Custody ruling raises questions

Two months ago, a Michigan judge handed down an ostensibly precedent-setting custody decision regarding two young parents in which the father was granted custody apparently over the issue of day care. The first reaction most Americans had when hearing the result of the Jennifer Ireland-Steven Smith custody cases was probably along these lines: "My goodness, a young mother decides not to go on welfare, but instead tries to better herself through college like society would want and what happens? She still gets penalized." Indeed, most of us would think of this as "a slap in the face of all working mothers," as Gloria Wood of the National Organization of Women called it.

The irrelevancy of this line of thinking only becomes clear when we remove our gender goggles which have clouded our vision and, as a result, our better judgment.

Instead, try to look at this from a gender-neutral perspective. If Parent A has to place a young child in day "care" during most of her waking hours and Parent B can provide a nurturing, loving environment wherein Parent B's mother can look after the child for the whole day, where would the child's best interests be served?

Think hard about the question, then examine this from a father's perspective. In an era where fathers are more nurturing than at anytime in the West since the pre-industrial age, what message are we sending to fathers when we believe a child's best interests will be better served with strangers during her most important waking hours than with a father and a grandparent who love her? I know several fathers who have bucked traditional social training in order to willingly become the primary caregivers and/or stay at home. What message are we sending them?

The crux of the whole Ireland-Smith aftermath is consistency, or lack of it. When custody of the child goes to the mother, as it does over 93 percent of the time, according to the American Bar Association, it is always dismissed as being in the child's "best interest" and the egregious imbalance is likewise dismissed as chance. But let one judge take a stand for logic and intelligence and make the the only decision there is to make and the cries of "penalizing the mother" rise into a resounding chorus. Yet no one ever looks at the majority of the other cases in terms of penalizing the father. Women often decry "deadbeat" dads, but when a willing, concerned young father sees his little girl about to be dumped off with strangers for 35-40 hours a week fully acknowledges his responsibility, he is made out to be the villian because he apparently owes back child support. How ironically nonsensical! If he was so irresponsible, why didn't he take the easy way out and wash his hands of little Maranda instead of fighting tooth and nail in federal court for her?

This much seems clear. In this society we have a strong aversion to fathers getting custody that we are myopically refusing to see reality when it stares us dead in the face. Some say that this will set a precedent for holding work and school against women. But so few men have the options available to Steven Smith that all this Chicken Little "the sky is falling" pabulum being put forth by women and child "advocates" has no basis in fact. In addition, Maranda's best interests are what are supposed to be pondered, as with every child custody case. But in this instance, the issue of "what message are we sending to working mothers" is conveniently added to the mix, when it should be irrelevant.

The precedent set by Judge Raymond Cashen is clear. If the choice is between having a child raised in good home by family or by day care, family should win out. Period. The job of raising kids is for families. At home, all attention and love will be focused on Maranda and she won't have to fight with dozens of other kids for it.

Hopefully, Judge Cashen is one of a new breed of judges whom will give men a fair shake in family court. If women and their advocacy groups really want responsible fathers to be involved, then they can't have a collective fit of apoplexy when fathers start getting custody. It is them and the media who turned this into strictly a day-care issue. Guaranteed, if the situation were reversed, this case would be relegated to the obscurity of the child custody annals and would not have made the front pages of our newspapers and top stories of our newscasts. As it stands, the only thing that makes this case remarkable is that the father was granted custody.

This case is being appealed. Obviously, judges are only human. It is doubtful that any jurist wants to face the unbridled vituperation from the myriad of women's groups and child "advocacy" groups whose job it is to be predisposed against fathers that Judge Cashen has. He doubtlessly never wanted or expected this rude introduction to fame for such an unremarkable case. The next judge will review the case under great public scrutiny, which may be too much to bear, and may just take the easy way out. Maybe this cynicism is unwarranted, but if the decision is overturned, the cynicism of many caring fathers across America will not be.

Tyrone Henry is a political science senior. He is a regular contributor.

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