Virginia Daily News



Published: Friday, April 16, 1999
Section: LOCAL
Page: C4
Daily Press, Hampton Roads, Virginia

Mention the words gender bias and many people think that means women grappling with sexist attitudes. But as a small crowd of divorced dads sought to prove, men are often the victims of gender bias in Virginia's courts.

When it comes to getting a fair shake in child custody or support hearings, judges still follow the long-abandoned philosophy that mothers universally make the best parents for younger children, according to more than a dozen men who spoke at a public hearing Thursday held by a state task force studying gender bias in the courts. The hearing, the second of six, is part of a long-term study into the issue.

"I have never met a father, in the 25 years that I've been struggling in the legal system, who said they went into court on an equal footing and won a custody case," said Michael C. Jarrett of Chesapeake. "We're getting raped by the legal system."

The feelings were echoed repeatedly as men marched up to describe their struggles through divorce and custody hearings.

Newport News resident Michael Kee said judges routinely view men in such cases as the likely causes of family troubles. He described his frustration with his efforts to gain custody of his 3-year-old daughter, whom he says does not have the close relationship with her mother that she does with him.

"If you do everything the court asks you to do, then why can't we get custody?" Lee said. "Laws were not meant to be used as battering rams against men."

Cases should be governed by reason and sensibility, he said, "not by a judge who wakes up in the morning and sees a man in the courtroom and assumes he's to blame for the problems."

Williamsburg resident John Vaughan, an organizer of the regional chapter of an advocacy group for single parents, said the so-called tender years doctrine, though abandoned as court policy in 1986, was "alive and well" among judges.

The chorus of embittered men surprised even the task force member who presided over Thursday's hearing, Virginia Court of Appeals Judge Sam W. Coleman III.

"I think we anticipated that most of the gender bias we would be hearing is bias women have historically experienced in the court system," Coleman said. "What we're hearing in Virginia is a new phenomenon other than what other gender-bias task forces have been hearing."

Virginia is one of the few states that has not conducted investigations into gender bias and implemented guidelines or new laws to correct it. And some men at the hearing questioned whether the task force already had gotten off on the wrong foot, noting its makeup. Of the 23 members, all but eight are women.

"I question the makeup of the committee," said Virginia Beach resident Bill Granger. "To me, that's bias right there."

As part of the study, researchers at the National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg are pulling 500 random court files of divorce and domestic-violence cases from around the state. The sample will be analyzed to detect any patterns of bias in the rulings.

Several women expressed their concerns about more traditional sexist attitudes that still can be found in Virginia courts. Donna Briggs, a Norfolk attorney who normally works in federal courts 0 but has been involved in a local police-harassment case, said she suspected cases led by female attorneys were taken less seriously than those managed by men. She said she heard one Norfolk judge tell another female attorney that she might be "overly emotionally involved" with her case.

"I advise my husband never to get a woman attorney in local courts," Briggs said. "It would just cost too much. I don't want to have to tell my daughter that."

- Patrick Lee Plaisance can be reached at 247-7821 or by e-mail at