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May 5, 1999 - The New York Times

(NYT Syndicate) - When 12-year-old Addison Ong's team won a Boys Club state championship basketball game last month at America West Arena, his father was there rooting for him along with his father's new wife, his mother, his mother's boyfriend, his brother, two sets of grandparents and an aunt.

"Addison had the biggest cheering section there, with our blended family," says Kendall Ong, the proud father. "In a divorced family, you have a separation, but you don't want it to become a rift. That's not good for anyone."

Kendall and Rosann Ong share custody of Addison and Dylan, 8. Kendall has the boys every other weekend and one weeknight, but he also sees them at basketball practices and school activities. He makes child-support payments and supplements them by buying clothes, bikes and toys. "Whoever is with the kids takes care of their needs," he says.

Kendall is the polar opposite of those buzzwords applied to divorced fathers in the '90s: Deadbeat Dads. Runaway Dads. Absentee Dads.

According to a landmark study recently published by Arizona State University psychology professor Sanford Braver, Kendall is the rule rather than the exception.

"Virtually every aspect of what I call the "bad divorced dad" image has turned out to be a myth, an inaccurate and damaging stereotype. Not only is this myth seriously inaccurate, it has led to harmful and dangerous social policies," Braver writes in his new book, "Divorced Dads: Shattering the Myths" (Tarcher/Putnam, $25).

Braver's research, supported by $10 million in federal grants over the past 15 years, has produced one of the nation's most comprehensive studies on non-custodial parents. The book is based on interviews with 400 Maricopa County families that were tracked from 1986 to 1990.

Braver takes aim at what he contends are the erroneous conclusions of previous, flawed studies that generated the myths about divorced fathers.

Foremost among them is the oft-quoted report of sociologist Lenore Weitzman, author of the 1985 book, "The Divorce Revolution." Weitzman, then a Harvard University professor, asserted that women and children suffer on average a 73 percent drop in their standard of living after a divorce, while fathers experience a 42 percent increase.

Braver calls the Weitzman data "probably the most widely known and influential social-science results of the last 20 years." Trouble is, they're wrong, according to leading social scientists who were unable to replicate Weitzman's findings.

Braver believes an error in arithmetic lies behind the purported 73 percent drop in women's standard of living. The actual calculation should have been a decrease of 27 percent, he says. But even that overstates the case, according to Braver's research that found women and men fare roughly the same financially after divorce.

Braver confronted Weitzman about the math error in a 1989 telephone conversation. In his book, Braver quotes her as saying, "I'm not sure I can rule out what you said. I'll investigate it and get back to you." She didn't call him back.

Years later in 1996 Weitzman acknowledged in a journal article that her original figures were faulty but stuck to her premise that divorce has unequal economic consequences for men and women.

Now a professor at George Mason University in Virginia, Weitzman is on sabbatical in England. Her secretary relayed The "Republic's" request for comment to Weitzman via e-mail. Weitzman replied that she was traveling and unable to give interviews.

Phoenix attorney Jeff Zimmerman, a fathers' rights activist, hopes the debunking of Weitzman's study will lead to changes in divorce law regarding child support and custody issues.

"If you assume that most fathers are deadbeats and won't pay, and most women are financially devastated by divorce, you come up with a system that is punitive, very one-sided," says Zimmerman.

Conrad Greene, acting president of the Children's Rights Council of Arizona, says the focus of his group is to change "an obsolete, antiquated" system. Braver's book "gives us ammunition that wasn't there before," he says.

Previous studies on divorced families relied on skewed samples often based solely on reports from the mother, or lumping divorced fathers together with never-married fathers, Braver says.

Braver is the first to interview mothers, fathers and their children several times for three years after the divorce was final. He then compared their responses to available court records. Not surprisingly, divorced moms and dads almost always gave conflicting answers to the same questions.

Divorced moms reported receiving between two-thirds and three-quarters of the child support owed, and divorced dads said they paid more than 90 percent of what was owed. The average amount paid annually was $2,718 according to the mothers, and $3,555 according to the fathers.

"The truth lies somewhere in between," Braver notes. Though Braver began his investigation with the prevailing mind-set about divorced dads, he said it wasn't long before he realized men had become victims of reverse sexism that emerged in the 1980s.

"We've essentially given the message that fathers don't matter, fathers are dispensable, fathers are superfluous, like an appendix," Braver says. "Somewhere along the line, fathers lost their cache."

The 50 percent divorce rate in a society that devalues dads has come home to roost in a big way. A 1940s Gallup survey reported the biggest behavior problems in children included cutting in line, chewing gum in class and not raising their hand to ask questions. Now the lineup includes school violence, teen pregnancy, gangs and drugs.

"Certainly it oversimplifies the picture to say this is all due to the fact that we threw fathers out of the family. But clearly, there's a large part of pathology that can be pinned empirically on father absence," says Braver.

Most divorced dads have more contact with their kids than was previously believed, he says. A 1983 study based at the University of Pennsylvania reported that only 49 percent of fathers had contact with their children within the preceding year. But Braver found that 90 percent had contact by either parent's account. Five out of six fathers living in the same town three years after the divorce reported weekly contact.

When contact was limited, the cause wasn't necessarily the father's fault. Visitation orders sometimes restricted contact, and mothers sometimes denied fathers access to their children, Braver says.

Another significant myth about divorce punctured by Braver's study and corroborated by other researchers is that fathers abandon their wives and families.

"This is the dirty little secret of divorce research. It's not the men who are leaving. In two out of three cases, the mom wants the marriage to end and initiates the divorce," says Braver.

While infidelity and substance abuse grab headlines as reasons for marital splits, the most common factors cited by both parties are losing a sense of closeness and not having emotional needs met.

"This is a quite recent trend precipitated by the cultural changes brought about primarily by the women's movement; this cultural trend best accounts for the unprecedented rise in the divorce rate," writes Braver.

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Syndicate. All rights reserved.

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