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Giuliani: A Very Personal Price for 9-11
March 26, 2002
by Dianna Thompson, Executive Director, American Coalition for Fathers and Children

As mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani worked tirelessly in the days and weeks following the 9-11 terrorist attacks to bring not only his city back from the brink of disaster, but the nation as well. For this, thousands of Americans have applauded his work in maintaining rescue efforts and securing assistance for the families of those who died in the World Trade Center.

The former mayor, who has been involved in a highly publicized divorce battle, found himself penalized in court for the hours he spent on the job aiding his fellow citizens. On March 6, Judith J. Gische of the State Supreme Court in Manhattan denied Mr. Giuliani's request for joint custody of his 15-year-old son Andrew. In her ruling, Justice Gische took aim at Giuliani for working excessive hours, saying his work "often limited the time he had to spend with his children."

The court also took umbrage with the former mayorís relationship with Judith Nathan, noting that the children do not know her well and are not ready to stay overnight with their father when she is present.

Although Mr. Giuliani received much public criticism prior to 9-11 for his personal life, the judgeís ruling begs certain questions. Among them, should parents think twice before becoming the sole wage earner, lest their marriage end in divorce? And, to what degree should a parentís fault in a divorce affect custody of children? Or, to put it another way: Is denying a child a closer relationship with a parent really in his or her best interest?

As early as the 1920s, courts acknowledged the societal norm of a womanís role as homemaker and overwhelmingly assigned custody of children to mothers. Since then, researchers have found that children form "attachment bonds" with both parents, and that both parents are essential to a childís healthy development.

Numerous studies have shown that children who grow up with an absent parent - particularly an absent father - find themselves at a tremendously higher risk of social ills than their peers who have two involved, loving parents. Researchers have proven conclusively that taking a child away from his or her father can increase the childís risk of teen pregnancy, drug abuse, behavioral disorders, criminal activity and suicide.

Despite evidence demonstrating the importance of maintaining the involvement of both parents, family courts throughout our nation routinely rely on a winner-takes-all approach to assigning custody of children.

We know from Mr. Giulianiís case that sometimes working toward a greater good -- in this case, saving our nationís largest city from disaster -- can cost a parent in a divorce. Today, stay-at-home parents now include thousands of men who have traded corporate life for full-time parenting. It is a conscious decision made by two parents to devote themselves to the care and upbringing of children. Yet, when couples divorce, the spirit of cooperation dissolves, leaving working moms and dads deadbolted out of their childrenís lives.

Mr. Giulianiís attorney, Raoul Felder, refuted Judge Gischeís finding that the former mayor had been uninvolved in the lives of his children. According to Mr. Felder, Mr. Giuliani attended all but one of his childrenís events since 9-11, an enormous accomplishment for any parent, but even more notable in light of the then-mayorís schedule.

Unfortunately, the number of hours spent by Mr. Giuliani with his children may never have been enough for the judge to grant a shared parenting arrangement. Despite public rhetoric encouraging greater involvement of non-custodial parents, courts continue to use divorce proceedings as a tool for assigning blame to one parent. Even in states with no-fault divorce laws, children are all-too-often turned into pawns and given as a prize to a wronged parent. Instead of looking toward solutions that ensure children have--or create--relationships with both parents, courts routinely issue orders restricting one parent to mere visitor status.

Although much has changed in the past 80 years, the U.S. Census Bureau statistics tell us that mothers still receive sole custody in more than 84 percent of divorces that involve children. On Wednesday, Mr. Giuliani joined the millions of dads who have found themselves deadbolted out of their childrenís lives.

With rare exception, such as cases of abuse or neglect, the courts should not have the authority to deny parents the right to share parenting responsibilities of their children. Mr. Giulianiís case illustrates the absurdity of how family courts use the divorce process to chastise parents for failing to spend enough time with their children. Although courts routinely impose visitation "elevators" intended to increase the time children spend with non-custodial parents, those arrangements rarely result in parents who share responsibility for the care and nurturing of their children.

The criminal justice system decries our nationís problem with father absence. But where exactly have all of the fathers gone? Perhaps that is a question best answered by Justice Gische and the rest of the judicial system.

Dianna Thompson is a nationally recognized expert on families and divorce-related issues. She serves as executive director of the American Coalition for Fathers & Children and may be reached by e-mail at dthompson2232@aol.com.

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