Santa Fe New Mexican

Suicides and Violence by Divorced Men: Fathers' Rights Groups Contend Court Bias Plays a Role

By DAVID CRARY | AP National Writer
11/19/2002
Santa Fe New Mexican

One divorced father committed suicide on the steps of San Diego's courthouse, another set his car afire outside Alaska's child-support office. Others, in an all-too-common scenario, killed their ex-wives, their children, then themselves.

Men who snap in such violent ways have few defenders. Yet fathers' rights groups, joined by a few academic experts, see a common denominator in these recent bursts of rage, and ask whether America's family court system could be partly at fault by deepening the despair of many divorced men.

"None of these guys are poster children," said Lowell Jaks, president of the Alliance for Non-Custodial Parents Rights. "But when you cause this much pain to so many men, there are going to be repercussions - a certain percentage are going to crack."

Women's groups and government officials doubt that courtroom bias is the cause for most of these destructive outbursts; some experts say divorced men simply experience more isolation after divorce than women. But Jaks is convinced of his position.

He has even distributed newspaper articles to his organization's members noting the problems with child custody and child support that angered John Muhammad, the alleged Washington-area sniper, and Robert S. Flores Jr., who killed three University of Arizona nursing professors before killing himself.

"Some guys kill themselves, some snap and go out and kill others," Jaks said. "You can dismiss them as crackpots, you can say we need more protection for women, but it's not going to take away the problem."

Augustine Kposowa, a sociologist at the University of California-Riverside, has conducted studies concluding that suicide rates among divorced men are much higher than for divorced women or married men. He attributes the difference to what happens in family courts.

"Decades ago, the pendulum swung in favor of the men, but clearly in the past two decades the system is stacking up against men," Kposowa said in a telephone interview.

"The man loses his marriage, then he loses a second time when child custody is granted to the woman," he said. "Unless something is done, by examining family laws and having new policies to aid men, the situation is bound to get worse."

Extrapolating from Kposowa's research, fathers' rights activist David Roberts contends that child-support orders - part of what he calls "the war on fathers" - contribute to the suicides of more than 5,000 divorced fathers each year.

Roberts, president of the American Coalition for Fathers and Children, concedes that his estimate is unprovable and that suicides often may stem more from personality factors than legal bias. But he is bitter at what he perceives as unwillingness by politicians and most academics to take the suicide and violence phenomenon seriously.

Outside the fathers' rights ranks, government officials and leaders of women's groups acknowledge that divorce and custody procedures are often imperfect. But they don't believe the courts can be blamed systematically for divorced fathers' actions.

Nancy Duff Campbell, co-president of the National Women's Law Center in Washington, D.C., said many of the men who snap may have had violent tendencies over a long period that preceded - and contributed to - divorce and loss of custody.

"Sure, there are cases where injustices are done," she said. "But the notion that the system is playing a strong role here is greatly exaggerated."

Campbell endorsed efforts to improve divorce and custody proceedings for both genders, so that parents who lose a dispute will feel they had a fair hearing.

Joey Binard of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges said states are shifting away from the traditional presumption that mothers should get post-divorce custody of children. Many states now say preference should go to the parent most involved with the children, she said, "but that still leaves men on the short end of the stick, because most are not primary caretakers."

Wade Horn, assistant secretary for children and families at the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, stressed repeatedly in an interview that divorced men who commit violence are "the rare exception."

However, Horn said men commonly experience depression or other mental health problems after a divorce. And he suggested that some family courts may still give "subtle preference" to mothers in custodial hearings.

"Even if, objectively, there is no bias, if the man perceives it as such, it's a source of stress," Horn said.

Horn predicted that court procedures would become more evenhanded.

"There's greater recognition that it's important to keep dads actively involved in a child's life, that child support should be more than just going after dad's wallet," he said.

Frustrations over child support and visitation figured in several recent violent incidents across the country. Among them:

-In San Diego, a man upset by a court ruling on overdue child support fatally shot himself in January on the courthouse steps. Witnesses said Derrick K. Miller Sr., 43, who was carrying court documents, told a guard, "You did this to me," before killing himself.

-In Anchorage, Jed Magby, 43, set his Mercedes afire in October outside the offices of Alaska's Child Support Enforcement Division, apparently because of claims that he owed $55,000 for out-of-state child support orders. He faces charges of arson and criminal mischief.

-In Erie, Pa., Stephen Trieber, 33, was sentenced to death in October for killing his 2-year-old daughter by setting his house on fire in order to get out of paying $250 a month in child support.

-In Tamaqua, Pa., police seized firearms and grenades in March at the home of a man who had threatened local officials because he was upset over a child support order. Edward Nesgoda pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and other charges and was sentenced to up to 23 months in prison.

-In February, James D. Smallwood Jr. killed his three children, who normally lived with his estranged wife in Throckmorton, Texas, but were visiting him for one night. Smallwood drove back to Throckmorton with the dead children in his car, then killed himself when he heard sirens approaching. A judge ruled earlier that Smallwood, who had been accused of making threats, could have the children on "quasi-supervised" visitations.

National suicide statistics do not provide a comprehensive look at marital details - for example, whether a male suicide victim was a divorced father who lost custody of his children.

However, psychiatrist David Clark, a suicide expert at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago, said fathers facing loss of custody are at above-average risk of suicide.

"You go through the open-wound agony of the divorce, you go through the agony of losing day-in, day-out contact with your children - and if you add either clinical depression or increased drinking - that's a combination that gives us gray hair," Clark said.

Lowell Jaks recalled fantasizing about suicide during his divorce.

"You're just expected to move on," he said. "And you know that by moving on, that might be interpreted as neglecting your child."

Fathers' rights groups say the frustrations of many divorced men could be eased through legislated changes in court practices. Another suggestion - offered even by skeptics of the fathers' rights movement - is to provide more emotional support for men going through divorce.

Dr. David Gremillion, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine and adviser to the Washington-based Men's Health Network, said the high suicide rate among divorced men stems in part from being psychologically unprepared for the break-up.

"A lot of men don't realize the degree to which their social connectedness depends on their wife," he said. "When it hits them upside the head, and they begin to realize what they've lost, the impact can be striking."


On the Net:

American Coalition for Fathers and Children: http://www.acfc.org

Family court judges council: http://www.ncjfcj.unr.edu/

©Santa Fe New Mexican 2002