Harman is an associate professor of psychology at Colorado State University. She gave expert testimony in one of the cases cited in this essay. Shannon is a family law attorney in Omaha.
Extensive research shows the importance of fathers to their children’s well-being. These studies show children in father-limited environments are almost four times more likely to live in poverty, more likely to use drugs and alcohol, and twice as likely to commit suicide. They also have significantly lower educational attainment, are more likely to engage in juvenile delinquency, have higher risk of being victimized by crime, have higher risk of physical and mental health issues, and have lower life expectancies.
A report by the Federal Administration for Children and Families describes “maternal gatekeeping,” which occurs when mothers interfere with fathers’ access to their children.
According to this report, “more than half of nonresident fathers offered accounts of gatekeeping behavior, ranging from refusing to grant physical access to making frequent last-minute schedule changes. Gatekeeping also came in more indirect forms, such as refusal to communicate in person or by phone, withholding information from the father about the child or berating the father.”
Motives for gatekeeping vary. Sometimes, it’s used to control the other parent. Other times, it’s used for financial gain. According to the federal report, “mothers would sometimes restrict access when a father failed to provide ‘extras’ over and above the required child support.”
Nebraska judges are increasingly losing patience with gatekeeping behavior. Our Court of Appeals recently affirmed an equal parenting time schedule that required a mother to return an infant to Nebraska after she secretly moved away and stopped communicating with the father.
The court also recently affirmed primary custody to a father after the mother twice withheld parenting time, including once on the advice of her lawyer. It’s worth noting that, several years ago, Nebraska’s then-head of attorney discipline — part of the state judicial branch’s Administrative Office of the Courts — strongly admonished attorneys not to enable conduct like this and suggested it could be grounds for attorney discipline.
In March, a father received primary custody because of the mother’s move-away, false allegations of abuse and other alienating behaviors. While the father had issues of his own, the court found “the Father is more likely to encourage the children to maintain a positive relationship with the other parent.”
That same month, the Court of Appeals affirmed primary custody to a father. The mother initially had primary custody but custody was modified, in part, because the mother “engaged in parental alienation tactics, had not encouraged or required [the children] to attend parenting time with [father], and had been unwilling to share information about the children with father.”
In February, the Court of Appeals affirmed a decision that found a mother in contempt and denied her request to modify custody. The mother violated the father’s sole legal custody, the court stated, by enrolling the child in extracurricular activities without his knowledge, encouraged the child to lie and disobey her father, encouraged the child to hide electronic communications from her father and deleted parenting software the father had installed on the child’s phone. The mother was ordered to pay almost $15,000 in attorney’s fees. The mother was later found in contempt a second time and ordered to pay the father an additional $25,000.
Everyone needs to understand that parents who engage in these behaviors, regardless of their gender, are harming their children. If a parent were beating a child in public, most people would intervene by trying to stop the abuse or by calling the authorities. Any parent who limits the other parent’s access to their child or who interferes with the other parent’s relationship with their child should be treated the same way.
What they’re doing isn’t appropriate or justifiable. It’s child abuse. It’s also domestic violence. According to a recent Nebraska ruling in district court, “Domestic intimate partner abuse includes using a child to establish or maintain power and control over any current or past intimate partner.” The Nebraska State Patrol, in a policy statement, also recognizes that domestic violence occurs when an intimate partner tries to control the other partner by “damaging [that partner’s] relationship with his or her children.”