YLS In brief A Periodic Newsletter of the Young Lawyers Section of the Vol. 12 #3 Summer/Fall 2008 How To Make a “Deadbeat” Dad by Bonnie Robertson In 2003, the Arkansas General Assembly added a provision to the custody statute that allows a court to award joint custody in a divorce proceeding. This change permitted a father to ask the court for equal consideration and even equal custody of his children, without having to prove the mother is a less qualified parent. In spite of this legislation, Arkansas Appellate Courts still warn trial courts that awarding joint custody when the parents cannot get along is reversible error. The rulings of our appellate courts leave the “trump card” in place for a mother to refuse to enter a joint custody arrangement, even when it is logistically feasible and a great idea for the children, and even when the mother is the cause of the discord See e.g., Byrd vs. Byrd, 2008 WL 376334 (February 13, 2008). Thus, if there is no settlement between the parents, there will be no joint custody, meaning that the father gets demoted from parent to visitor with alternating weekends and one night per week. A father who suffers this kind of demotion feels powerless, unimportant, and dispensable to his children. Why should child support be his top priority if he has no control over what happens to his children, if he has no right to information from his children’s doctors or teachers (this still occurs at times because some providers and schools do not know state law gives fathers automatic access), and if he cannot even prevent the mother from moving across the country (this deals with relocation controversy, which is another article in itself). You might say that child support should be a father’s top priority simply because it’s for his children. That is absolutely correct. However, right or wrong, the statistics on child support compliance show that it is directly related to the amount of involvement a father has with his children: When we say to non-custodial parents that we care nothing about their relationships with their children, that we will offer no protection against the custodial parent’s interference with that relationship, and that we will devote government resources only to extracting financial payments, we should not be surprised by the result. Parents support children when they are permitted to be parents; slaves run away. The link between emotional relationship and financial relationship could not be more plain. The Census Bureau has reported that: - child support compliance was 90.2% in cases of joint custody; - child support compliance was 79.1% where access to the child was protected by a visitation order; and - child support compliance was only 44.5% where neither joint custody nor access were protected by an order. Ronald K. Henry, “When the Real World Intrudes Upon Academics and Advocates.” Perhaps the premise presented here begs the question: “if the parties do not get along, how can they possibly be joint custodians?” The answer is simply that lawyers must think outside the box so that the court order is “outside the box.” For example, a father’s period of parenting time could begin on Thursday after school and end the following Monday morning, during alternating weeks. f the exchanges between parents are conflict-ridden, they could occur at the school, daycare, or a neutral family member’s home. The father should be informed about each doctor’s visit, school meeting, and extra-curricular activity. These are only a few examples indicating that the possible custodial arrangements are limited only by the creativity and foresight of the lawyers, parents, and judges. Of course, no custody arrangement will be perfect or totally without conflict. However, lawyers have a duty to diligently represent their clients’ interests. This does not mean we must pursue any course of action desired by our client—especially if his or her desires are based in vengeance, hurt, or insecurity. As lawyers, we have a unique opportunity to inform our clients and to help them make good decisions for their children—decisions that are more likely to prevent the stress of single parenthood, to promote proper adjustment of their children, and to prevent frequent litigation. The following are some facts you and your client should consider before insisting that the mother should have sole custody: • • • • 63% percent of youth suicides are from fatherless homes. 90% percent of all homeless and runaway youths are from fatherless homes. 85% percent of children who exhibit behavioral disorders are from fatherless homes. 71% percent of high school dropouts are from fatherless homes.