All parents -- mothers and fathers, alike -- have the right to maintain close and loving bonds with their children. However, there is a perception that judges favor mothers when making child custody and child care decisions. And it's fairly obvious where that perception came from. Family court judges frequently grant physical custody to the parent who has cared for the child the most, and in many cases -- especially with very young children -- that person is the mother. However, these parents weren't granted custody solely, or even primarily, based on their gender. In all cases, it is the judge's intention and responsibility to uphold the best interests of the child. (To learn more about what that means, read: Understand the "Best Interests of the Child" Standard.)
Visitation's Negative Perception
To complicate matters, there is a perception that the parent who receives visitation (sometimes called "parenting time") must be the "lesser parent." This is not always the case. Sometimes the judge will determine that it's in the best interests of the child to live in one primary household. And if the mother has been the primary caregiver up to that point, she's usually the one granted physical custody in such cases. But it's important for fathers not to interpret that decision as a violation of their rights -- unless they have reason to believe that there was some impropriety in the judge's decision making (such not recusing himself or herself in a case where he or she knew either parent). And while "visitation" is a term that -- on the surface -- diminishes your role as a parent, most non-custodial parents remain actively involved in their kids' lives. And some even claim that the experience of "scheduled" parenting time allows them to spend more time with their kids than they did previously.
So it's important to note that not getting the custody arrangement you wanted -- for both men and women -- may not be the same thing as having your rights violated.
How Fathers Rights Are Violated
In many cases, fathers rights are violated because they haven't been formally established. Here's another area where it seems like mothers have an advantage. A woman doesn't have to prove that she's the birth mother; but a father not listed on the birth certificate or married to the mother at time of the child's birth or conception (depending on state laws) is subject to paternity testing. If this applies to you, contact your local family court to begin the process of acknowledging your rights. Once paternity is established, you can formally file for child custody or visitation rights.
Another way that fathers rights are violated is when there is a formal custody or visitation order in place but it isn't being followed. If this is happening to you, find out why. If the reason is something you can address -- like upgrading your child car seats -- do that. In cases where no reasonable explanation is given, or your ex simply refuses to send the kids for court-ordered visits, contact the court that issued the order and let them know that it's being violated.
How to Protect Your Rights as a Father
Having a formal child custody order in place, with a written parenting plan, will help to protect your rights as father. If no such order is in place, or you feel it's not being upheld, you should consult with a family law attorney who can advocate on your behalf. If you cannot afford an attorney, or you prefer to represent yourself, you should seek out pro-bono or pro se resources through your local family court.
Taking Action When Your Rights as a Father Are Violated
If there is a child custody or visitation order in place and your ex is not upholding that order, it's important that you let the court know right away. Document all related events and communications so that you can show the judge that your rights are being denied.
For example, if the other parent communicates that she will not allow visitation, keep a record of that communication, or make a note of it if the communication was verbal, and inform the judge in writing. Family courts take order violations very seriously and some will even overturn a ruling in cases where a parent refuses to comply.
Finally, remember that it is no one else's job to protect your rights -- except perhaps your lawyer if you have one. In most cases, you will have to take the initiative to get an order in place and, if it's not being upheld, report violations to the court. In the meantime, you can protect your reputation with the court by maintaining contact with your child (to the best of your ability) and continuing to pay child support, if applicable.