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The Short End of the Stick: How We're Failing Fathers and Children—and What You Can Do to Change It

Gary SeiserGary C. Seiser
Senior Deputy County Counsel, San Diego, CA
Certified Child Welfare Law Specialist

Summary: The child welfare system isn't the only system to discriminate against fathers; family law does it too. The author shares steps toward remedying this disparity.


Why is it we so rarely leave, place or reunite children with single fathers? It's not because of the law. Sure, the legal status of the father can make a difference as to whether there's a presumption for custody or services, but the standards for removal are the same whether we're removing from the mother or the father, and the law certainly allows placement with fathers. So why don't we do it more often? It's our culture.

Let's be honest here. The child welfare system isn't the only system to discriminate against fathers; family law does it too. Even when both divorced parents are good parents, the vast majority of children are placed with their mothers or in a shared custody arrangement predominantly with their mothers. Our child welfare systems are no different. Why is that? Does it go back to the days of the hunter/gatherers and different roles according to gender? Is it because more social workers, attorneys and judges in the dependency system are women? Did our legal systems become biased against fathers because fathers weren't parenting? Or did fathers stop parenting because the system was biased against them? The answer is both "all of the above" and "it doesn't matter." What matters is how we change it.

What's the first step? It is finding fathers. Yet all too often social workers spend too little time looking for missing fathers. Why? There are two main reasons, neither of which is their doing. One, they have such high caseloads they're too busy with the parents they have found, most of whom are mothers, to look for the missing parents, most of whom are fathers. And two, agency attorneys, child advocates and courts too often stay silent about missing fathers and don't stop to ask, "Where is the dad?" Our silence has taught front-end workers to put their limited time elsewhere. You can change that.

Once we find the potential father, and there is often more than one, why do we so seldom resolve their status and standing in a timely fashion? We don't always need blood tests, but we do need to get the alleged fathers into court and resolve the issue. Remember: Most children are returned to or placed with parents in the first six months of the case. The clock is ticking—don't delay. And why aren't we consistent in how we do this? Why does one court call a man a presumed father with full entitlement to custody and services, while right down the hall another court would treat him as a mere biological father with little in the way of rights? We need timely, consistent decisions based on law—not on whether we like the guy.

Once we resolve their legal status and standing, why do we so seldom reunify or place the child with single fathers? I think there are a number of reasons:

1.   The inherent bias of our system suggests that no matter what a father does, he will not gain custody unless he is married, living with the children's grandmother or has some other kind of female in-home support system. In other words, we accept the concept of single mothers raising children, but we don't often accept the concept of single fathers raising children, especially young ones. That seems to be a natural bias in our country, but it's not a legal one.

2.   While we're geared to provide services to mothers, we're not as geared to provide services to fathers. Where are our programs for children to be placed with their fathers in prison? And what about parenting courses just for men, so they're not embarrassed to speak up and ask questions? Remember: Men don't like to ask for directions, but they often need them. Help them learn in an environment where they feel safe learning.

3.   Perhaps most importantly, fathers don't believe us when we tell them they can have their children placed with them if they participate in the services we offer and make substantive progress. They don't believe we will do what we say, and they don't always believe in themselves. It's not surprising; many have never had good male role models. We need to help them with that. As President Obama said on Father's Day 2009, "We need fathers to realize that responsibility does not end at conception. We need them to realize that what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child — it’s the courage to raise one." Nothing could be more true. We have to convince these men that anyone can be a father, but it takes a real man to be a dad. And we have to convince them that when we say they can do it, we mean it. We haven't in the past; we need to in the future.

Hanging on my wall is a little hand-painted, wooden plaque my daughter gave me years ago. "God gave me a wonderful gift; I call him Dad." That's one of my prized possessions. Most dependency dads don't have anything like that—some because they will never deserve it, many simply because no one has believed in them as parents, including themselves. You can help change that. When you do, you'll realize you're not only helping them; you're giving their children a dad.

Editor’s Note: The author has worked in the juvenile dependency field for over 25 years, the first five of which were as a Riverside County, CA, superior court commissioner. He has conducted training for the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, the California Center for Judicial Education and Research and the California Judges Association.

Reader comment:

Steve McCrea of CASA for Children in Portland, OR, submitted the following comment in response to this article:

I was reading the Judge's newsletter on fathers. I very much appreciate the emphasis on getting fathers and their families involved early; however, I was somewhat disturbed by an inaccurate claim made in the article "The Short End of the Stick," suggesting that the family courts are biased against fathers. While it is objectively true that mothers overwhelmingly gain full or shared custody of their children in family court matters, it has been noted various times over the years that most of those decisions are uncontested: the father is absent or agrees to custody by the mother. In cases where the father contests custody, data going back to the 1980s (read "Mothers On Trial," by Phyllis Chesler, for more on this) suggest that the father wins custody about 70% of the time. This data has been collected as recently as 2002 or so in a Massachusetts study which showed the same 70% success rate for fathers contesting custody. So in fact, the domestic relations courts, when custody is contested, may be biased toward the father rather than against him. Perhaps this can be researched and noted in a later issue.


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