AP

Tuesday, May 16, 2000

The struggle for fathers' rights
Try to keep anger from obscuring message
By DAVID CRARY
The Associated Press

FLINT, Michigan (AP) -- It was midmorning, but Jeff Bogan looked weary, and a little sad, recounting his struggles to ease a tough child-support order and be as much of a father as he can to three sons living with his ex-wife.

"I'm not near as close to my boys as I was, because of the roadblocks put up by my ex," the auto body repairman said over coffee at a restaurant outside Flint. "She says to me, when she sees me in court, 'I don't know why you're doing this. You're just going to lose."'

Bogan plans to keep fighting, but he is not confident. Like thousands of divorced fathers nationwide, he is convinced the courts and government agencies are biased against men in matters of child custody and support.

Some of these men nurse their grievances privately. Others, like Bogan, have enlisted in what is loosely known as the fathers' rights movement.

Are courts and government agencies biased against fathers in matters of child custody? Yes, and it's wrong Yes, and they should be No Don't know Results

It is a crusade distinguished by lack of cohesion -- scores of state and national organizations, sometimes bickering over tactics or ideology; some with paid lobbyists and long membership lists, others with little more than a Web site spouting misogynistic tirades.

Activists estimate the movement's strength at anywhere from 150,000 to 500,000. High turnover in many of the groups make a precise count impossible.

This spring has brought some rare elation to the movement, which welcomed the reunion of Elian Gonzalez with his divorced father from Cuba. "There is hope," said Bob Hirschfeld, a founder of the National Coalition of Fathers and Children.

Some modest gains have been made in state legislatures; Mississippi enacted a child custody law in April that bans judges from presuming a woman would be a better parent. And next month, a Father's Day protest march is planned in Washington.

But compared to the women's rights movement, the divorced dads remain a relatively ineffective lobby. They have some legitimate complaints -- even their critics concede that -- but sometimes their strident tone obscures the substance.

The Men's Defense Organization solicits members by declaring: "The male of the species is under increasing attack... We men are guests in our own homes, evictable at the whims of wives and judges."

The American Fathers Coalition's Web site lists "The 10 Worst Family Law Judges" and includes a section called "The 'Gentler' Sex... Or Are They?" featuring news articles about women accused of violent crimes.

"These dads are a group of folks that need to be heard," said Kay Cullen, spokeswoman for the National Child Support Enforcement Association. "But their anger may very well deafen the ears of those who might need to hear them."

Bogan is more anxious than angry. Divorced three years ago, he is straining to pay $235 of his $800 weekly salary in child support. He has agreed to take parenting classes in order to avoid a threatened reduction in the time he's allowed to spend with his sons of 6, 10 and 11.

"They beat you down as a person," said Bogan, 36. "They want me to be just a visitor in my boys' lives."

Dianna Durham-McLoud, president of the National Child Support Enforcement Association and former head of Illinois' support enforcement agency, believes fathers like Bogan deserve fair treatment. But some men undermine their cause with overly broad counterattacks, she said.

"Some of these folks have gotten a really raw deal. If it's a quirk in their state law, deal with that. But I've heard of child-support workers referred to as black-booted Nazis," she said. "That's poppycock. You don't villainize everyone associated with the system."

There are fathers mad enough about their own case that they decide to take on a statewide bureaucracy. Michael Tindall, an attorney from Port Huron, Mich., is doing that with a class-action suit alleging that all noncustodial parents in the state are vulnerable to capricious, unconstitutional methods of child-support enforcement.

Tindall, who says he was saddled with an unjustified order to pay arrears to his ex-wife, doubts he will win, but wants to vent his anger as powerfully as he can.

"If you're a man in this country, you're taught that your self-esteem is based on going out and fighting the wars and feeding your family," he said. "Then you go to divorce court -- they tell you can't have your kids because you're too busy earning a living. If you say this isn't fair, they whack you or throw you in jail. The system is about turning stallions into geldings."

The gist of Tindall's complaint is that Michigan's family courts are overburdened, resulting in slipshod judicial oversight of child-support disputes.

"They just increased my support order, even though no judge ordered me to pay," Tindall said. "I felt I was in Bizarro world: everything upside down."

Abuses are occurring nationwide, Tindall contends, as states scramble to comply with stricter federal mandates to collect more child support. Men in arrears -- many with modest-paid jobs -- are losing their drivers' licenses, finding their cars immobilized by "boots," and having their bank accounts seized.

"We believe these agencies are rife with error," said Dianna Thompson, a second wife and fathers' rights activist in California who helps run one of the biggest groups, the American Coalition for Fathers and Children. "I can give you case after case of people who are completely current in support and all of a sudden get these huge bills saying they owe thousands."

While Tindall was preparing his suit, a Massachusetts fathers' group went to federal court challenging the fairness of restraining orders based on unproven allegations of domestic abuse. The men -- whose suit was rejected in January -- had claimed they were denied an adequate chance to defend themselves and complained that 90 percent of restraining orders were issued against men.

"The bill of rights, as far as it applies to men in Massachusetts, is under siege by an unaccountable judiciary," said the men's lawyer, David Grossack. "The constitution is just being flushed down the drain. I urge a revolt."

Tougher penalties for false allegations of abuse is a major goal of many fathers' rights groups. Another is to ensure that custodial parents -- usually mothers -- honor the visitation rights of the noncustodial parent. The paramount goal, however, is to promote joint child custody as the norm in divorce cases.

"Children thrive when you have the maximum involvement of both parents," said Stuart Miller, lobbyist for the American Fathers Coalition and veteran of a two-year battle to secure the right to see his own young son.

"The government is starting to take baby steps in the right direction. But is there wholesale support for it? Not yet," he said. "I think people are afraid to offend women. More women vote than men."

The first fathers' rights groups surfaced in the 1970s, as some divorced men felt the family court system went too far in accommodating demands from feminist groups.

Tension between the two movements persists: the National Organization for Women last fall described the father's rights movement as "a wolf in sheep's clothing," with an agenda that could harm divorced and single mothers.

If there is a bible for the father's movement, it might be "Divorced Dads: Shattering the Myths," a 1998 book by Arizona State University psychology professor Sanford Braver based on lengthy study of 1,000 divorced couples.

"Virtually every aspect of what I call the 'bad divorced dad' image has turned out to be a myth, an inaccurate and damaging stereotype," wrote Braver. He concluded that most divorced fathers pay child support conscientiously and yearn for close ties with their children.

Braver, in a telephone interview, expressed disappointment that his book has not helped push divorced fathers' grievances to the political forefront.

"I choose to believe that policy-makers want to do the right thing... but for some reason this issue just hasn't penetrated their horizons," he said. "The right buttons haven't been pushed, and I don't know what the buttons are."

He counseled fathers' rights advocates to be patient and persistent.

"Be a responsible father. And don't let your anger at the system, even if it may be justified, overwhelm your good judgment," he said. "Like the civil rights movement, it takes a reasonable, consistent message repeated over and over."

Divisions within the movement complicate that task. In Michigan, for example, a state chapter of Dads Against Discrimination split last year over lobbying goals and membership dues.

"Men just don't join together and unite," said Murray Davis, executive director of a faction renamed DADS of Michigan. "I take my hat off to women. With guys, it's like pulling teeth. We get what we deserve."

Davis describes his activism as "part of my therapy" after the wrenching discovery in 1996 that two of the children he raised were in fact fathered by his former best friend.

Post-divorce wrangling established that man's paternity, but Davis was ordered to shoulder half of the child-support payments if he wanted to retain the right to visit the two children. "That's legalized extortion," Davis said.

A Texas woman, Marion Fulton, said years of struggling with child-support orders drove her husband, Harry, to commit suicide in March 1999 at their home near San Antonio. His efforts to challenge some of the orders failed, she recalled, and at times he had to pay 90 percent of his salary to support children from two previous marriages.

"I had no idea what men who didn't have custody of their children went through. It was day-in, day-out harassment," said Mrs. Fulton. "If I was a male in today's society, I'd be scared to death to have children. They can be taken away from you just like that."

She questioned whether the fathers' rights movement is making any political headway. "The minute men start complaining about these things, the reaction is, 'Oh right, you just want to stop paying support'," she said.

At the National Organization for Women, wariness of the fathers' movement is mixed with traces of empathy. Karen Johnson, a NOW vice president, agreed that fathers sometimes get shortchanged in visitation disputes.

But she doesn't buy the claim that the courts and laws are gender-biased.

"Most of the judges and lawmakers are men," she said. "Those are the folks who are making the rules."

"The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them." Albert Einstein

Copyright 2000 Associated Press.