This is an article of mine from 1996, from The Detroit News, which I am reposting because it is no longer online at the DN site. It has some interesting information with regard to claims I still see made in various discussions, so I thought it would be useful to have it here.
Do fathers have the edge in divorce?
By Cathy Young
The Detroit News, December 10, 1996
It is a common perception that while women may face bias in some areas, men are on the receiving end of discrimination when it comes to child custody – which goes to fathers, recent data show, only 16 percent of the time. Some feminists like former National Organization for Women President Karen DeCrow embrace equal rights for divorced dads. Yet many others have been loath to acknowledge that there is bias favoring women in anything.
Mostly, these feminists argue, fathers don’t want custody – and when they do, they have the edge: Judges frown on working women who spend less time with the kids than did traditional moms, while working men who spend more time with the kids than did traditional fathers are hailed as great dads; non-working women may be denied custody because they can’t support the children.
In the 1986 book Mothers on Trial, radical feminist psychologist Phyllis Chesler claimed that 70 percent of mothers in custody battles lost. This was based on a very non-random sample of 60 women, mostly referred by feminist lawyers or women’s centers. While even sympathetic reviewers commented on the sloppiness of Chesler’s research, her “finding” that fathers are likely to win contested custody cases was often presented as fact.
Similar numbers have cropped up again, most recently in Karen Winner’s Divorced From Justice: “Contrary to public belief, 70 percent of all litigated custody trials rule in favor of the fathers,” shouts the jacket (italics in the original). A national alert on father’s rights groups issued by the National Organization for Women – urging members to combat proposed laws encouraging joint custody and mediation – also states that “many judges and attorneys are still biased against women. …”
Where do these figures come from? One respectable source is the 1989 Gender Bias Study of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, which reported that when fathers seek custody, they win primary or joint physical custody 70 percent of the time. In The Divorce Revolution, Lenore Weitzman reported two-thirds of fathers asking for custody in California succeeded.
Maybe, some fathers’ advocates say, men only seek custody when they have a chance because there’s something wrong with mom. Explaining why few non-custodial mothers pay child support, the Gender Bias Study notes “women who lose custody often [have] mental, physical, or emotional handicaps” that impair their earning ability.
That aside, the high success rate of men in custody battles is yet another contender for the Phony Statistics Hall of Fame. The figures do not refer to contested cases. Weitzman acknowledged that when fathers got sole custody, it was typically by mutual agreement; of cases that went to trial, two-thirds were won by women. The work from which the Gender Bias Study gathered its numbers did not separate contested and uncontested custody bids, but showed that mothers filing for sole custody received it 75 percent of the time (the rest usually received joint legal/primary physical custody), while the “success rate” for fathers was 44 percent.
A Stanford study of more than 1,000 California couples divorced in the 1980s suggests conventional wisdom is right. If both parents requested sole custody when filing for divorce, it was awarded to mom in 45 percent and to dad in 11 percent of the cases, with joint physical custody for the rest. (When she asked for sole custody and he for joint custody, the odds were 2-1 in her favor.)
Most of the disputes were negotiated. Just five couples went to trial vying for sole custody – and one of these cases resulted in a victory for the father.
The answer is not to help fathers win more custody fights but to have fewer fights. In Michigan, the Legislature is considering a “shared parenting” or joint custody bill – the Senate substitution bill for House Bill 5636 – opposed by the state’s NOW chapter. There’s ample room for discussions of the best way to ensure children of divorce still have two parents. But disinformation shouldn’t be part of the debate.