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Fathers' Fight

What every mother should know about the fathers' rights movement

By Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

June 2005

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

If presented without supporting information about the complexities that can factor into divorce, joint or shared custody sounds like the reasonable, fair way to go. It's appealing even to those who comprehend the vagaries of warfare between divorcing couples. Trish Wilson, in her article, "Solomon's Solution" (AlterNet, 21 April 05) references New York Judge Felicia K. Shea's explanation about why judges might lean toward this arrangement. Shea writes that "'Joint custody is an appealing concept. It permits the court to escape an agonizing choice, to keep from wounding the self-esteem of either parent and to avoid the appearance of discrimination between the sexes.'" Shared custody arrangements imply that two parents are contributing equally toward their children's stability. For such a measure to work there must be a tacit implication of underlying good will. In many of the cases that moved fathers' rights advocates to lobby for shared custody, any traces of good will had long since disintegrated.

According to experts, parents that choose to share custody make it work well. Wilson points out that early studies of joint custody revealed situations ideal to making it work well included cooperative relationships between the parents, financial stability, the mothers not having remarried, mutual agreement to live in close proximity to one another and the fact that these couples usually had one child. However, studies also showed that when parental conflict endured, joint custody often elongated the period of dissention and conflict.

Judith Wallerstein (author of many longitudinal studies on divorce including the book, Second Chances) declares that strife between adults can be turned toward the children when a contentious divorce is in the works, and that in these cases shared custody can be damaging. She says, "Conflict is bad for children, and if you put them more in the middle, it's bad." There is, in fact, a lot of evidence for the idea that different custody models are suitable for different families. No single formula determines the best match for all families. Wallerstein's long range study indicates that children in joint custody situations did no better than those in sole custody. Her study also showed that the well-being of the parents had more to do with how well the children fared than how custody was resolved, which would indicate that flexibility, designing custody on a case by case basis, helped more children to thrive after their parents' divorces.

Eleanor Maccoby and Robert Mnookin, co-authors of Dividing the Child, describe a phenomenon that they believe backfired. A study of California courts looked at the outcomes of joint custody being awarded in an attempt by the judges for families to resolve familial conflicts. "Three and one-half years after separation, these couples were experiencing considerably more conflict and less co-operative parenting than were couples for whom joint custody was the first choice of each parent." In their study, only six percent of those seeking divorce opted for joint custody.

The courts themselves do not keep statistics about how many divorces with children are contested. Jeff Wolf points out that the number of cases filed as contested wouldn't offer complete clarification. "Determining whether a given case is 'contested' on custody would be something of a challenge anyway, because someone (a researcher, presumably) would have to assess each case to determine the nature and extent of the 'contest.'" In its testimony to the California Judicial Committee, the legal services Family Law Task Force argued that the poor results reflected in Maccoby and Mnookin's study revealed how that law had not served its intended purpose. That state repealed its law forcing presumption of shared custody for couples in opposition to trying it.

In an editorial for the "Voice Male" newsletter, Rob Okun co-director of the Men's Resource Center of Western Massachusetts, Becky Lockwood director for Rape Crisis Services and Violence Protection at the Everywoman's Center at the University of Massachusetts and Marian Kent, director of Safe Passage, weigh in on the 2004 Massachusetts referendum. They write: "On their surface, the questions are simple, feel-good initiatives, but they're not. In reality, they may be seen as a planned effort to undermine current custody laws. With far-reaching implications, the proposed laws could have painful and even dangerous consequences for children caught in the middle of high-conflict divorce cases and, in particular, in cases where domestic violence is a factor." The authors point out that "The only rights the initiative creates or enhances are those of non-custodial parents. In what we can only hope was a glaring oversight, the language of the initiative makes no explicit provision for dealing with cases where sexual abuse or domestic violence is a factor." In Massachusetts, an estimated 43,00 children live in homes where domestic violence exists.

Jay Silverman, assistant professor of Society, Human Development, and Health and director of Violence Prevention Programs at the Harvard School of Public Health, has been studying how women in battering situations fail to be protected by the Massachusetts courts in custody disputes. He and his collaborators placed these domestic decisions into an international framework, citing the U.N. Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women's call for the "right to due diligence," as well as the "best interests of the child," as defined by the Convention on the Rights of the Child. According to the researchers, "'The right to freedom from violence is one of the most fundamental human rights. Without that right, all other rights are meaningless.'"

Family court cases are closed and records that would offer hard numeric evidence are not kept, even state by state. As a result, most evidence is anecdotal. Statistics about violence within families are sobering: 40 to 70 percent of children of battered women are directly abused by their mother's batterer; half of child homicides are committed by males within the family circle; male partners commit half of all murders against women. Separation doesn't necessarily stop violence: according to some studies; up to 75 percent of both emergency room visits and calls to law enforcement for assistance were made by battered women after separating from their batterers. According to Silverman and Lundy Bancroft, co-authors of The Batterer as Parent, male abusers are more likely to seek custody than non-abusers. What's more, studies confirm that they are likely to prevail. Forty-eight states, including Massachusetts, have laws requiring judges to assign custody to the non-abusive parent although judges can override them. In an article for the Harvard Public Health Review, Silverman is quoted: "'U.S. courts remain incredibly reluctant to punish men for crimes against their families. In this country, family violence is still seen as a private matter.'" Silverman points out that to rape one's wife wasn't officially deemed illegal in some states until the 1990s, further bolstering his argument that the value of protecting familial privacy has overridden the value of protecting women from violence.

In "Solomon's Solution," Trish Wilson offers an example of this. Angela was divorced from an abusive ex-husband, who told her if she tried to divorce him he'd do anything to prove her an unfit mother or to take the children from her. Placing her trust in the court system's ability to protect her and her children from an abusive man, she proceeded to file for divorce. She was rudely surprised. "'I was pressured to accept an unstable and unsafe 50/50 custody schedule, even for my nursing infant,' she said. 'I was blamed for the violence in the house; for mine and my children's reasonable fears about their father's abuse. [The court] implied that if I didn't agree to shared physical custody, I would be punished by having sole custody awarded to the children's father. His verbal abuse of me and the children were deemed 'communication problems.' Incidence of child abuse and physical domestic violence were minimized and called 'a difference in parenting styles.'" The fallout for her eldest child was dramatic. The girl began to hurt herself physically, suddenly had trouble in school, experienced stomachaches and mounted physical resistance to seeing her father.

The invention of Parental Alienation Syndrome

Author Katie Allison Granju described her total shock when her soon to be ex-husband announced he was vying for custody of their children in her New York Times essay, "Losing Custody of My Hope" (8 May 05). Granju, the author of a guidebook on attachment parenting, had been the parent to step back from the workforce and serve as the children's primary caregiver. She wrote that her former spouse cited possible "parental alienation syndrome" as a bolstering factor in his bid for custody.

Psychiatrist Richard Gardner coined the term in the late 1980s: "One outgrowth of this warfare (over custody) was the development in children of what I refer to as the Parental Alienation Syndrome. Typically, the child viciously vilifies one of the parents and idealizes the other. This is not caused simply by parental brainwashing of the child. Rather the children themselves contribute their own scenarios in support of the favored parent. My experience has been that in about 80 to 90 percent of cases the mother is the favored parent and the father the vilified one."

"Parental Alienation Syndrome" seems to have entered the courts based on Dr. Gardener's anecdotal observations. Fathers' rights advocates and bloodthirsty lawyers seized upon the idea and pushed it further, although it remains relatively undocumented and hasn't received much formal study. The internet quickly reveals many resources (particularly for men) for those disheartened by their own divorce negotiations. It takes little effort to stumble upon descriptions of PAS; for example, Dr. Reena Sommer defines PAS on her Web site as "the deliberate attempt by one parent (and/or guardian/significant other) to distance his/her children from the other parent" and describes PAS as "a form of child abuse." Among the attributes that signal PAS during high conflict divorces, according to Sommer, are conflict between the divorcing spouses and change of geographical location on the part of one spouse. She neglects to point out either of these situations could occur without the desire to poison the children against the other parent during such a split. Sommer's advice -- "No one knows your children and what is best for them better than YOU" -- comes with a price tag. Scrolling down her page are multiple opportunities to buy her book, Children's Adjustment to Divorce: Educating Yourself, Your Attorney & The Court (available on sale at $37 to download for immediate consumption).

While some courts have begun to take PAS into consideration as a factor in custody deliberations, the term has not been accepted by the American Psychiatric Society nor entered into the DSM-IV, which is considered the bible of psychiatric diagnoses. Despite this, various paid "expert" witnesses in child custody cases across the country assess PAS as a presenting factor.

Fighting over child support

Introduction of PAS is just one of many strategies that fathers' rights advocates are employing to bolster men's quests for shared or sole custody. Ginetta Candelario, an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Smith College, found her divorce negotiations suddenly turned contentious a few years ago. "The divorce was almost finalized, we had a date, parenting plan, mediation results entered into the court record, everything," recalls Candelario. "Then, I got a Fulbright [scholarship], which would take me and the children away for six months. He [her ex-husband, Juan Romero] was upset about that. He also didn't want to pay a lot of money."

Candelario explains further that Stephanie, her ex-husband's girlfriend, has a daughter by an ex-boyfriend. "The boyfriend is an engineer who made about eighty thousand dollars a year to her customer service position pay of about thirty thousand. Although the ex-boyfriend hadn't been terribly interested in the daughter, he obtained joint custody. Juan said, 'He's so lucky not to pay child support.' Before she moved in with Juan, Stephanie had to live at friends' houses with her daughter for six months while her ex-boyfriend kept the beautiful house."

Romero had a child in New Jersey from his first marriage. With this daughter, he had visitation rights but not custody. Candelario never envisioned he'd seek joint custody for their son and daughter. Because the Fulbright would mean a change in the kids' visitation schedule short-term, Romero was in a position to contest existing agreements. For months, Candelario wondered why Romero was suddenly engaged in such bitter battle. "Was it money or feeling he'd lost control of his child after the dissolution of his first marriage or did he believe me to be a bad mother?" she wondered at the time. "Eventually, I dreamt, 'Google him.'"

She did. Upon reading a testimonial posted on the internet by Romero, Candelario better understood why he was fighting her so hard. Part of Romero's testimonial reads, "In my case, I have a lawyer; however, who can afford to call a lawyer with every little question during this emotional rollercoaster time in our lives. After leaving a brief email at the National Brotherhood Of Fathers Rights describing my circumstances, I received a phone call from Dennis Gac. I was very impressed with Mr. Gac's legal knowledge and personal experiences. On May 2002, I became a member to the National Brotherhood Of Fathers Rights. The amount of information that I have received, thus far, is more than worth the membership price of $675.00; and I have unlimited consultation for this price for one year!"

On his web site, Gac describes his own history with divorce in an open letter to fathers. "I have formal legal training from the University of Michigan, and William Howard Taft Law School in Southern California. But 15 years ago, despite all my legal training, I was not prepared for the prejudice that I faced when I went through my divorce. I quickly got up to speed and fought my way to fairness against an extremely disagreeable 'X' wife. Shared custody, no child support and a fair property settlement resulted after I learned the correct approach and legal techniques. And I did it all using the same 'Legal-Kung-Fu' methods you're about to learn. Because the family court system is becoming more and more 'skewed' against us as fathers, more men are falling behind in their child support payments and receiving less time with their kids. You can actually help by pursuing your own case with vigor before it's too late."

This is followed by a pitch to subscribe to his newsletter (free online but described as being a $147 value). Gac offers advice such as, "You can snatch the momentum of the case from the opposition -- increasing your odds of success by 80%. After working with nearly 10,000 fathers, I've learned that you must remain on offense. Filing first gives you a psychological edge. It sets the tone for the entire case; making her respond to you rather than the other way around. Not only will that boost your chances of getting more time with your kids, the chances of paying less child support are also more likely. In fact, the court actually appreciates this approach!" Anger and equity rate a mentioned in Gac's introduction; but there's not one word about the well being of the children. Searching for information about Gac on the internet, he not only promotes his services for divorcing fathers, he also advertises his ability to help snare sports scholarships.

Candelario says her ex-husband was able to negotiate considerably less financial responsibility than their original agreement as a by-product of the drawn out proceedings. She also describes how the process was affected when the Guardian Ad Litem turned out to be a friend of Romero's lawyer. Candelario says, "After missing our appointment three times, she spent forty minutes with me, and refused to meet my partner or any family friends. Because I saw the bill, I know that she spent over two hours at Juan's house with him, his girlfriend and the neighbors. I handed her six pages of references to call and she called none of them. In court, she testified that although Juan hadn't assumed much responsibility for the children when we were married he should be given a chance now, basically because he was a nice guy. My lawyer was able to discredit her on the stand because she'd checked none of the references."

"After all that fuss about how my going to the Dominican Republic for the Fulbright would be too long a separation from the kids, he never once visited them. He didn't have to pay child support during the months I was away. And then he decided to drop most of his visitation. These were days I'd scheduled to commute and teach an extra class at another university to help pay for the twenty-six thousand dollar legal bill I'd acquired re-negotiating the divorce agreement. I had to scramble. He wasn't responsible to help pay for any childcare on those days that were 'his' because the judge ruled that 'visitation is a right, not an obligation.' He sees the kids from Friday afternoon to Sunday afternoon twice a month."

Having an economic upper hand and using that muscle in a very aggressive manner doesn't always work. In 2000, a Massachusetts judge ordered Peter Basel to pay $100,000 of his ex-wife's legal fees, because her bills were "a direct result of the husband's manipulative, nefarious conduct as it relates to his fraudulent portrayal of his wife as an unfit parent." Historically, probate court judges have been reluctant about assessing hefty fees, because their awards are often reversed on appeal.

The financial security of custodial parents

So, how much of a motivation is money in the fathers' rights movement? The 2002 United States Census report showed that poverty among custodial parents fell from thirty-three percent to twenty-three percent from the 1999 study, although the poverty rate remained about four times higher than for married families with similar aged children. The study also pointed out that the poverty rate for female custodial parents fell to twenty-five percent, while the poverty rate for male custodial parents was significantly lower at fourteen percent. According the Institute for Women's Policy Research, "women have made tremendous progress toward gaining economic equality during the last several decades. Nonetheless, throughout the United States, women earn less, are less likely to own a business, and are more likely to live in poverty than men. Disparities abound regionally and by state, and, even more profoundly, race and ethnicity continue to shape women's economic opportunities." Further, their most recent national study adds that even with continued economic gains for women at the rate that has occurred between 1989 and 2002, women would not achieve wage parity for over fifty years.

The Census report shows that an estimated fifty-nine percent of custodial parents had child support agreements, and of custodial parents receiving child support agreements, sixty-three percent were women, thirty-eight percent men. The proportion of custodial parents receiving full payments increased between 1993 and 2001, but the proportion of custodial parents receiving partial payments fell during that same time. Those custodial parents receiving full child support were less likely to be living in poverty. A correlation also existed between child support and visitation or custody agreements: the one was more likely to be received if the other was in place. In other words, child support remained an essential factor in preventing poverty among custodial parents, particularly mothers.

Disputing these findings are researchers like Sanford Braver, co-author of Divorced Dads: Shattering the Myths. With David Stockburger, Braver wrote the book The Law and Economics of Child Support Payments. Braver and others believe child support guidelines "have become tilted against non-custodial parents because they fail to consider the large tax benefits custodial parents enjoy, as well as non-custodial parents' child-related expenses." These researchers argue that this bias means that although a custodial parent may earn less money, the higher wage earning, non-custodial parent's lifestyle isn't better than the custodial parent's. Right wing commentator Glenn Sacks and family law attorney Jeffery Leving (whose web site is contest that these laws "often drive them (the fathers) into falling deeply into arrears."

Even for super-wealthy celebrities, child support conflates responsibility and willingness to pay. Sean P. Diddy Combs' recent response to being sued for higher child support payments underscores this. A man known for his own extravagance -- from big diamonds to big yachts -- he balked when the New York State Supreme Court's Appellate Division approved a child support increase from $5,000 to $21,782 per month to his ex-girlfriend, Misa Hylton-Brim, apparently the highest child support payment in state history. In an interview with The Associated Press, the hip-hop mogul called the case an attack on his character. "It's not about money. I don't care how much money I have," he said. "If you come at me and say I don't take care of my child, I'm going to take care of that to the end. I do take care of my child to my fullest, that's something that should be rewarded. It's not something that should be handled this way." He plans to appeal, because he says he already gives enough to his son.

As Attorney Jeff Wolf points out, if "shared custody" was the law, child support guidelines wouldn't apply. He believes the fathers' rights movement has taken a stand to cast the custody issue in terms of a values-based system, even if there is a huge hidden agenda that has to do with shirking child support obligations. "These fathers are busy talking about the value of having a father in order to improve moral development. They build up fears that children of divorce stray, although this is unproven. Those values -- moral development and importance of fathers --sound definitive. On the other side, the values-based argument for 'best interest of the child' remains harder to define neatly. Its message isn't that all children need a father, rather that all children need parents to focus on their needs. Parents emphasizing this value exhibit characteristics such as being open-minded, flexible and nurturing. The moral standard of such pragmatism is to ensure that stability is assured for the children, regardless of parental sacrifice. The fathers' rights movement doesn't address children's stability at all."

According to Wolf, that "best interest of the child" standard sounds legalistic, even though it's child-centered. He says, "Fathers' rights groups may not appeal to experts -- they are not trying to -- but legal services, experts, academics weigh in on the merits of supporting the child's best interests. The public and the legislature are less likely to be convinced by academics and judges. In order to prevail, mothers need to articulate a moral argument, rather than a response to the notion that fathers have rights."

In the intimate sphere of family, emotions run high, and most especially when the stories that convey betrayal -- from a person once loved -- are relayed. The fathers' rights movement is not monolithic. There are men making a considered, if one-sided point, about their sense of responsibility and their commitment to vie for meaningful involvement with their children. These men, like Ned Holstein, see their cases in terms of gender discrimination. However, they are unwilling to put children's needs and rights before theirs. Others in the fathers' rights movement are far less articulate and far angrier than Holstein is. Their postings can be found on various fathers' rights web sites (such as Blind rage fuels their involvement, stemming from the sense that the courts treated them unfairly during their divorce proceedings. Some, like Jason Hatch, haven't acted wholly above board or peacefully with their former spouses.

Given the formidable progress the fathers' rights movement has made -- perhaps especially possible in this particular political climate -- those putting children's best interests first have a great deal of work ahead. Mothers, fathers, and others protecting children need to band together. They have to take a play from Dennis Gac's handbook and find a way to go on the offense.

mmo : june 2005

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to the MMO. She lives in Western Massachusetts.

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