Petula Dvorak is one of the few columnists who regularly focuses on the systemic discrimination against fathers and the barriers to men trying to participate meaningfully in the lives of their children. Unfortunately, at the end of this piece, she falls into the classic trap of blaming the victim of discrimination for not "standing up" enough.
In this case, James Lee initially sought full custody of his 3 yr old son as part of his divorce from Rommechia Simms. Simms had previously suffered a mental breakdown and Lee included descriptions of disturbing behavior in his initial filing that raised significant questions about Simms' recovery and ability to safely care for their son. On May 22, the boy was found dead on a park swing being pushed back and forth by his mother -- apparently unaware of her son's death. No cause of death has been determined.
Where Dvorak blames Lee is for his -- to her -- inexplicable decision at the custody agreement to withdraw his request for sole custody and agree to a joint motion with Simms for joint legal custody with Simms holding physical custodianship of the child (what has become the standard arrangement). While recognizing the Lee was "afraid of raising the Judge's ire," she concludes by saying the case for fathers needs to be made "by everyone, including him."
But put yourself in Lee's shoes. Not only a man, but a black man.. Black men, of course, are doubly and triply damned in the fatherhood game. We start, of course, with the general prejudice in society that sees young black men as potential threats simply for existing. Then pile onto that all the stereotypes about how black men are lousy fathers with no interest in their children. One would think that when a young, successful professional black father comes into family court he would be applauded as a model citizen and responsible father. But the reality is that all these accomplishments are undermined by the stereotypes and racism inherent in our society.
It is not hard for me to imagine the horrible choice Lee faced. Push for sole custody and risk losing any visitation or control. No doubt Simms attorney threatened to come up with his own allegations of Lee's unfitness and to prey on the court's prejudices. Lee would be accused of exaggerating about Simms issues. She would be presented as fully recovered, with stress of these false accusations and her 'intolerable' marriage being the cause of any mental stability. Perhaps they even threatened to make intimations of domestic abuse, knowing that a black man would be instantly suspect and unable to offer any contrary proof. Agree to the standard custody arrangement, he was probably told, or risk losing ANY access to your son.
And I have no doubt his lawyer would advise him to settle, because no way would a judge believe a black father could be a better, more stable parent than the mother.
We all like to think that we would be the one to stand up for what's right and damn the risk. Whether it's about "leaning in" or fighting for custody or whatever else. And maybe we would be. But having been in a whistleblower situation myself early in my career, I understand and sympathize with those who refuse to bet their lives and everything they hold dear in the face of a world they -- rightly -- perceive as stacked against them.