A case is developing in a Tennessee divorce dispute that one attorney believes could impact custody decisions nationwide because it calls down the authority of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause to help fathers who are good parents and want to remain involved in their children’s lives.
The attorney, Stanley Charles Thorne, told WND the issue in the case at hand will be significant, since there are 3,000 divorce or custody cases in courts across the U.S. daily.
And according to the Children’sJustice.org website, those cases leave nearly 38 percent of the fathers with no access or visitation rights to their children. In addition, four in 10 mothers report they interfered with the father’s visitation to punish him at least once, half the mothers see “no value” in the father’s continued contact with his children and 70 percent of the fathers wanted more time with their kids.
Thorne told WND he is serving as a consultant in the case of Jeremy Hopkins, a successful lawyer, in his attempts to be treated the same as his daughter’s mother, Elisabeth, also a successful lawyer, in their custody of Kate.
Since the mother left the family in Tennessee and took Kate to Pennsylvania about two years ago, Jeremy Hopkins has been allowed only sporadic days with his daughter.
“All I want for my daughter is for her to have mom and a dad,” Jeremy Hopkins told WDEF-TV in Chattanooga recently.
Michael McCormick of the Institute for American Families said the system is set up to pit a mother against a father in a marital dispute, when it should be working to accommodate the needs of a child for both a mother and father.
“The courts are going to pick a winner and a loser and when they do that, the child ultimately loses,” he told the station at a recent rally regarding the case.
“If we look at what’s happening to our society we can trace the social pathologies just as increased rates of incarceration, early sexual activity for girls, truancy issues related to the family breaking down and the social fabric of our society is breaking down in terms of the family breaking down, we are being weaken as a nation and we need to change that,” McCormick added.
He estimates 17 million fathers nationwide do not have fair access to their children, and about 3 million mothers have the same problem.
Thorne, who has 25 years experience as a lawyer, most recently has specialized in constitutional issues in family courts, representing parents and children on various issues.
He said the case now is entering the briefing stage, and the next court hearings are expected sometime in April.
The family’s life was disrupted by the mother’s decision to leave, Thorne said, but the relationship of the father and daughter was aggravated by a “family court system that cares for neither of them while it keeps them mired in a swamp of never-ending legal hassles just to be together.”
The case began about Christmas 2006 when Kate was 1. Then the mother, Elisabeth, moved to Pennsylvania with Kate, and since then Jeremy has been away from his daughter 86 percent of the time – 633 of the previous 733 days.
At least four judges have been involved in the case, “but none of those … ever ordered the parenting plan required by the Tennessee Legislature and the Tennessee Supreme Court,” Thorne’s statement said.
“Many constitutional issues will be decided by Kate Hopkins’ case,” he continued. “Perhaps the most important is where the Constitution draws the line to protect the relationship between an innocent child and an innocent parent from government interference.”
The dispute came to a head just before Christmas 2008, following the expiration of the most recent visitation order. Jeremy Hopkins, on a scheduled visit with his daughter, decided to have her stay in Tennessee until a court hearing on the required court-ordered visitation plan.
Instead, he was arrested for interfering with a custodial plan, “even though there was no court order in force,” and his daughter was returned to Pennsylvania. The warrant later was quashed by a judge, who essentially determined it never should have been issud.
Thorne questioned the legal system ordering a child taken from one parent “when the child is in no danger … and the child has never been abused, neglected, or harmed” and given to another parent absent a court order.
The 14th Amendment states: “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
“The only way to reconcile the parental rights of each fit parent is to divide the time of the child,” Thorne suggested.
“This case affects not just the people of Tennessee,” he said. “This is huge.”
“In this case … this child now aged 3 over the past two years has been rendered fatherless, not because of anything dad did, but because of the way the system tilts,” he told WND.
A WND message left with the attorney for the mother did not generate a response.
But Thorne said the cases of the 17 million people across the U.S. who are noncustodial parents also involve more than 18 million children. Not only are the parents denied access to their children, grandparents, uncles and aunts are cut off as well.
Thorne insisted judges should approach custody issues from a different perspective. They are not, he said, dividing property. Instead, they are making rules that impact the equal and sometimes competing parental relationships and rights of two individuals.
“They are not dividing one set of parental rights,” he said. “Each parent has their own parental rights and prerogatives as an outgrowth of that relationship with the child.”
Numerous organizations are working for the rights of fathers in disputes like the Tennessee case, including FathersCustody.org, LongDistanceParenting.org, Fathers False Charges Helpline, Fathers National Lawyers Referral, WinningCustody.com and FathersRights.org.
The Children’sJustice.org website noted very few children in divorced families are satisfied with the time they have with their fathers and only 11 percent of the mothers value the father’s input regarding issues with their kids, well below the 45 percent who value input from teachers and doctors.
The site reported another national study found that more than three-quarters of non-custodial fathers are not able to visit their children as ordered by court decisions.
The issue of the treatment of fathers in custody disputes was the subject of a commentary in WND before the election.
Mike McCormick of the American Coalition for Fathers and Children and Glenn Sacks, who writes on men’s and fathers’ issues, said the Democrats’ 2008 campaign platform targeted fathers for fault.
“The platform’s ‘Fatherhood’ plank puts all blame for father absence squarely on men and promises to ‘crack down’ on fathers who are behind on their child support. It also promises to ratchet up draconian domestic violence laws that often victimize innocent men and separate them from their children,” McCormick and Sacks found.
“It’s doubtful that many dads wake up in the morning and say to themselves, ‘My child loves me and needs me; my wife/girlfriend loves me and needs me – I’m outta here.’ Research shows that the vast majority of divorces, as well as many break-ups of unmarried couples, are initiated by women, not by men, and that most of these do not involve serious male transgressions,” they said.
The result? “The father is generally relegated to visitor status and often can only participate in his children’s lives if the mother allows it. Courts tilt heavily towards mothers in awarding custody and enforce fathers’ visitation rights indifferently. In most states, mothers are free to move their children hundreds or thousands of miles away from their fathers, often permanently destroying the fathers’ bonds with their children.”