Lithwick: Rethinking Fathers' Custody Rights

Every few years, some father who believes he's been wronged by the family court system grabs headlines and draws attention to the flawed ways in which we split up families. Custody proceedings are often brutal and adversarial. Otherwise fit parents can be drawn into a bare-knuckle fight over who poses a greater danger to the children. (Consider the recent Christie Brinkley custody spectacle in which allegations of Dad's porn use and Mom's over reliance on nannies became exhibits A and B, although both facts were legally immaterial.)

Despite the fact that divorce is rarely triggered by violence or abuse, the incentives to allege that a man is abusive and out of control are undeniable. They tap into age-old stereotypes about men and ensure that Mom becomes the primary custodian. Even without abuse allegations, simple rules of physics (one child cannot be split into two and two cannot be split into four) make it likely that many good fathers will be downgraded from full-time dads to alternating-weekend carpool dads. They will be asked to pay at least a third of their salaries in child support for that privilege. Simple rules of modern life make it likely that an ex-wife will someday decide that a job or new husband demands a move to a faraway state. At which point the alternating-weekend-carpool dad is again demoted, to a Thanksgivings-if-you're-lucky dad.

But we continue to pick the wrong poster boys to highlight the problems of fathers' rights. Most recently, frustrated fathers have been captivated by the plight of the mysterious millionaire Clark Rockefeller, who allegedly kidnapped his 7-year-old daughter during a supervised visit in Boston on July 27. By every account Rockefeller was devastated when he lost custody last December of young Reigh (also known as Snooks). When Reigh's mother, Sandra Boss, a senior consultant at McKinsey & Co., relocated to their London office, Rockefeller was granted visitation rights on the condition that visits be supervised by a social worker. Apparently his recent visit was his first, despite the fact that before the divorce he was the primary caregiver.

After his arrest in Baltimore for kidnapping, Rockefeller was extradited to Massachusetts, where he now faces charges of felony custodial kidnapping, assault and battery, and assault and battery with a dangerous weapon. Seemingly incapable of uttering a truthful word since at least the early '90s, Rockefeller has variously called himself Chip Smith, Clark Rock, Michael Brown, J. P. Clark Rockefeller, James Frederick and Clark Mill Rockefeller. He does not have a Social Security number, although he does boast a creditable citizen-of-the-world British accent. He's stated that he worked for the Pentagon, implied that he's a member of the celebrated Rockefeller clan and claims to have palled around with Britney Spears. Rockefeller's fingerprints were reportedly linked to a years-old unsolved murder in California. Yet in the wake of Rockefeller's arrest, Internet message boards lit up with posts from aggrieved divorced fathers who, amazingly, see something of themselves in his story—even though the story appears to have been ripped from the pages of a bad airport novel.

Before Clark Rockefeller, there was Darren Mack, the Reno, Nev., father serving a life in prison for stabbing his estranged wife to death in his garage in 2006, as their young daughter watched TV upstairs. He then attempted to kill, sniper style, the family-court judge overseeing his custody dispute. (Disclosure: I once worked for the law firm that represented Mack in an earlier divorce.) Like Rockefeller, Mack briefly stood as an archetype of the loving father pushed to the breaking point by a family-law system that is biased against dads. Fathers' rights advocates condemned Mack's actions, while insisting that his experiences reflected the basic unfairness faced by every man embroiled in the system. In the coming weeks, we will meet another poster boy with a temper. Alec Baldwin will defend wronged dads with a book about the horrors of his divorce. His rancorous split from actress Kim Basinger included the Internet release of an expletive-laced phone message he once left for their 11-year-old daughter.

I recognize the allure for some men of the man-pushed-until-he-snaps narrative. My husband rents those movies, too. But for every Clark Rockefeller and Darren Mack, there are dozens of nonviolent fathers who believe that the mere fact of their divorce should not result in an arrangement in which they pay for the right to see their kids on alternating Sundays. If the family-court system is ever going to improve, we need to hear their stories, not tales of kidnappings and murder. Much of what's wrong with family law today lies in warmed-over stereotypes of men as fundamentally unsuited to caring for children. Lionizing Clark Rockefeller, or other violent, lawless fathers will not promote fathers' rights or fix the family-court system. It merely perpetuates the same outdated ideas about fatherhood and fathers that have tainted the family-law system for too long.