incident, there are related tragedies every day. Often, the father simply kills himself. Men generally commit suicide 4 times as often as women, but the male rate rises even more dramatically after divorce. The emotional support system that women have with friends, the ability to keep their children (and often the physical home), and the vast array of social services directed exclusively at women given them a tremendous advantage in surviving divorce.
Sometimes, the father kills himself more subtly, using alcohol, drugs, or a speeding car. Sometimes, he does it more symbolically by distancing himself from the source of the pain.
Whether the father is dead, dead drunk, or just no longer around, inadequate fathering will put his children at risk. Only now is it being acknowledged that the best predictor for the social ills of today's youth (violence, drugs, gangs, promiscuity, academic failure - not to mention suicide) is neither race nor income. It is fatherlessness.
When an accusation is made against a father, and we try to err on the safe side, there is no "safe" side. The act of separating a child from a loving father is, itself, an act of abuse. If the false accusation includes child molestation (Berger was never accused of this), intrusive examinations of children can be more traumatic than the alleged abuse itself.
Those who conclude from the Berger tragedy that we should make it easier to disrupt the father-child relationship have missed the point. There is no way of telling whether Berger was crazy and should have been kept from parenting his son, or whether Berger was so deeply involved with his son that what he perceived as a sustained and legalized kidnapping made him go crazy.
More overall damage is done to children by missing fathers than by abusive fathers. The best interest of these children lie in removing the obstacles we place in front of separated fathers, not in using the Berger tragedy as an excuse to raise the height of those hurdles.
Fredric Hayward is Executive Director of Men's Rights, Inc., P.O. Box 163180 Sacramento, CA 95816