Orlando Sentinel

Fathers' group seeks to right inequities

By Kathleen Parker
Published in The Orlando Sentinel on September 12, 1999.

What's worse than being falsely accused of domestic violence -- locked out of your house, denied contact with your children, disbelieved?

Only this: to be a victim of domestic violence without protection, with no place to go but home to the abuser.

So the story of domestic violence unfolds from both sides. One, usually the man, claims to be the victim of false accusations; the other, usually the woman, claims to be a victim of violence.

The two sides create a conundrum for lawmakers and judges: How do we protect the innocent without battering the rights of the falsely accused? What is the truth?

The problem is that everyone's telling a piece of the truth. Women and children have been battered behind closed doors for centuries, not just decades. Recent efforts to raise awareness have been both warranted and, one hopes, beneficial.

At the same time, however, we've created a monster. Men have been falsely accused as women get nasty during divorce and custody disputes. To protect the innocent, courts generally give accusers the benefit of the doubt. Men are guilty, in other words, until proven innocent.

Given that you can't prove a negative, men are sidelined from their own lives -- often at great cost to the children who need them -- and women get the goods. It's a fact of life so often these days that some men are challenging a system they say discriminates against men.

In Massachusetts Tuesday, six divorced men and the Fatherhood Coalition, a fathers' advocacy group, filed a federal anti-discrimination lawsuit against the judges in Massachusetts state courts. The suit charges that the judges routinely violate the U.S. Constitution by handing out restraining orders at the mere suggestion of domestic violence, denying men due process and equal-protection rights.

Typically, subjects of restraining orders are barred from their homes and denied access to their children -- without a"meaningful" hearing to defend themselves, the plaintiffs state. In Massachusetts, restraining orders are issued for a year at a time. That's a long time to be locked out of your life if you're innocent.

Advocates for battered women have commented predictably on the lawsuit. Cheryl Garrity, president of the Massachusetts chapter of the National Organization for Women, called the suit "an attempt to undo the protections that battered women have gained over the past 10 years."

Dropping agendas, one could view the lawsuit instead as a step toward fashioning a better brand of justice. His-and-her stories are usually at variance during divorce and custody proceedings. One does not have to suspend disbelief to imagine that people under emotional duress might fabricate or exaggerate to protect their interests. It happens.

But presuming guilt and laying waste to a person's life on the basis of another's word is simple witch-hunting. The routine issuance of draconian restraining orders is the foul product of our late 20th-century demonization of men, while due process has become the punch line in the gender joke.

Regardless of which statistic or story you buy, we clearly need to adjust our public policies to suggest fairness. One option under discussion in Massachusetts is to construct a two-tier restraining-order system that recognizes the difference between "domestic violence" and "family conflict."

A serious, violent household requires one treatment, a household under temporary marital stress another. John Maguire, a member of the Fatherhood Coalition, suggests a reasonable, eight-week restraining order for the marital-stress variety. During that time, couples would work with mediators to sort out their differences.

Said Maguire, "Let the law reflect the reality." Which is that some men abuse; some women . . . exaggerate.

E-mail: Kparker@kparker.com

[Posted 09/10/1999 7:49 PM EST]

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