Boston Globe

Fathers want rightful role in custody of their children

By Peter Schworm, Globe Staff Correspondent, 3/14/2002
Boston Globe

It was his son's mother, Scott Richardson says, who had the drinking problem, and came after him late one night with a knife. But as an unmarried father, he was the one slapped with a restraining order and stripped of custody of his 3-year-old.

''I was the usual suspect,'' said Richardson, a 41-year-old Marlborough resident. ''If it's a he-said, she-said situation, the father's going to lose out every time.''

Five years later, Richardson has drawn support from law enforcement officials and he has gained full-time custody of Matthew, now 8. But his prolonged struggles in a system he says is stacked heavily against divorced men and men who have never married have made him an ardent advocate for fathers' rights, a grass-roots movement whose numbers and influence are steadily expanding.

Its agenda is twofold. On the political front, fathers' rights groups are pressing for far-reaching legal changes aimed at overturning the assumption that children are usually better off with their mothers.

High on the fathers' agenda are: a more equitable child-support formula, equal footing in custody disputes, more shared custody agreements, extended custody rights for unmarried fathers, and prohibitions against mothers moving out of state with their children. Though these proposals often meet sharp resistance from backers of women's rights, divorced and never-married fathers maintain their voices are being heard.

''The first thing we want to do is to make people understand: Dads make a difference,'' said Tony Palomba, coordinator of the For Fathering Project of The Medical Foundation, which recently sponsored the third annual New England Fathering conference in Marlborough. ''The kids draw a huge benefit from increased involvement with their fathers, the research is clear. And dads benefit as much as the kids.''

The Fathering Project is just one of several health education initiatives headed by The Medical Foundation, a nonprofit based in Boston.

Proponents of fathers' rights also seek to undercut what they perceive as a widespread stigma against single fathers as absentee or deadbeat parents prone to anger and violence against their estranged mate. They cite a range of studies and statistics that relate improved self-esteem, behavior, and overall development in children that have steady interaction with divorced fathers. An average noncustodial parent gets only 16 percent of his or her child's time.

In Massachusetts, advocates for noncustodial fathers say, the legal and financial barriers for divorced and never-married fathers are particularly pronounced, discouraging many fathers from meeting their parental responsibilities. Supporters liken the emerging fathers' rights movement to women's progress toward equality in the workplace.

''It's a women's movement in reverse,'' Richardson said. ''Many fathers are almost accepting of the inevitability they won't be able to keep their kids, and we want to level the playing field. There are a lot of barriers that prevent dads from being as involved with their children as they'd like to be.''

But women's and family advocates reject the notion that the legal and social service system is tilted against fathers, and argue that many of the studies they cite to bolster their case are flawed. While some men are the victims of domestic violence, the vast percentage of perpetrators are male, said Ben Atherton Zeman, a Framingham resident who works for a battered women's shelter in Somerville. Some male abusers, he added will use assault claims, custody arrangements, and financial agreements to maintain power over a former partner.

''Many male abusers, hiding under the culture of victimhood, use the criminal justice system as a means of control,'' he said.

The reasons mothers tend to receive primary custody of a child, women's advocates add, is that men do not contest the cases. In disputed cases, men receive custody a majority of the time, Atherton Zeman said. Female victims of domestic violence have a difficult time preventing non-custodial fathers from receiving at least limited visitation rights, he said.

With attendance at the Marlborough conference doubling in the last three years - last week's conference drew 500 people, according to organizers - advocates say family preservation and reunification efforts are receiving more notice from government leaders, social workers, and family advocates looking for ways to keep fathers, particularly young men with limited income, in their children's future. More public money is flowing into fatherhood programs, they say, such as Head Start's ''Good Guys'' program. Such fatherhood initiatives have proven overwhelmingly successful, advocates say, in molding better, more attentive fathers.

Single-father groups delve into the personal realm as well as the political. Jeffrey Parks, a Framingham family therapist, runs a weekly mentoring and counseling session for noncustodial fathers called Fathers Together. A divorced father, Parks said the group helps fathers cope with the guilt, anger, and depression that can come with losing custody, and teaches them to shield personal stress from their children.

While many fathers are initially reluctant to admit their struggles, they often find comfort in the company of fathers working through similar problems, Parks said.

''Guys can be isolated,'' Parks said. ''But once you get them talking, the stereotypes disappear.''

''It's not a typical guy thing to do, sitting around and talking,'' Richardson agreed.

And while new-age terms like ''codependence,'' ''validation,'' and ''emotional literacy'' run through the discussions, what the fathers are mainly after is simple, how-to parenting advice. They want to learn to communicate with their children better, to make the most of their short time together without seeming overeager, and to broaden their involvement in their children's life.

Younger fathers, many of whom lacked positive role models in their own lives and are often overwhelmed by parenthood, say such sessions lend the guidance they needed to stay the course. Speaking at the conference, Eric Bowden, a 17-year-old from Worcester, recalled the shock he felt upon learning he would soon be a 14-year-old father.

''All I did was drop the phone and cry,'' he said. ''I felt stupid for that, later.''

Bowden now takes fathering classes with the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, and is fighting for custody of his young daughter, who lives with her mother's aunt. It's hard being a young father, he said, but harder being apart from his child.

Bowden, who is studying automotive repair at Worcester Vocational High School, says the fatherhood classes made him grow up in a hurry.

''I didn't know anything about being a parent,'' he said. ''I don't know where I'd be without them, they got me to where I am. I know now that if I'm mature enough to bring a child into the world, I'm mature enough to take care of her.''

This story ran on page W9 of the Boston Globe on 3/14/2002.

© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.