June 20, 2015 10:38:47 PM
Only 32 percent of children in Mississippi live with their married, biological parents, according to The Upshot. This is the lowest rate in the country and it means two-thirds of the children in the state are being raised in single parent households. Last year, 83 percent of those households in the country were headed by single mothers, according to the Census Bureau.
But what about the other 17 percent?
Johnny Easley owns a carpet cleaning business in Starkville. He has raised his daughter Mattie, 7, alone since his divorce in 2011. He said people's most common response to learning he is a single father is a raised-eyebrows 'Oh. Really?' followed sometimes with a blunt question -- 'Where is her mother?'
"It's so odd to people," Easley said. "They just assume the child should be with their mother."
Subtle disapproval is a common response from teachers, community members and fellow parents. Easley said he does not know any other single fathers in Louisville, where he lives. Based on the parents that pick their kids up from school every day, he thinks he might be the only one.
"I feel sort of like an outcast," he said.
There is a set of challenges unique to single fatherhood, especially to fathers raising a daughter. Easley said parents were wary to send their kids to his house for sleepovers because there would not be a woman present. The kids at school sometimes pick on Mattie because she does not have a mother at home.
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Nate Knox's daughters are 18 and 21. When he and his wife got divorced, they were in middle school. As they grew up, he stayed involved in their school lives -- among other things, he was president of the volleyball booster club. At times he would be the only father present, but he found the mothers accepting and willing to help with the club.
"There were no other dads, but we just never talked about it," Knox said. "It was like I was one of the gang."
Although Knox technically has joint custody, his girls made the decision to live with him after the divorce. He never had to undergo a custody battle, which can be difficult for single fathers.
Easley said although Mattie's mother was not fit to raise a child and was caught in several lies in court, she still would have won custody if she had not come to court the last day without a lawyer. Easley's case took place in Alabama, where he said it was clear that children go with their mothers whenever possible.
"You really have to prove yourself," he said. "The mother can pretty much just show up."
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There is still technically a doctrine on the books in Mississippi -- although it has been significantly weakened by case law -- that children of a 'tender age' should be in their mother's custody. However, this idea has been heavily overshadowed by a list of factors that determine which parent is best able to take care of their child. Dorothy Colom, the senior Chancery Judge for the court district that includes Lowndes, Clay and Oktibbeha counties, said these Albright factors are purposefully gender-neutral.
"It's all about what is best for the child," Colom said.
However, one of the factors considered most heavily by the court is which parent had 'continuity of care' prior to their separation. Jason Herring, a Tupelo-based lawyer who routinely helps fathers seek custody, said this is one of the biggest barriers for fathers in traditional homes. If they worked while their wife was a stay-at-home mom, she would be considered the primary caregiver, which would help in court.
On the other hand, another factor considered is the income of each parent, which Herring said would generally work in the father's favor because of the wage gap.
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Traditionally the mother-child bond has been stressed as significant for a child's wellbeing, but increasingly the importance of a father in the home is becoming evident. In a 2013 New York Times article, W. Bradford Wilcox compiled a laundry list of studies that underscore the significance of having a father. Girls whose fathers left before they were six were about five times more likely to be pregnant as teenagers. Boys who did not have fathers were two to three times more likely to be imprisoned before age 30. Children who have fathers have fewer behavioral problems, better academic careers, and ultimately are economically better off than their counterparts who did not.
It's good news, then, that the number of single father households has increased ninefold since 1960, according to the Pew Research Center. Marty Haug, a Starkville lawyer who often represents clients in divorce and custody cases, said this trend is true locally as well: He sees more fathers seeking custody now than ever. He conjectured this is due to the gradual breaking down of the assumption that mothers are the best provider of care for a child.
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Still, being a single father can be isolating, and there are not many resources to connect them. The closest parenting support groups a quick Internet search could uncover are in Birmingham, and those do not cater specifically to fathers.
However, Easley is firm that raising his daughter is the right decision. He picked Mattie up Saturday from weeklong summer camp. It was the longest she had ever been away from home. And even though Sunday was Father's Day -- the national holiday to celebrate dads -- Easley said he has no plans.
"Every day is Father's day, because I've got her," he said.
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