Orlando Sentinel

Divorced dads ready to wage a revolution

By Kathleen Parker
Special to the Sentinel

Published in The Orlando Sentinel on October 10, 1999.

WASHINGTON -- Dr. Ned Holstein, physician and president of the Massachusetts-based Fathers and Families, is projecting numbers, graphs and percentages on the screen. He uses words such as strategy, constituency and, yes, even revolution.

No longer a glossary word in history books, the R-word is being revived by divorced fathers who, impatient with lawyers, legislators and judges, are ready to bloody their white flags.

One cannot exaggerate the extent of anger, pain and frustration among the hundreds of thousands -- maybe millions -- of men who now constitute what is loosely known as the Fatherhood Movement. I've met many of them, talked to them, listened.

These doctors, lawyers, psychologists, lobbyists and laborers are not an insignificant body. Many are well-educated; more are getting organized; all are motivated by a degree of anger that is potentially volatile and should not be ignored. They've reached the boiling point, they say, and they've exhausted the system.

Holstein's presentation was one of many at the recent Children's Rights Council's annual meeting in Alexandria, Va. The CRC is one of the oldest, better organized of the 500 or so "fathers" groups in the United States that deal with issues of divorce and family. I qualify "fathers" because, though most groups focus on men's issues, many of their members are women who also believe that children need, want and deserve fathers.

I attended the CRC meeting as an invited (unpaid) speaker and listened to Holstein's presentation with a mixture of concern and sadness but, more important, of apprehension. I believe in the sincerity of these men, in their desire to be a part of their children's lives, in their sense that they've been mistreated by courts that award children like chattel to mothers and treat fathers as mere financial providers.

Concern and sadness are reasonable responses to that understanding and to the fact that 82 percent of children from divorced families have little more than a visitation relationship with their fathers. According to the 1989 Census, 37.9 percent of divorced fathers have no access to their children.

Granted, not all these disenfranchised dads are model citizens. Some really are bad guys who don't care about their kids, beat up their wives or shirk duty and responsibility. But experience and the preponderance of research do not support the widespread belief that most men are deadbeat, abusive and neglectful, nor the public policies that treat all men accordingly.

Were mothers routinely robbed of their children, barred from their homes and jailed for failing to pay extortionate sums, we would see blood in the streets. And, curiously, sympathy from the grandstands.

Men get no such sympathy, and that's where the apprehension comes in. When people are pushed to their limit, when they feel mistreated, unheard and unseen; when they feel that they've been robbed of the only things that matter -- they tend to get ugly.

"You can only torture people for so long," said Stuart Miller, senior legislative analyst for the American Fathers Coalition. "You can't steal something as important as someone's children and money and property and think you can walk away without any repercussions."

Miller predicts that Holstein's theories of social change will seem like a dream compared with the nightmares simmering in someone's living room in every town or city, in every state, every night of the week. Violence is inevitable, he said, as evidenced by the American courthouse decor these days. Call it police-baroque. Only the Berlin Wall had more barricades, metal detectors and armed guards.

"Why would the government be so afraid of the people?" asked Miller. "Is it because the people are bad actors or because the government is acting bad?"

Good question. The answer is, we're all acting badly within a system that treats divorcing couples as enemies, courtrooms as war zones, judges as arbiters of issues more emotional and psychological than legal, and children as hostages to be traded for dollars.

The divorce system is counterintuitive and morally bankrupt, and needs reinventing before talk of revolution becomes action. What the organized fathers' groups want isn't wrong or mean-spirited but right and fair to children. Who among us can blame a man, wrongfully denied his own child, for shouting out that he was framed?

E-mail: kparker@kparker.com.

[Posted 10/08/1999 6:27 PM EST]

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