Boston Globe

Wednesday, August 18, 1999

Fathers' rights activists plan suit

Mass. courts favor women, groups say

By Jordana Hart, Globe Staff, Globe Correspondent
The Boston Globe

QUINCY - Harry Stewart, a lay Christian minister convicted in June of violating a restraining order taken out by his former wife, was given a simple choice: Join a batterers' treatment program or go to jail.

Last month Stewart refused to sign a contract with Common Purpose, which counsels men convicted of abuse, because he said he is not a batterer. He was arrested, he says, simply because he opened the door to his wife's apartment building to let his 5-year-old son in.

So he was kicked out of Common Purpose.

Yesterday, surrounded by supporters at a hearing in Quincy District Court, his ''Super Dad'' T-Shirt tucked into his crumpled suit and his Bible in hand, Stewart refused another chance to admit to being a batterer. He was led away in handcuffs to begin serving a six-month jail sentence.

At that moment, Stewart became a lightning rod for a burgeoning men's domestic rights movement in Massachusetts led by the Fatherhood Coalition, a group of activists and some second wives who say the courts and a powerful network of domestic violence agencies are stacked against them.

In its most ambitious campaign to date, the Fatherhood Coalition, which claims a 2,000-member mailing list, plans to file a class-action lawsuit against the Massachusetts court system, accusing it of sex discrimination in issuing restraining orders and awarding custody of children in divorce cases. In addition, a bill filed in the state Legislature on behalf of the coalition would alter laws governing domestic abuse and restraining orders.

The proposed legislation would define abuse as repeated instances of intentional physical harm or forced sexual relations. It also would require that contact violating a restraining order be deliberate and not accidental, such as crossing paths at a mall, or technical, such as calling your child at the mother's house.

State law allows people to seek a restraining order against someone for attempting to cause or for causing physical harm or for placing them in fear of ''imminent serious physical harm.''

Members of Fatherhood Coalition acknowledge that people in legitimate physical danger have a right to seek protection.

But some divorce lawyers say that in many cases, a request for a protective order is used as a first strike in a child custody battle.

''Women are being helped as much as possible and men are being punished and harmed,'' said Earl Henry Sholley, a Fatherhood Coalition member. ''Massachusetts is the worst perpetrator of these abuses across the country, and this needs to be exposed.''

Advocates for domestic violence victims accuse the Fatherhood Coalition of being nothing more than a collection of batterers and other disgruntled men who along with their second wives have axes to grind.

The public's outrage over domestic violence has been fueled by a long list of highly publicized murders of women at the hands of husbands and boyfriends against whom they had sought restraining orders.

''Fathers' rights groups would have more credibility if they did more to acknowledge battering, and made more of an attempt to discern'' who they allow to join their campaign, said David Adams, director of Emerge, a batterers' treatment program based in Cambridge.

The coalition's suit, which Sholley said will be filed in federal court, will name as plaintiffs individual fathers who say they have suffered unfair treatment at the hands of the courts. These fathers argue, for example, that courts do not distinguish serious restraining-order violations from accidental or technical ones.

In an interview on Monday, Stewart said his wife had him arrested after he exited his car three years ago to help his young son open the door to her apartment building. He acknowledged that he violated the order but said he was simply helping his son. It was not, he added, abusive or threatening to his ex-wife.

Murray Straus, a sociologist who runs the University of New Hampshire's Family Research Laboratory, said hundreds of studies on domestic violence, including his own research, do buoy some of the complaints leveled by the Fatherhood Coalition and its supporters.

Women, he said, initiate psychological intimidation and physical violence as often as men. ''But the difference is that a lot of attacks by women are carried out knowing there won't be an injury,'' he said.

American society's steadfast presumption that men are the aggressors - police and court manuals often refer to domestic abuse victims as `she' - ''reflects the reality that women are injured more often,'' Straus said.

Still, he added, research also shows that men and women lie equally in bitter divorce and custody battles and equally accuse each other of manipulating the legal system.

Murray said his research has become popular with fathers' rights groups, which he finds somewhat embarrassing. ''Part of their argument is that `two wrongs make a right,''' - a position he disagrees with.

The movement by groups such as the Fatherhood Coalition comes at a time when the political tide is running toward further tightening of laws to prevent domestic abuse. State data shows it is mostly women who seek restraining orders as a tool to protect them from partners they consider dangerous.

According to 1998 statewide court data, men made up 28,382 of the 34,542 people targeted with restraining orders.

But fathers' groups assert that courts rarely grant such orders to men seeking protection from wives or ex-wives, and that most men would be too embarrased to admit a need for protection from a woman.

Still, there are few objective ways to measure the fathers' grievances. Fatherhood Coalition co-founder Mark Charalambous said there are no statistics showing, for example, how many men seek restraining orders, and how many are refused.

The group is researching about 400 restraining-order cases in Gardner District Court, he said, but results are not yet ready.

''The man simply cannot come out ahead in a domestic violence situation,'' said Charalambous, a math teacher at Mount Wachusett Community College in Gardner who lives in Leominster. ''Even if the woman is arrested at first, if children are involved'' the couple ''will have to interact, and the man will eventually be considered the aggressor.''

While Charalambous acknowledged that women clearly are more often and more seriously injured in domestic violence cases, he said the range of what ''radical feminists'' cite as abuse would be laughable were it not for the harm it is causing men, especially because it is keeping them separated from their children.

''Emotional withholding, changing the topic of conversation, not listening, yelling, and saying demeaning things ... They call these abuse, but they are all part of human relationships,'' Charalambous said. ''They are not abuse.''

But Adams and others who work with batterers say the men they see often have a dangerously abbreviated list of what constitutes violence, which often excludes behavior such as throwing things, standing over a smaller person and yelling, or even shoving and open-handed slaps.

''Only a quarter of the men'' who attend Emerge's program ''say they should be there,'' Adams said. ''The rest minimize and deny the abuse. We broaden people's understanding of what constitutes abusive behavior.''

Globe correspondent Sacha Pfeiffer contributed to this report.

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 08/18/99.

Copyright © 1999 Bergen Record Corp.