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Fathers' Fight

What every mother should know about the fathers' rights movement

By Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

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I grew up as a child of divorce, shuttled between two households. Out of every fourteen days, I spent five with my dad, nine with my mom -- or thirty six percent of the time with my dad, sixty-four with my mom. Numbers notwithstanding, the tangible symbol of my divided life was a small, flowered suitcase. More of an overnight bag, really, it was sugar and spice pretty. Mine became quite worn over time. For me, living in two houses was what it was: sad, cumbersome, better than any of the alternatives -- by which I mean, better than not having authentic access to both parents and better than their staying together. Time and again, as friends go through divorces, I feel grateful to my own parents; however arduous the process of their split was -- and it was -- they tried to do what was best for my sister and me. Money, or our time with one or the other parent, was never ammunition. We were never pawns of their anger or disappointment. They were divorcing. They weren't at war.

Depending how your divorce goes, you may end up being at war. That much, all sides can agree upon. A follow up question is this one: whose rights matter most? That's currently up for debate.

Attorney Jeff Wolf, of the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, explains that what has long guided the courts in their handling of custody and child support cases was this imperative: "Do what's in the best interest of the child." This constituted the standard for the state's 1998 Child Custody Presumption Law. Legal priorities aren't necessarily set in stone, and many argue that by trying to change the standards, the "Fathers' Rights" movement is actually attempting to put a parent's right -- the father's -- above the child's.

Advocates like Jeff Wolf believe the current standard should not change for this very reason. "The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court articulated that in custody cases, the most pressing issue is how to provide children with the most stability possible given their situation," Wolf explains. Not all parties agree with Wolf's assessment. Groups advocating for the rights of non-custodial fathers have gained momentum since the early 1990s. They work in myriad ways from outrageous antics to mainstream lobbying.

In England, Fathers 4 Justice employ guerilla theater tactics to get their point across. The group, recently profiled in a New York Times magazine piece by Susan Dominus ("The Fathers' Crusade," May 8, 2005) is known for its dramatic actions. On the group's behalf last year, former housepainter Jason Hatch scaled Buckingham Palace dressed as Batman. From there, he unfurled a banner in support of fathers' rights -- "Super Dads of Fathers 4 Justice" -- and spent more than five hours perched on a ledge near the palace balcony. Although arrested once the stunt was over, Hatch was released without ever being charged with a crime. He even got his ladder back. Before the Buckingham Palace protest Prince Charles was quoted (in London's Daily Telegraph) in support of fathers' rights. He said he felt judges "favour mums when deciding custody of kids -- even when many fathers were not to blame for the split." The prince made this remark when speaking with a newly divorced Navy officer on HMS Belfast in London.

Jamil Jabr, head of Fathers 4 Justice, has recently begun a United States branch called Fathers 4 Justice-US. In a reconnaissance trip to New York, members of the organization scouted out sites for an action. While in the city, they were trailed by the head of New York's terrorism intelligence branch. Says Jabr, "He had FBI connections and orders to make sure that there would be no Buckingham Palace-type incidents." Although it is dubious whether such outrageous guerrilla theater style tactics would prevail in post 9-11 New York, it has been widely reported that the father's rights radicals went out for a beer with the men assigned to watch them.

Meanwhile, others like Ned Holstein, founder of the Boston-based organization Fathers and Families use more conventional means to push the fathers' rights agenda along. With downtown Boston offices, a membership base of about 2,000 and an annual budget of $130,000, his group focuses on lobbying. His was one organization that helped get family law initiatives on the Massachusetts ballot this past November. Massachusetts' voters weighed in on the custody issue by answering non-binding referendum questions in one hundred communities across the state. Voters, asked if they would endorse a law requiring judges to presume shared physical and legal custody of all minor children in all divorce cases unless a parent is proven unfit or unable to care for the child, offered resounding approval for the suggested measure: eighty-five percent.

Massachusetts isn't the only place where such lobbying is taking place. The Indiana chapter of the Children's Rights Council (a fathers' rights group) urged that class action suits be filed nationwide to call for a presumption of joint physical custody. Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack signed a presumptive joint custody law in May 2004. Although New Mexico's custody laws determine joint or sole child custody according to the best interests of the child, they plainly state this bias: "There is a presumption that joint custody is in the best interests of the child, unless shown otherwise." In all, 11 states and the District of Columbia have a legal presumption in favor of joint custody. Only three states make this presumption even when the parents contest the arrangement; eight states apply such a presumption only when both parents are in agreement.

Some conservative women are weighing in to support fathers' rights too. Wendy McElroy, a columnist for FOX News, believes in fathers' rights, wholesale. Not only does she support shared custody, she recently wrote an editorial about a birth father's right to his biological child (with an ex-girlfriend he hadn't known was pregnant in the first place). In the essay, she cited the father's finding support for his case from the National Coalition for Free Men, an organization that lists at the top of its list of current activities an attempt to abolish the Minnesota Battered Women's Act. The organization wants the state to take a brand-new tack, one that "utterly discounts and discredits the old 'women good, men bad' model and forthrightly recognizes instead that domestic violence is a shared problem between men and women."

These groups attempt to level a playing field they believe is skewed against some men by widening that description to suggest actual discrimination against all men. In a 2000 article for Salon, author Cathy Young chronicles the way Dianna Thompson became executive director of the American Coalition for Fathers and Children. "Thompson was galvanized into activism in 1992 when, as a result of an overhaul of California's child support laws, her husband's support payments for two children from his first marriage were tripled. Thompson, a mother of five, says that as a result of the increase, her family was faced with losing their home." In both of these scenarios -- the biological father so distanced from the pregnant mother that he wasn't aware of the pregnancy and the man charged higher child support payments -- men are presented as innocent victims.

Like the conservative feminists, the vast majority of fathers' rights activists cite personal roots for their dedication to the cause. Jason Hatch got into the fathers' rights movement three and a half years ago after his second wife left him, taking their two children with her. When he located her and took her to court, he was granted visitation rights, he has said, a ruling he states she didn't comply with so he has struggled to see his children even that much. Two years ago at Gloucester Crown Court he was convicted of harassing his ex-wife and given a 12-month conditional discharge. He and his girlfriend had a baby, and according to a story in the London newspaper, the Telegraph, Hatch's girlfriend left him after complaining that his obsession with a campaign for fathers' rights put too great a strain on their relationship. "Gemma Polson, 27, the mother of the couple's seven-month-old daughter Amelia, said Jason Hatch's involvement with the pressure group Fathers 4 Justice had 'taken over his life.'"

Polson went on to explain to the newspaper that Hatch -- father of four, from two former marriages in addition to his relationship with her -- put all of his energies into fighting for the right to see his children from his second marriage. Quoted as saying of Hatch, "He was seeing hardly anything of our daughter, which was a bit rich when the whole point of his campaign was to allow dads to see more of their children. I would rather he saw more of Amelia than he does."

Ned Holstein's commitment to fathers' rights also comes from personal experience. He attained joint physical and legal custody of his three now grown children and believes that his family fared well through the divorce. However, the court proceedings -- as he said to the Boston Globe in a November, 2004 article profiling him -- opened his eyes to the fact that he was being seen as a potential derelict about to shirk parental responsibility rather than a contributing member of society going through a difficult experience. The line of questioning that sparked his sense of injustice was this: "And you do make a lot of money, don't you doctor?" The stated mission of Fathers and Families is to "protect the child's right to the love and care of both parents. We seek shared parenting for the children of divorced and never-married parents with equal rights and responsibilities for fathers and mothers."

Sociologist Kathleen Gerson, author of No Man's Land: Men's Changing Commitments to Family and Work, looks at the ways men's and women's roles in society have changed over the past thirty years. She contends that large social shifts occurred, upending the old structures, and clear new paths have not been paved. For example, women's contributions to the labor force have become critical to our economy. "As women took on more economic responsibilities, the father as sole breadwinner model eroded," Gerson says. "And so men do not possess a predominant ideal or pattern of masculinity or fatherhood." She has identified three models of fathers, the first being the old-fashioned married man with wife at home. The second is the egalitarian man who values emotional involvement and his role as nurturer with his children even if a marriage breaks up. The third is the absent father -- deadbeat or runaway -- who finds sustained involvement with his children inordinately difficult. Gerson explains that the extremes are most apt to take action. "The Promise Keepers are highly committed and conservative men determined to turn back the clock and restore traditional fatherhood. The underbelly of these Promise Keepers is a rejection of the notion of women's equality. The fathers' rights movements are filled with men who feel pushed out, denied of ties to their children, leaving them estranged and angry. The underbelly of this is anger toward women."

She does not believe either extreme reflects most ordinary people's experiences. "The vast majority of men are in the middle, part of dual-earner families, whether married, otherwise partnered or divorced, and they are working to earn money and redefine fatherhood in non-politicized fashion; they are simply living their lives." Gerson notes that the number of custodial fathers, though it remains small, has doubled over the past ten years. "Because these new patterns don't get politicized, they are often not defined as men's movements. A real fatherhood movement -- like a real mothers' movement -- would question the structure of how our society balances work and family."

the problem with presumptive joint custody

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