Sunday 3 October 1999
Divorced dads fighting backby Kay Lazar
They say the courts are discriminating against them, the judges are dismissing them, and the media are too quick to stereotype them as the bad guys.
Long after women banged down doors for equal rights, men - particularly a growing number of divorced dads - say those same doors have swung back on them with a vengeance.
Fathers are pointing to child-support payments they describe as astronomical and visitation rights that, they say, are routinely ignored by their ex-wives and pooh-poohed by the courts.
Much like the women's movement before them, fathers are forging support groups, filing lawsuits and creating Web sites.
"Women did a lot of hard work. They did a great job in the '70s in redefining roles so that women can be in the workplace and men can be at home, said David Lucius, 38, a medical technologist and divorced dad from Framingham. "Now you have all these sensitive men who want to be good fathers and husbands, and there is no place for them in the courts."
A major problem, Lucius said, is that many family-court judges haven't changed with the times.
"They don't understand family issues today," Lucius said. "When you look at how many fathers are very strongly co-parenting, I think the judges still have the view of fathers as they were in the '50s and '60s."
Lucius is president of the Fathers Group, a Framingham-based organization that is lobbying state lawmakers to change the way courts deal with divorced dads. Among their suggestions is a law that would beef up penalties against parents with prime custody of the children - generally women - who deny ex-spouses court-ordered visits with the kids.
Borrowing tried-and-true consciousness-raising tactics from the women's-rights movement, Lucius' group last year successfully won passage of a state law that helps noncustodial parents - usually dads - gain access to their children's report cards and other school records.
Yet it is the latest move by a rival fathers group that is snaring most of the attention - and triggering many alarms.
In a federal lawsuit filed Sept. 7, the Boston-based Fatherhood Coalition accuses the Massachusetts Probate and Family court system of "widespread" bias against men. It says judges unfairly side with women who, the suit states, often concoct "exaggerated accounts of domestic abuse" to gain leverage in divorce cases.
Saying the court regularly throws men out of their houses without first hearing their sides of the story, the suit asks that the court be barred from issuing any more restraining orders.
"We ought to have the law declared unconstitutional," said David Grossack, the attorney for the Fatherhood Coalition. "Then the Legislature can go back and write a statute that gives fathers due process of law and an opportunity to be heard before a restraining order is issued."
Those who work with battered women say the lawsuit is outrageous.
"Given the number of women killed in domestic abuse cases, we have a crisis on our hands," said Jean Haertl, executive director of the Governor's Commission on Domestic Violence. "The insinuation that men are being randomly slapped with restraining orders, that innocent guys who are not batterers are being manipulated by the system, we don't see that."
Adds divorce attorney and state Sen. Cynthia Stone Creem (D-Newton), "I admit there are some cases where people do take advantage of (restraining orders), but you can't get rid of them based on that. It's not as bleak a picture as fathers like to paint it."
The debate over domestic-abuse restraining orders has been simmering for years.
In 1993, Boston attorney Elaine Epstein, then president of the Massachusetts Bar Association, accused her peers of caving into the "media frenzy" surrounding domestic violence and of doling out restraining orders like candy.
"The facts have become irrelevant," she wrote. "In virtually all cases, no notice, meaningful hearing or impartial weighing of evidence is to be had."
Six years, and some 43,000 restraining orders issued - per year - later, little has been resolved. The Massachusetts court system, which regularly studies key issues before the courts, has not conducted one about the possible abuse of restraining orders.
Yet there are other studies, including one by a University of New Hampshire sociologist, that raises questions.
After interviewing thousands of couples nationwide during the past 20 years, UNH professor Murray Straus concludes that, "women assault their partners as often as men do."
But, Straus added, men are seven times more likely to inflict injury in their assaults.
"I think of myself as a feminist, but I have been excommunicated by the feminists. The pendulum has swung too far," Straus said. "Before, no one paid attention to battered women. Now people think it's only battered women."
Many who work in the state's family courts acknowledge problems with the restraining-order system, but say the answer is not to throw them out.
"There is no question in my mind that there are folks who need the protections," said Boston divorce attorney Charles Bowser. "The dilemma lies in determining who is telling the truth and who isn't."
Bowser knows that dilemma firsthand. For three years, he sat as a judge in family court and often had women come before him seeking restraining orders.
"I didn't want to wake up in the morning and find my name in the paper as the judge who did not grant a restraining order in a case where someone was indeed harmed," Bowser said. "In the first instance, you err on the side of caution and grant the order. But you never really know what the truth is until you conduct an evidentiary hearing, and sometimes they take a long time to schedule."
Now back working as a divorce lawyer, Bowser said he is representing a man who had a restraining order taken out against him in August. The hearing to plead his side is not scheduled until December.
In a sign of just how contentious the fathers' rights movement has become, Bowser - as did others interviewed for this story - made a point of saying that he was not speaking on behalf of any fathers group and did not want his comments construed that way.
It's that kind of reaction that makes Bob Maschi cringe. Maschi, 42, founded the Fathers Group three years ago as a spinoff from another dads organization that, he said, had become too controversial. For instance, Maschi's group says men sometimes don't get the chance to tell their sides of the story when restraining orders are first issued against them; however, the group is not advocating that the system be scrapped.
"We get along well cooperating. It's what I advise everyone to do," said Maschi, who works as a parent educator for a nonprofit child welfare agency.
Divorced for eight years, Maschi said he and his ex-wife ultimately did better working things out than the courts did.
"She was far fairer than the judge was," he said.
Today, Maschi's ex-wife has custody of one daughter and he has custody of the other. Maschi has remarried, and his second wife is active in the Fathers Group.
Enrolling female members and joining state commissions that focus on women's issues is one of the group's key strategies, Maschi said, adding that they are trying to build bridges, not hurl bombs.
"What I don't like is the polarization," Maschi said. "A lot of these issues can be discussed. If I can get along with my ex-wife, then people can come to some agreement."
Bills in Legislature aimed at balancing parenting scales
The Fathers Group, a Framingham-based organization that lobbies for changes in the state's divorce and child-custody laws, is asking state lawmakers to consider several proposals:
Senate Bill 845: This bill would provide up to 28 days of unpaid leave during any 12-month period to eligible employees to spend court-assigned parenting or visitation time with their children.
The bill also would allow employees to use that leave for time with their children pending legal action for separation, divorce or a modification in child-custody orders.
As with the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, companies with fewer than
50 employees would be exempt from the law.
Supporters say the law is needed because divorced parents who do not have primary custody of their children often have trouble getting time off that jibes with the periods assigned to them by the courts for visits.
Critics say such a law could be costly and complex for employers.
House Bill 2552: This bill proposes compensation for the noncustodial parent, penalties for the custodial parent or both if the custodial parent denies or interferes with the other's visitation time with the children.
The bill says that if such an offense happens, the court may:
Order prompt rescheduling of the lost time and award double the time that was denied.
Assess fees to the offending parent that may include reimbursement for travel expenses, lost income, lost vacation days or other expenses.
Order the offending parent to participate in parenting classes.
Supporters say this bill would force judges to treat more seriously infractions of court-ordered visitations.
Critics say judges already have the power to impose such penalties and are generally doing a good job on this front, and that no more legislation is needed.
House Bill 2553: This bill would change the term "visitation" to "parenting time" in all court and state documents.
Supporters say this change is needed to remind judges and others that noncustodial parents - usually dads - are still parents and not just visitors.
There appears to be no opposition to this bill.
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