By Chris Beers...Massillion Independant Staff Writer...Massillion, Ohio
Despite claimes by angry Fathers and statistics that suggest otherwise, Stark County Family Court Judges John Hoffman, Davide Stucki and Julie Edwards insist they don't favor mothers in their divorce rulings.
But all three judges admit the system has built-in biases against divorced fathers.
"This Court is a gender-blind as it can be." said Stucki, who has sat on the the Family Court bench for four years. "Both parties stand on equal footing, regardless of gender," he added "But for shared parenting to work, both parties have to be able to communicate and cooperate with each other, They have to be willing to set aside their differences for the sake of their children.
"Unfortunately, if they would have been able to communicate and cooperate while they were married, they would not be going through a divorce. Every child deserves two parents, but if the parentes can't even afree on the time of day, I can't impose shared parenting."
Stucky says he gives each divorcing couple that comes through his courtroom a copy of a story that appeared in The Independant on June 29,1996. The story is about a divorced couple who have successfully accomplished shared parenting while raiseng their son separately for the past 16 years. "That couple proves shared parenting can work" Stucki said. "Every child deserves to have a mom and a dad. Just because the couple is divorcing, dosen't mean they are divorcing their kids. I encourage shared parenting, but I'm not going to place a child in the middle of a war.
"It's a common misconception that we have a quota to meet on how many mothers get custody of their kids. I'm telling you flat out that is not the case. We determine who gets custody by evaluating what is in the best interest of the children. Many parties decide this on their own before they get into court. But when they don't we have to choose for them."
Stucki says he believes many of the custody battles over children relate to child support obligations and other financial considerations.
"The worst part is watching the damage being done to the children." he added. "Every one says they want what is best for the kids, but what the parents are doing is punishing the children through their bitterness.
"We're not talking about the use of an automobile for 3 1/2 days every week. It is quite different when you are talking about a child."
Stucki admits the system isn't perfect."We are at the mercy of the evidence presented to us in court. Sometimes, important information is left out.
"Kids should wind up with both parents, and that's just not happening around here. Anything that we can change to get both parents in their kids lives we should do.
Edwards, who has been on the Family Court bench eight years, echoes Stucki's opinions.
"Its true that the overwhelming majorty of cases, moms get custody," said Edwards. "But if you look at the statistics, in the overwhelming majority of cases, the fathers do not make a request for custody. The custody decision is usually made by the parties themselves, even before they get into court.
"But whatever the parties decide, I try to make it clear that both parents are still parents. I tell them, don't divorce yourself from your children. Kids do best when the parents are satisfied. When the court is forced to decide an issye, one of the parents is bound to be upset. Often, they are so bent on hurting each other that is appalling.
"If there is a percieved disparity between mothers and fathers, it is usually caused by the fact that this court favors the primary caretaker of the children prior to the divorce. Even though this is the 90's the standard division of labor in a household still has mom carng for the kids while dad tries to provide for the family.
"Even though there is a more equal division of the childcaring duties today, the majority of the child-rearind chores is still done by mom."
Edwards, like Stucli, belives the system needs some adjustments, especially the visitation rules.
"The biggest problem I see is no mechanism in the laws to enforce the visitation rules," she said, "I'm not sure how that can be fixed. Dads not picking up the kids at the scheduled times is as much of a problem as moms not allowing the kids to visit with dad.