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posted: 7/30/2011 6:09 AM

More single dads fight for custody

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Bloomberg News

Joe Cioffi, a physician from Fairfield, Conn., settled for visitation rights to his son after he and the boy's mother split up. Soon, he decided that wasn't enough, so he spent four years struggling to win primary custody.

"Why should I be the underdog here?" Cioffi, 59, said of his clash with his former girlfriend. "I'm a professional. I pay my bills. I'm not a criminal. I'm home at night. So we played hardball."

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Cioffi's custody victory and living arrangement encapsulate two distinct changes driving a 27.3 percent jump in families led by single fathers in the past decade, according to figures released from the 2010 census. While the number of single dads remains small, greater acceptance of shared custody and more unmarried couples have altered traditional ideas of child rearing, demographic experts said.

"It's time for us to stop assuming that single parents are always women," said Andrew Cherlin, a professor of sociology and public policy at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "There is a visible presence now of single men caring for their kids. We didn't see that a few decades ago."

Single dads now account for 8 percent of American households with children, up from 6.3 percent in 2000 and 1.1 percent in 1950, census data show. Cioffi's community has outpaced the national rise in households led by single fathers. (His former girlfriend, through her attorney Janis Laliberte, declined to comment for this story.)

The number in Fairfield County rose 31 percent during the decade, to 5,457 from 4,167, three times the growth in single mothers, who were up 10.1 percent to 21,811, according to the census. Fairfield, which has 335,545 total households, is one of the wealthiest counties in the nation with a median household income of $81,114.

Male same-sex households with related children are a small portion nationwide and in Connecticut, where they made up 828 of the state's 1,371,087 households in 2010, census data show.

As fathers have gotten more involved in the lives of their children and mothers have increasingly entered the workforce, it has become less unusual for fathers to seek and gain custody.

"If the dad is really interested in getting custody and wants to have a relationship with his kids, he is far more successful than he was 20 years ago," said Margaret Brinig, a family law professor at Notre Dame.

Indiana passed the first state law favoring joint parenting in 1973. Before then, the mother was presumed the better caregiver and entitled to legal custody of the children.

"Unless the mother was dead or in jail or mentally ill, the father wouldn't get the child," said Matthew Weinshenker, a sociology professor at Fordham University in New York.

Every state has since passed laws favoring some kind of joint parenting. Few have gone as far as Oregon, which approved a law in 1997 that gave joint physical custody the presumption.

A recently published analysis of Oregon divorce records by Brinig showed that sole custody awarded to mothers dropped to 51 percent from 68 percent in the five years after the law took effect.

Even with weaker laws, other states showed big gains for fathers getting custody of children. The most significant growth period may be past. Between 1990 and 2000, the number of single fathers grew by 37.9 percent, greater than the 27.3 percent increase between 2000 and 2010, according to the census.

Matt Abourezk, 49, a single father in Darien, Conn., said the idea of only occasional contact with his two sons was unthinkable. He and his ex-wife readily agreed to trade weeks with the children.

"Two weeks was an awful long time to not see the kids," said Abourezk, a photographer.

The rise in the number of single fathers also likely reflects an increase in the number of unmarried couples living together, according to Mark Mather, a demographer at the Population Reference Bureau, a Washington-based research group.

"The fact that cohabitation rates have increased means that a lot of these single dads we're seeing could be living with a partner," Mather said. "They may be living with them or may have a relationship."

Cohabitation rates more than doubled to 7 percent nationwide between 1995 and 2010, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of census figures. In Connecticut, 6.6 percent of the 1.4 million households are unmarried partners.

The growth in single fathers remains a small percentage of the larger shift away from the traditional family. The majority of single parents are still mothers. They head 7.2 percent of all American households, not just those with kids, compared with 2.4 percent of those households led by single fathers, according to census figures.

As women have entered the workforce in larger numbers, they continue to do more of the parenting and still end up spending more time with the kids.

Even some fathers who have won a greater share of child custody say that mothers are better caregivers.

"Mothers are more nurturing," Abourezk said. "I know that's a stereotype. People might say, 'What, are you living in the '50s, Matt?' But the bottom line is, there's some truth to it."

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