Just minutes into Brooks McKenzie’s hour-long presentation, two attendees of a grassroots political group’s monthly meeting stormed out of House of Grace Church in North Richland Hills. The lecture that took aim at the state attorney general’s child support division and family courts apparently miffed an AG staffer and a Keller family law attorney in attendance.
If McKenzie noticed the abrupt exits as he spoke to the crowd of a few dozen, it didn’t show. The reform-minded public speaker from Fort Worth who holds a Ph.D. from TCU in developmental psychology described what he believes to be the main causes of fatherlessness in Texas.
“The greatest promoter of fatherlessness in Texas,” he said, “is our family court system … our judges … family law attorneys,” and no-fault divorce, which allows either spouse to file for divorce without cause.
For every dollar AG staffers spend collecting child support, the federal government gives the state 66 cents, McKenzie said, referring to the Social Security program (Title IV D) that incentivizes courts to not award equal custody. Based on AG records, Tarrant County family courts received roughly $3 million in Title IV D funds in 2020. Federal legislators created Title IV D through the 1975 Social Security Act as a means of increasing the monies mothers receive in child support. The idea was to find an alternative stream of revenue to keep mothers off welfare. Critics of the program say those initial good intentions have been abused by state leaders who profiteer off federal funding.
“The state of Texas receives over $500 million dollars a year for putting parents on child support,” he said. “Overwhelmingly, it is the father who has to pay but not always. What [family court judges] are doing [by not awarding 50-50 custody] is creating conflict and generating money for the state. We have learned to monetize the destruction of children. The courts have to make children fatherless to justify ordering child support. This is coming from your Social Security funds.”
Not once, he continued, has he seen a judge save a marriage.
“Family court [Associate Judge] Kate Stone is not elected, so you didn’t vote for her,” he said, referring to the Tarrant County judge. “She was appointed by [elected District Judge] Kenneth Newell. Stone has denigrated parents in the courtroom. She has openly admitted to violating their civil rights and [telling a father], ‘What are you going to do about it?’ Newell has never once reversed an order of hers, cleaned it up, or disciplined her.”
McKenzie’s outspoken support of 50-50 shared custody and criticism of presumed primary custody for mothers have made him a local advocate for the fathers’ rights movement, a loosely organized group of factions whose adherents believe moms and dads should be viewed equally in the eyes of the law when it comes to custodial rights.
Although McKenzie did not go into his own story that evening, we recently wrote about alleged judicial abuse by Stone and Newell that resulted in McKenzie losing custody of the son he has not seen in years (“ Corrupt Courts Destroying Families,” Oct. 2022 ). The child development specialist alleges that Stone used false allegations from his then-wife to strip his parental rights. After losing access to his son, McKenzie said he went into a protracted, debilitating depression that left him on the verge of suicide.
While estimates vary state by state, mothers receive primary custody of children following a divorce upwards of 90% of the time, meaning fathers in those situations often see their children only every other weekend at best. Based on U.S. Census data, the number of children living without a father has doubled since 1960, from 7.6 million in 1968 to 15.3 million in 2020.
Fatherless children are more likely to have developmental problems and run-ins with police, based on numerous governmental studies, and the ramifications for fathers who lose access to their children are also stark. Fort Worth-based advocacy group Fathers for Equal Rights found a divorced male is three times more likely to commit suicide than a married man.
A study from the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health compared suicide rates between divorced men and women and found that the men were “nearly 9.7 times more likely to kill themselves than comparable divorced women. Put another way, for every divorced woman that committed suicide, more than nine divorced men killed themselves. While social, psychological, and even personal problems facing women are readily denounced, societal institutions tend to ignore or minimize male problems [that are] evident in suicide statistics. For instance, in many jurisdictions in the U.S., there seems to be an implicit assumption that the bond between a woman and her children is stronger than that between a man and his children. Consequently, in divorce settlements, primary child custody is more likely to be given to the wife. In the end, the father loses not only his marriage but his children.”
Calls for family court reforms are not limited to the Lone Star State or the United States. Through YouTube shows like Dad Talk Today and the social media outlet Pissed Off Parent, parents here and abroad describe a system that profits off broken families.
And yet the parental rights movement remains fragmented between the fathers’ rights movement and groups that maintain women are the ones most discriminated against in courts and society. Many family law attorneys and parental rights advocates privately conveyed mistrust of the fathers’ rights movement.
One Tarrant County mother who asked to go by Sara to protect her privacy finds fault with assertions by the fathers’ rights movement that family courts are inherently pro-mother.
Missing from that narrative, she said, are the rights of children.
“There is this stereotype that courts are pro-mom and have always been pro-mom,” she said. “Without conflict, the courts wouldn’t be needed. The system is set up to fuel that fire and create conflict where none may have existed. Mothers are put into a box that says we are emotional and overly protective of children. It keeps women silent, especially if there is domestic violence.”
The levels of outrage levied at Texas’ family courts may seem unfathomable to folks who have not had to engage in that system. Family court judges rule with impunity, and their decisions can leave parents torn from their children and with little recourse other than financially bleeding in courts where attorneys earn $200 to several hundred dollars an hour. Or more.
It’s a system that makes no distinction between political parties, but economic class does offer advantages. Based on a thorough review of campaign finance reports from Tarrant County family court judges, the judges predominantly rely on donations from family law firms to float elections and reelections. Increasingly, the influence of money in family court decisions has become the focus of public discourse due to reporting by us and Facebook Live chats hosted by local history buff Larry O’Neal.
Through those outlets and court-reform-minded podcasts, locals have learned about the tragic stories of fathers like Chad Read, who was fatally shot by his ex’s boyfriend, Kyle Carruth, during an exchange in Lubbock. Video footage from Read’s girlfriend shows he was unarmed when he sought his children during the court-ordered exchange. A grand jury convened by the state attorney general’s office declined to press charges against Read’s killer. Jury members did not publicly state their reasons for not indicting him.
“The criminal justice system utterly failed Jennifer Read, the widow of Chad Read,” said Read’s family in a statement. “Chad Read was involved in a heated discussion with his ex-wife concerning custody of his son. The video shows that Kyle Carruth injected himself into that discussion. We believe there was no legitimate reason for Kyle Carruth to bring a deadly weapon to an argument that he wasn’t even a part of. Chad Read died unarmed, shot and killed while simply trying to determine the whereabouts of his son.”
Read’s death was hauntingly similar to another earlier child exchange shooting, this one of North Dakotan John Mast. After three years of fighting family courts to see his three children, Mast was granted weekend access in early 2021. Based on news reports, he arrived on time at the pick-up location only to be gunned down by his former father-in-law, who awaits trial for murder.
“For the past 3.5 years,” Mast’s family said in a statement following the fatal shooting, “John Mast faced many completely false and vile allegations of the worst sort. His children were taken from him due to these false allegations. He worked tirelessly to be back in his children’s lives and to clear himself and was ultimately exonerated and found completely free and clear of everything. He was finally granted weekend custody of his children and was set to pick them up at the meeting spot. Instead of meeting his beautiful children, he was met by his former father-in-law and shot multiple times. We believe in a God, that is bigger than this, and we believe that somehow good will come of this. Rest in peace, beloved brother.”
Another fatal child exchange recently occurred near Fort Worth. In December, several dozen friends and relatives of Tyrone Darling gathered at an Arlington park to hold an evening vigil in his memory. The father was fatally shot in mid-December by his son’s mother during a child exchange. Parental rights advocate Jeff Morgan took to social media to call out a state system he alleges perpetuates unequal visitation as a means of justifying litigation and animosity between parents.
“Texas family court judges create conflict through unjust and unsympathetic rulings” that create winners and losers, he wrote. “Texas family law attorneys also help create this conflict, which often favors mothers, not fathers. The Texas Family Law Foundation lobbies for legislation that creates this conflict. Why? Because it makes more money for divorce attorneys.”
The Texas Family Law Foundation, which advocates for family court lawyers, judges, legal assistants, and court coordinators, has openly fought reform efforts while protecting the status quo. Foundation president Kathy Kinser has written, “The Foundation has worked tirelessly to defeat proposals to end no-fault divorce, extend the waiting period for divorce, impose a presumption in favor of unworkable 50-50 custody agreements, and so much more.”
Eric Carroll, the Georgia-based host of Dad Talk Today, said he started his YouTube show and social media outlets that reach around 18 million viewers monthly to give dads a voice that he said is too frequently drowned out.
Fathers, he said, are often too beaten down by the system to fight back.
“If dads talk about the financial abuse of the system, then they are labeled a deadbeat dad,” Carroll told me, referring to the exorbitant legal fees and child support that can mandate more than one-third of income after taxes go to their ex following a breakup.
Under common practice, family courts routinely require child support payments, overwhelmingly from the father, even before those dads gain or regain access to their children.
“How much does it cost to have access to our family?” Carroll continued. “Our families are not a product. [Courts] should not be charging us to have the right to be a dad. [The courts have] the perfect thing to dangle over your head because fathers will pay anything to be a dad. Men think they are the only ones going through it. Then they realize other dads have similar stories. The system is doing exactly what it was designed for. These men cannot show up to the Capitol [to call for reforms]. They have no money. They are paying somebody who has a new man in the house that moms are getting the kids to call ‘Daddy.’ The stepdads are seeing their kids more than” the biological fathers are.
Parental rights may be related to the suicide rates of veteran and active-duty military, he added.
A recent study by United Service Organizations, a nonprofit serving active-duty service members and their families, found that more than 30,000 members of the military have committed suicide since the September 11 attacks, around three times the number of dead due to combat during that period.
Though the effects of child custody disputes and divorces on servicemen and -women have not been studied, Carroll, who has hosted many veterans on his show, believes those traumatic events likely play a role in leading some former and current soldiers to end their lives.
“Unfortunately, they serve overseas and come home to find their house is empty,” he said. “If the dad fights to see his kids, PTSD or his service is used against him in court [to allege he is dangerous]. They serve us, and we could serve them better. These guys are dropping like flies.”
Sara said her own Tarrant County family court battle has informed her of the plight faced by mothers. “If a woman speaks out against abuse by a co-parent, they are viewed as crazy,” she said.
Because women are stereotyped as overly emotional, something potentially off-putting to judges, attorneys routinely advise mothers not to cry in court or mention breastfeeding, she continued.
“I could feel those [anti-mother] stereotypes in the courtroom because lawyers and the whole room would try to couch any evidence they wanted to” make women appear hysterical, she said. “Moms fight a much harder battle in court than men. There are kids who are now aged out of the system who can speak to when courts sent them back to an abusive father.”
Men are routinely given breaks for things like past-due child support and criminal convictions that would land mothers with restricted access to their children, Sara said.
Another stereotype foisted on women is that they are controlling, Sara said, which leaves women afraid to voice concern over domestic abuse or child abuse.
Judges will respond, “ ‘Oh, you’re this controlling mom. This is just a way of keeping your child to yourself,’ ” she added.
Sara said 50-50 custody, a top priority of fathers’ rights advocates, is often untenable and possibly damaging for children.
Some assume “50-50 is good for them,” she said. “If it is the standard, it will make life for women who come from abusive circumstances harder, and it is already hard. I wish the courts could separate between circumstances involving domestic violence and those that don’t. I question a lot of the fathers’ movement because a lot can hide behind it in the name of good. I think there are very few fathers that are genuinely lost in the system and truly trying to fight an uphill battle, but I think a lot of them have been told they were not given a fair cut, and now they are making it all about that [unfair shake] when that should not be where the focus is.”
Children who split their time evenly between households don’t have a stable home base, she added.
“The courts don’t recognize that child outbursts are due to the constant back-and-forth schedule,” she said. “Those kids never have a stable, centered home. They are living in a suitcase from one place to another. That’s not better for them.”
Sara shared several TikTok videos that critique the fathers’ rights movement.
“It is abusers who are focused on taking custody away from mothers,” said Lundy Bancroft, an author and domestic abuse consultant, on one video. “Joint custody is not a positive outcome when the father is abusive. [The fathers’ rights movement] is fond of saying 50-50 is best for the kids. That is total nonsense. Unfortunately, states are beginning to mandate 50-50 custody. Fifty-fifty custody isn’t about children. It sees the child as loaf of bread. It’s half for me, and half for you. Children do best with what was the prior care. If they were with the mother 90% of the time before the divorce, they should remain with the mother 90% of the time.”
The proliferation of fathers’ rights podcasts and media outlets is itself a critique of what is wrong with the movement’s assumptions, she said, because mothers do not fixate on this or that team when it comes to parenting.
“We [mothers] don’t talk about children in the terms of ‘our’ rights,” she said. “I think there is so much focus on the rights of the parents that some aren’t giving the children a voice.”
While Carroll makes ample space for dads to tell their stories on his show, he pushes back when being labeled.
“I make sure I tell people, ‘Don’t call me ‘fathers’ rights,’ ” he said. “I’m Dad Talk Today. Yes, I talk about fathers’ rights, but I will fight for a mother just as much as I would a father. At the same time, when dads speak up, they are told they are hating women. The [other side] says not to talk about dads and to keep it about the children. Excuse me, a dad fighting for his parental rights is a dad fighting for his children. Then they will say not to make it about the money when the courts are the ones who made it about the money. Money is the reason this whole system goes around.”
Carroll hopes that family courts in Texas and around the country one day make 50-50 custody the default for split or divorced parents. He said he worries that rushing into that setup could have unintended consequences without reforms that address false allegations in family court.
“Attorneys will always figure out how to rig the system,” he said, referring to incentives to prolong litigation to maximize billable hours. Fifty-fifty custody “doesn’t make the game go away,” he continued. “It changes how it is played. [Many] restraining orders are unfounded. I’m 100% behind 50-50, but there could be consequences.”
The popular YouTuber sees hope in convincing legislators to sharpen penalties for perjury in family court because politicians are themselves frequent targets of character assassination.
“I think they could sympathize with” people who have also been the target of false allegations, Carroll said.
Rather than focus on the plight of this or that group in court, Sara said she would like judges, attorneys, and all involved parties to focus on evidence, past research, and the well-being of children.
Stereotypes against moms and dads can be dispelled through data, she said.
“That involves exposing the courts,” she said. The moms that fathers’ rights supporters “need to be working with are the ones they are pushing against. It is sad. There are a lot of great dads being lost in the system. It is confusing to moms who are experiencing the other side who have children being sent back to not-so-great men.”
Carroll said his work will be done when there’s no longer a need for Dad Talk Today and other outlets for fathers fighting to see their children. Continually hearing stories of fathers being shot at child exchanges has traumatized him, he said.
“We need to be loud and proud to be a dad,” he said. “Can these horror stories happen to moms? Yes. We should be on the same team. The majority of supporters of my podcast are women. It’s grandmas, moms, and stepmoms who have seen this system. People forget it is not just the dad who gets alienated. There is a whole side of the family that” loses access to children when dads lose parental rights.