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Divorced dads: Family court system is broken
01:07 - Source: CNN

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A judge, a lawyer and a therapist offer advice on child custody issues

Experts weigh in on child support, protection orders and parental rights

CNN  — 

Mothers often complain about getting the short end of the stick in divorce cases involving child custody, but so do many fathers.

For parents who are trying to juggle shared custody, child support payments and their careers — finding the right life-balance can seem impossible.

Sometimes disagreements escalate into messy legal battles that require judges, attorneys and therapists to step in and help.

In her CNN Original Series, “This is Life,” Lisa Ling spoke with fathers who feel the system has let them down.

One is a divorced father who has spent time in jail because he said he couldn’t pay his court-ordered child support.

“I’m currently at $680,000 worth of arrears, at 9% interest,” said Dr. Carlos Rivera. “I will never be able to get out of this hole.” Rivera, a pediatrician, says he went bankrupt, was let go from his medical practice and now makes about $100 per month.

In another case, a father named Jake was banned from seeing his children by something called a civil protection order.

In court documents, Jake’s wife said he went through dangerous mood swings, blocked her internet access and tried to obstruct her from driving away with the kids. “Within a month and a half I lost my kids, I lost my wife and I lost my house,” said Jake, who denies doing anything to hurt his children and who didn’t want CNN to use his last name.

A third situation doesn’t involve marriage or divorce. Justin – who also asked CNN not to use his last name – fathered a son during a brief relationship. He learned his name wasn’t listed on the child’s birth certificate and he didn’t get equal custody of his son.

“How can I be a father to my kid if I only see him four nights out of the whole month?” Justin told Ling.

In America, more than 80% of custodial parents – the parent that kids live with most – are mothers. Is it harder for men to get a fair shake in custody cases involving children? Do laws and courts favor women because of a traditional presumption that women are better care-givers for children?

According to laws in most states, they’re not supposed to, says family law attorney Randall Kessler, author of “Divorce: Protect Yourself, Your Kids and Your Future.” “But some judges may be old-fashioned and they might think the mom should have custody,” he said.

We posed some tough questions to Kessler, along with Fulton County, Georgia, Superior Court Judge Gail Tusan and board-certified family therapist Ephrat Lipton of the Atlanta Center for Wellness, to offer insight and advice on how fathers — and parents in general — can avoid acrimonious outcomes during the often painful legal process of uncoupling.

What if dads can’t pay child support?

Attorney Randy Kessler

Pay something

Don’t ignore this situation, it’s important. Most people can pay something. If there’s any way you can pay even a small amount toward your child support, do it. If you don’t, you’re certainly risking jail time.

“Unfortunately the best way to prove to a judge that you can’t pay is to sit in jail for two weeks.”

Don’t give up

You can’t reduce your child support payments unless you get in front of a judge. “So, be politely persistent. Don’t give up. Keep going.”

Hire a lawyer

It sounds like a contradiction, but it’s true: Hire a lawyer to tell a judge you can’t afford child support. Judges don’t appreciate having to deal with someone who is trying to learn the law on the fly.

“If you can’t hire someone, at least get a lawyer’s advice.”

Judge Gail Tusan

Make a good-faith effort

Judges are quite aware that people lose their jobs and times can be tough. But child support is so important that judges expect parents to do whatever is necessary to support their children.

“You can’t just say, ‘I’m a displaced CEO and there’s no way I’m going to work at McDonald’s. That’s beneath me. And therefore everyone should just understand.’”

Erasing the slate

Judges cannot just erase a parent’s slate of what he or she owes in child support. The money is owed to maintain the safety and security of the child. But some judges will consider modifying a child support agreement in certain circumstances.

“We’re trying to make decisions based certainly on the practicality of what the income is.”

Therapist Ephrat Lipton

Don’t get mad

Anger can complicate a divorce by getting in the way. Angry people can easily get irritable and agitated. The solution is to channel that anger differently. Accept the situation and deal with it the best way you can.

“It’s an amazing and powerful thing when you just say, ‘It is how it is and there’s nothing I can do about that.’”

Equal rights for unofficial dads

Attorney Randy Kessler

Dads can catch up

In general, the legal default is: if two unmarried people have a child and no papers have been signed, the woman who bore the child starts out with custody.

The dad is not official. But he can catch up really quickly. He files what are called legitimation papers, asking the court to establish that making him the official father is in the child’s best interest.