Pittsburg Post-Gazette

Divorced dads fighting mad

Thursday, September 23, 1999
By Mackenzie Carpenter
Pittsburg Post-Gazette Staff Writer

It's not that Larry Hellmann, president of the National Congress of Fathers and Children, has anything against mothers.

It's just that he thinks that for too long they've been the beneficiaries of a court system that, he believes, favors women over men in divorce. Tonight, he plans to hammer that message home when his California-based group opens its 19th annual convention in Pittsburgh.

"The attitude is, we're sperm donors only," said Hellmann. "When you have courts automatically preferring one side over another, there is a severe problem. Never before in history has one segment had all the power the way all the women have it now in divorce court."

Those are fighting words, and they resonate among the organization's thousands of followers in state chapters across the country -- and among similar groups. Type in "fathers' rights" and the Internet will issue a laundry list of acronyms: C.O.P.S. (Coalition of Parental Support); F.R.E.E. (Fathers Rights Equity Exchange); or D.A.D.S. (Discrimination Against Dads).

Some focus on men's rights, some on economic issues and still others try to promote increased responsibility among fathers. Some, such as the Father's Manifesto, call for father-custody only and repeal of a woman's right to vote; others, like the NCFC, call for mandated joint custody by both parents, and limits on child support; still others, like the National Fatherhood Initiative, promote a two-parent, heterosexual family unit.

More than a quarter of American children -- nearly 17 million -- live in homes without their fathers. Fathers' rights groups say that's at least partly because courts disproportionately -- about 90 percent of the time -- award custody to mothers. Only one in six children of divorced and separated fathers see their fathers at least once a week -- mainly because most court orders call for noncustodial visits every other weekend and a month in the summer.

"When these parents go into a divorce situation, one of them is going to walk out of court as a noncustodial parent, and he is going to be the loser," said Diana Thompson, a spokeswoman for the American Coalition of Fathers and Children, which dubs itself the largest of the fathers' rights groups.

While feminists question the motives of the groups, and many attorneys -- even those sympathetic to fathers' custody issues -- dispute their claims about a biased court system, there's no question that the fathers' rights movement is tapping into a strong sense of grievance among divorced men here and elsewhere.

In Buffalo, a man sprayed liquid chicken manure onto the county courthouse to protest the court's custody policies; in Canada, men had booklets pulled from courthouses that advised women how to seek help when they were abused; in Israel, so many men feel tricked into conception and then sued for child support that a "Fathers Against Their Will" group has been formed.

The National Congress for Fathers and Children was founded in 1981 -- around the time when no-fault divorce laws were being enacted across the country. Those laws, which allow couples to dissolve a marriage after a brief separation, were originally touted as an improvement over the old "mental cruelty" laws and residency requirements that placed deliberate obstacles in the path of marital dissolution.

There were other changes afoot: stricter child support rules and changes in family law designed to be "gender neutral," with custody going to the person who had been the "primary caretaker" in the marriage -- whether male or female -- rather than relying on the "tender years" doctrine, which presumed that a child was almost always better off with the mother.

As divorces multiplied, so too did the number of contested cases -- although they account for only about 10 percent of all divorces. But that isn't because most divorces are amicable, claim fathers' rights groups.

"Most guys meet with a lawyer and he says, 'Don't contest this, you'll lose,' " said Hellmann.

Those who go ahead anyway encounter a whole new industry of divorce lawyers, expert witnesses, court-appointed psychologists and mediation experts. Divorce has become not just an adversarial process, but all-out war -- one that women are winning, say fathers.

"I see many cases where dad is so involved, bathing them, Little League, soccer coach, feeding them dinner, but they still don't get custody, except in rare cases when mom wants to be with Joe Stud or has a conviction for child abuse," said Kevin Sheahen, head of the NCFC's local chapter.

Women's groups take a different view. The National Organization for Women has issued an "action alert" against fathers' groups, describing them as a "growing force" that seeks to reimpose social marital controls over women by placing tighter restrictions on divorce, abortion and the ability to obtain protection orders against domestic abuse.

And feminists say it was only when states began to crack down on what government officials, the media and the public generally refer to as "deadbeat dads" that men, outraged by what they considered an unfair label, began a counterattack -- by demanding equal custody.

"It appeals to men because it means a lower child support obligation; the more time spent with a child, the less is owed," said Elizabeth Kates, a Florida attorney who runs a Web site devoted to family law issues. And frequently, she says, fathers' involvement with their children in joint custody diminishes over time -- but not the lower payments.

Hellmann disagrees, and his group supported a proposal in California to cut child support formulas by 25 percent -- legislation that ultimately failed. "We do believe that child support has to allow for the father to be able to survive and have enough to take care of kids when he has them," he said. But men genuinely feel cut off by their families, he claims.

"We have men coming in crying, begging, 'What can I do? I haven't seen my kid in two years, in five years.' We have men with ex-wives who work, who offer to take care of the kids, and the courts don't let them. They say a baby sitter is preferable to the father."

For a time, in the 1980s and early 1990s, the organization and other groups were relatively successful in pushing presumptive joint custody -- which means that a judge must award joint custody unless it can be successfully rebutted in court as not in the best interests of the child, rather than the other way around. Today, most states acknowledge joint custody as an option; eight have enacted a presumption in favor of it. (Pennsylvania's Legislature is currently considering it.)

But there are signs that mandated joint custody is beginning to run out of steam, in part, most divorce experts say, because it just doesn't work. California, which was one of the first to enact such a law, rescinded it after judges called it unworkable. In 1996, a U.S. Commission on Child and Family Welfare decided against recommending presumptive joint custody -- over howls of protest by two fathers' rights advocates on the panel.

Despite those setbacks, there is no question that more fathers are winning custody of their children. It's estimated that the number of custodial fathers in the United States is rising by about 10 percent a year. A Massachusetts study found that men who seek it receive either joint or full custody 70 percent of the time.

Pittsburgh divorce attorney Joseph Wymard has seen the changes up close.

"When we came to the 1980s, it was not a level playing field," Wymard said. "Courts were still plugged into stereotypical notions of women, and a lot of things were weighted in favor of the mother. But that changed dramatically as you moved into the latter part of the 1980s. These days, there is a greater recognition by judges of the rights of each party."

Indeed, in a news release announcing the Pittsburgh conference, Hellmann was upbeat.

"Fathers have recently been taking their position as head of the family back and have been making strides to reclaim their position that was abdicated in the aftermath of the last great wars of this century," he wrote.

Wade Horn, a psychologist who heads the National Fatherhood Initiative, says fathers are better at providing control -- most families without fathers are not as successful at socializing children, especially boys. Feminist arguments during the 1960s and 1970s were "too often strident and anti-men." And media portrayals of fathers, he complains, have unfortunately evolved from "Father Knows Best" to Homer Simpson.

Nonetheless, there are numerous studies that contradict Horn and others who claim that fatherlessness is to blame for children who go astray. In high-conflict divorces, children are better off in a stable environment with one parent rather than shuttling between two parents who are hostile to each other, said noted divorce expert Janet Johnston.

Sociologist Timothy Biblarz created a stir several years ago when he conducted a joint study at the University of Washington and the University of Southern California that found that children raised by single mothers are nearly as likely to succeed in adulthood as children in two-parent households, when income and job status are taken into account.

In the end, however, Hellmann believes that nothing will change until society understands the real differences between men and women.

"I think men are taught to take care of women. We're taught to respect our mothers, our girlfriends. But women are not taught to have respect for fathers, or respect for men. They're taught to scream, yell, bitch, moan, whatever it takes to get what they want.

"When a woman does stay home, she turns on the television, and there are these shows about women having affairs, complaining and carrying on, 'Oh, Elizabeth just got a new Thunderbird,' and so forth. She'll get this support group of about four or five other women sitting around and complaining for years until she finally decides to leave.

"Men are taught to accept what happens to them, to put up with it, to not cry, just suffer through it. ...

"When you take a man's kids away he usually doesn't turn violent, he turns inward. He doesn't ask what's wrong with the court or with the judge.

"He asks, 'What's wrong with me?' "

The National Congress of Fathers and Children 19th Annual Convention will be held at the Holiday Inn Green Tree tomorrow through Saturday. The meeting is open to the public.