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Custody odds favor moms
Lawyer says imbalance in Mich. divorce cases shows fathers face 'an uphill battle'

By Jennifer Chambers / The Detroit News

Charles V. Tines / The Detroit News

Al Lebow of Fathers for Equal Rights of America isn't surprised by findings that moms get custody of children much more often than dads.
Dads can call
   * Fathers for Equal Rights of America: (248) 354-3080.
   * National Congress for Fathers and Children of Michigan: (888) 323-7866.
   * DADS of Michigan: (248) 559-3237 (Southfield).


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   ROYAL OAK -- When Alexandra Petrella opened her eyes every morning, the first person she saw was her daddy.
   Rick Petrella says he was there for his 6-year-old daughter every time she woke and at every turn and tumble. So when his wife asked for a divorce and for custody of Alexandra, Petrella tried to block that and settled for joint custody -- but at a price.
   "My ex-wife fought me on this. The only option I had was to pay a lot of legal fees. You've got to prove that she shouldn't get custody," said Petrella, who sold his Bloomfield Hills home and now lives in an apartment.
   Divorced dads like Petrella face daunting odds of winning sole or joint custody, according to statistics from the Michigan Deparment of Community Health. Mothers in Michigan are at least six times more likely than fathers to be awarded custody, data show.
   Mothers were awarded physical custody in 13,094 cases during 1999, according to statewide figures from every divorce or annulment case in Michigan that year. Fathers got sole custody in 2,239 cases and joint physical custody was the outcome on 3,918 occasions.
   In 2000, custody was recommended for mothers in 10,512 cases, for fathers in 2,201 cases and for joint physical custody in 2,031 cases, according to records from the State Court Administrative Office, which obtains information from local friend of the court offices.
   West Bloomfield Township attorney Dennis Vatsis, who spent more than a year collecting data on child custody recommendations and decisions, published the results recently in the Michigan Bar Journal.
   He sees the findings as proof of what many men have claimed -- divorce decisions reflect a belief that mothers are naturally qualified parents and fathers are not.
   "It's an uphill battle to obtain custody for the father," Vatsis said. "Dads have traditionally, until the last few decades, been out of the household and mothers have been in. That stereotype still persists in the domestic relations arena, even though a large percentage of mothers are now in the workforce."
   Attorney Dennis Zamplas at the Law Firm of Victoria, which represents women only, disagrees that a gender bias exists in court. Rather, he said, custody is decided according to guidelines established by the Michigan Supreme Court that focus on a child's best interest. The decision, Zamplas said, often comes down to which parent has been the main caretaker from the beginning.
   "If there is a bias, it's not gender. It's in the position of mom and dad and what part they take from the beginning in caring for the child," Zamplas said.
   Alan Z. Lebow, who heads a Southfield chapter of a group called Fathers for Equal Rights of America, said he wasn't surprised by the new research.
   Groups like DADS of Michigan are backing a proposed new law that would require judges to award equal custody to both parents unless one is physically abusive, drug-addicted or otherwise unfit. The bill, known in shorthand as "parental parity," would give Michigan the country's strongest joint-custody law if legislators and the governor go along.
   Twenty-six states and the District of Columbia direct judges to consider joint custody as the first option in divorces. The bill sponsored by Rep. Andrew Raczkowski, R-Farmington Hills, would go further by requiring joint custody unless a risk can be proven.
   The goal is to keep both parents actively involved in raising their children and to promote continued parental access and responsibility, Lebow said.

You can reach Jennifer Chambers at (248) 647-7402 or

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