By Chris Beers...Massillion Independant Staff Writer...Massillion, Ohio

One of life's most common tragedies is the death of a marriage and the breakup of a family.Perhaps no other event pulls at the heartstrings more than children forced to choose between Mom and Dad - children who may want both parents but who must leave one.

Half of today's marriages in the United States will end in divorce or dissolution. Of those that do, three in every four will involve children.

In Stark County, there are about 2,000 divorces or dissolutions per year.

Children are the biggest losers when a marriage fails.

"I would like to see more couples staying married, especially when there are children involved," said Stark County Family Court Judge Julie Edwards. "That dosen't mean a couple should stay together if there is alcohol or drug abuse, or domestic violence within the family.

"But when people tell me they have grown apart, that really concerns me. I wish they would live up to the commitments they made when they got married., if for nothing else than for the sake of the children."

Because today's divorce rate is so high, and the consequences so tragic, Edwards and her two Family Court colleagues - Judges David Stucki and John Hoffman - are constantly on a hot seat trying to determine who gets custody of the children and how the family's assets should be distributed.

"The worst part is watching the damage done to a child when the parents are tearing each other apart," Stucki said. "Everyone says they want what is best for the children, But what the parents end up doing is punishing the kids through their bitterness."

Charges of bias and unfairness in Stark Count's divorce decrees are leveled by many angry parents, both male and female.

There are mothers who recieve too little or no child support. There are fathers ordered to pay 50 percent or more of their salaries for child support.

There are mothers who deny fathers visitation with the children. There are fathers who refuse to pick up the children for scheduled visitation.

There are live-in boyfriends. And live-in girlfriends. There are spiteful court summonses and frivolous call to police.

The list goes on and on.

Perhaps no issue in the divorce process is more emotionally charged, however, than custody of the children.

There is little disagreement among family experts that children are much better off when both parents are fully involved in their children's lives.

But the current pattern in Stark County- and elsewhere - is that the children will eventually lose contact with one of their parents. In the vast majority of cases, it's the father.

"Even though this is the 1990s, the courts still consider fathers as non-reliant parents," explained Scott Dillon of Akron.

Dillon is president of the Stark and Summit counties chapter of Rights For Fathers Who Care (RFFWC)

"The courts still consider fathers as the breadwinner and mothers as the nurturer," he added. "Unless one parent is found to be totally unfit, our groupfully believes in shared parenting.We believe in a near 50-50 split.

"Typically, standard visitation orders give the non-custodial parent about 85 days a year with their kids. We do not believe that is enough to keep the parent-child relationship strong."

Dillon said the biggest problem members of this group face is refusal of visitation time by children's mothers.

"Thats a big problem," he said "The courts can throw a non-custodial parent in jail for non support, but nothing is ever done to the costudial parent who refuses visitation.

"In those types of cases, our group offers a visitation escorting service to make sure there is no violence or false allegations."

Dillon also contends the current child support guidelines in Ohio "should be thrown into the garbage can and redone."

"Sure, children need the support, but the non-costodial parents also need money to survive," he said

"Non-costodial fathers are forced to pay a huge amount of their income for child support, but noncustodial mothers are rarely orderd to pay child support. The Summit County Courts are trying hard to rid this bias in the courtroom. But we will continue to try to get the state Legislature to change the laws for the benefit of both sets of parents."

"Yes it's rare for a father to get sole custody of the children, but today it is also rare for a dad to get turned down if he asks for a shared parenting plan." said Jackson Township attorney Mike Boske, who previously served as a baliff in Stark County Family Court.

"The regular, standard visitation orders are terrible. Kids need two parents. Unless mom and dad just can't get along, a shared-parenting is usually best."

Boske said many fathers believe the court, through its rulings, should encourage them to remain active in their children's lives through shared parenting, rather than discourage them by relegating them to second class parenting status.

"Nowadays, if a dad really insists on shared parenting, it has been my experience that he will get it," added Boske. "It has really improved since I first became involved in the courts."

"I tell my clients to be realistic. Even today, if a mom is halfway decent, it is very difficult for a dad to get full costody. But if mom and dad can tolerate each other, then shared parenting is in the best interest of the child."

Don Sprout of Canton Township has been a vocal proponent of fathers rights. As president of the local group PACER (Parents and Children for Equal Rights), Sprout has written several letters-to-the-editor to "The Inde" expressing his ideas.

"If there have been changes in Stark County's Family Court rulings in recent years, I haven't seen nor heard of any," said Sprout.

"Most fathers want to be involved in their children's lives. But most dads aren't told by their attorneys they can get a shared-parenting plan, or they are told they can't or won't get it.

"Most men don't know that they have to ask for a shared-parenting plan in writing.

"Today, the courts still believe the mother is always the best parent. Our group belives both parents are normally best for the kids. Absent fathers are the leading cause of a number of social ills in our country. Dads make a big difference in children's lives."