December 1, 1999

Who are these guys?

The Fatherhood Coalition braces for a battle

By Jeff Hinkle, Wocester Magazine

There’s a war going on.

Mark Charalambous says there is no other word to describe it.

“When I look at the big picture, I see a war on fatherhood,” he says. “The last rights of fathers are being swept up and thrown in the garbage.”

The aggressors in this campaign against dads, he says, include a wide array of people and institutions. Radical feminists, judges, lawyers, lawmakers, grant-writers and social service workers are the main culprits, but there are others. All of them working together as part of an enormous federal and state subsidized machine that he calls the “domestic abuse industry.”  

Charalambous claims the casualties in this war are the fathers, who he says, routinely loose their Constitutional rights when they step into a courtroom.

To those who believe his claims smack of paranoia, he has this advice: Go and see for yourself.

“What I suggest you do is go over to the Worcester County Courthouse on ‘Contempt Day’ and watch the steady stream of men being led like lambs to the slaughter. It’s like a war crimes tribunal. It’s like the killing fields. That’s it,” he says, finally settling on a blood-soaked simile that he believes is appropriate, “it’s like the killing fields for men.”

Contempt Day is the day Probate Court judges listen to complaints about missed child support payments, absent alimony checks and visitation violations.

A divorced father of two, Charalambous knows all about what goes on in Probate Court. But he will not discuss his own divorce, saying only that a “restraining order was used to break up my family.” And he won’t talk about the restraining order, because he puts no stock in those pieces of paper. The machine, he says, “hands them out like candy.”

“It doesn’t matter who is violent in a relationship,” he explains. “If all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail. Regardless of what happens, once you get to court the man is always the perpetrator and the woman is always the victim. And that’s because of the propaganda. That’s because of the misinformation.”

Whatever licks Charalambous took in divorce court led him to a father’s rights organization called Concerned Fathers of Massachusetts. But, he says, he and other newly divorced dads, still stinging from their break ups, decided they were looking for something more. “We didn’t see that organization as a vehicle for real change,” he says.

So in 1993, Charalambous and four others began to meet in his Arlington apartment.  Out of those meetings the Fatherhood Coalition was born.

Six years later the Massachusetts non-profit boasts a membership roster of more than 2,500 men and women. John Flaherty, co-chair of the Coalition, says that between 500 and 600 of those are newly signed members following high profile headlines this past year.

Coalition members say they are fighting for the rights of fathers everywhere. In recent months they have taken their fight to Gardner and Quincy courtrooms as well as the State House to demand reforms to the Commonwealth’s 209A restraining order laws.

But arguably it was the organization’s recent federal anti-discrimination suit against Massachusetts state judges that brought the most attention to their fight. The suit charges that those judges routinely violate the Constitutional rights of men when they issue 209As based on unsubstantiated claims of domestic abuse.

And state law clerks should plan on working overtime if the Coalition has its way. “There are more suits coming,” Flaherty promises.

Flaherty’s words come fast and furious. He speaks at a velocity that falls somewhere between that of a livestock auctioneer and a sub-machine gun.

Like most of his fellow Coalition members, he is a graduate of the hard-knocks school of divorce, and the experience left him bitter.

“It was horrendous,” he says. “I lost the house. I lost everything. I ended up having to pay $400 a week in child support. I was laid off from my job at the time, so I appealed it. It took me a year-and-a-half to get through the appeals process. The judges and the court system believe whatever the women tell them.”

The courts. The judges. Flaherty, like Charalambous, says they are all part of the system. All part of the big machine. The abuse industry.

They are the ones breaking up the families, says Flaherty. They are the ones responsible for the lopsided verdicts and the unbearable demands of child support.

That last issue - child support - causes sparks to fly.

“I don’t call it ‘child support,’ “ says Flaherty. “I call it ‘child extortion.’ You give it to her. You give her 39 percent of your gross income, tax-free. But she doesn’t have to pay taxes on it. They call it child support, but you give it to her. Who says it’s going to the child?”

Charalambous is even more barbed in his assessment, calling child support  “politically correct alimony.” And he claims Massachusetts demands the highest payments in the country.

And if a father fails to send the check, if he comes up short, he will find himself tagged with another label that Flaherty finds offensive: “The media calls them ‘deadbeat dads,’ but it’s the system that creates deadbeat dads.” 

Another example, he says, of the men-are-guilty-until-proven-innocent notion that fuels the whole nefarious machine.

“The whole system presupposes women will get everything in the end,” charges Flaherty. “Fathers would love to mediate. But why should a woman mediate if she knows she is going to get everything in the end anyway? What woman would want to mediate? Maybe Mother Teresa.”

If anyone wonders how things got to this point, Charalambous offers this explanation:

“It’s a fact that men seek the approval of women,” he says. “That is part of our make-up that has allowed this to happen.”

His theory continues.

“Twenty years ago women saw tremendous inequalities and they demanded more. They accomplished that. How did they get there? The men that were in power said ‘yes.’ Men, out of the goodness of their hearts, welcomed women into the halls of power. Anything women wanted, they got. And, in some cases, rightly so - like equal pay for equal work,” says Flaherty.

“But now there are radical feminists out there,” he says. “Women with a judicial agenda - with a legislative agenda. They believe in the demonization of men. And they are determining how we live.”

The view that women are covertly pulling strings behind courtroom doors makes Nancy Scannell laugh. “Domestic abuse laws and custody laws are written in a gender-neutral manner,” she says. “The courts are so far from feminized. I wish at times they were more feminized. In fact, a whole problem exists where women are losing custody of their children because they cannot afford attorneys - because they are not the breadwinners.”

Scannell, publicity director for Jane Doe Inc., a Boston-based domestic abuse victims advocacy group, says “It’s funny to me that they say radical feminists are breaking up families,” she says. “I would say more fists are breaking up families than feminists do.”

But Charalambous believes destroying a family is as simple as eight words. “All a woman has to say is, ‘I’m abused and I fear for my life,’ “ he says.

Utter that sentence in a court of law in Massachusetts, he says, and it is like playing a matrimonial trump card that leaves the man penniless, homeless and childless. Judges respond by signing a 209A and, because it is that simple, he says false claims are widespread.

Advocates of the system defend the restraining orders, pointing out that investigations preceed both temporary and permanent orders.

But Coalition members say validation for 209As has become increasingly fuzzy in recent years.

“Up until the 1980s, assault and battery was the law. Then it became ‘domestic assault.’ Now it’s ‘domestic abuse.’ But anything can be labeled ‘abuse.’ ‘He controls the money!’ ‘He controls the phone!’ It’s all being called abuse. And that’s because the feminists - the anti-father, anti-men women define what is ‘abuse,’ “ says Flaherty. “We’re redefining abuse so that anyone can be labeled an abuser.”

He maintains if actual assaults constituted a reason for filing a 209A, then authorities would be forced to admit that women initiate more than half of domestic violence incidents.

Flaherty cites a Canadian study, for instance, that he claims shows women admit to instigating domestic disputes 67 percent of the time, while blaming men for 26 percent of those eruptions. Flaherty also points to a recent University of New Hampshire study, which he says reveals female partners are just as likely to resort to violence as men are.

“It’s true that the New Hampshire study showed a significant number of incidents of women engaging in battery,” says Al Cardarelli, a senior fellow at the University of Massachusetts McCormack Institute, and an author of a 1996 book on domestic abuse. “But that study concluded many of those times women were acting in self-defense. The other thing it showed was because men are more powerful, their violence caused far more serious injury.”

Regardless of who triggers the violence, national statistics are pretty clear as to the likely outcome. A 1998 Department of Justice study - which collected numbers from law enforcement agencies throughout the country - reported in 1996 women were on the receiving end of “violence by an intimate partner” 840,000 times compared to150,000 such encounters where men were the victims. The study also reports 21 percent of all violence directed at women in 1996 came at the hands of an intimate partner, compared to 2 percent reported by men.  

If lesions, bruises and broken bones are used as a gauge, the DOJ study reveals 84 percent of the victims of domestic violence seeking hospital care in 1996 were women. If trips to the morgue are used as a yardstick, the study shows that of the 1,800 people who died from domestic abuse that year, three out of four of them were women.

Steve Basile says such numbers should not come as a surprise. “If you talk about assaults, the numbers would be one-to-one. Because women assault men just as often as men assault women. But if you’re talking about injuries, well, men do not sustain injuries as often as women, so it’s more like 13-to-one,” he says.

Basile, a divorced dad from Gardner who was “treated badly by the system,” is co-director of the North Central chapter of the Fatherhood Coalition.

It is his belief that the “gender-bias of the court system” is the result of “statistical misinformation.” An example, he says, was an announcement by a Gardner town official earlier this year, who according to Basile, quoted from a Quincy Massachusetts study that showed that the average man who violates a restraining order has approximately 18 criminal violations on his record. Basile challenges that figure. He says a closer look at the numbers reveals that nearly 23 percent of those men had no criminal record whatsoever. The next 20 percent had one or two criminal complaints. It was the remaining 57 percent - those with three-or-more criminal incidents - who were the proverbial bad apples.

And even though most entry-level math students would call 57 percent a majority, to Basile it is an example of a “bunch of guys on one end of the spectrum skewing the figures for everyone.”

In an effort to cut through such gray statistical data about domestic abuse, earlier this year Basile orchestrated a study of his own.

“We wanted to build a database to see how the courts responded to male and female complaints of abuse,” he says. “No one had ever done anything like it before. We wanted to get the victim’s names and numbers and conduct telephone interviews, asking them questions like ‘who initiated the violence?’ - that kind of thing.”

To help in his search, he and other Coalition members began copying 209As issued by the Gardner District Court.

Four hundred photocopies later, word of what the Coalition was doing leaked out, and victim’s rights advocates - calling the research an invasion of privacy - demanded it be stopped. Lawmakers responded by proposing changes to the 209A laws to prevent confidential information from being made public.

State Sen. Therese Murray (D-Plymouth) spearheaded the legislation. “I did it because [Massachusetts] Attorney General Tom Reilly asked me to,” she says. “They said they were conducting a survey, but in an internal e-mail they said they wanted to ‘interrogate’ the victims. We were troubled by that fact. We felt their ‘interrogation’ was just another form of intimidation.”

But Basile calls the whole thing a misunderstanding. “We used the word ‘interrogate’ in an e-mail. Somehow our e-mail got sent to Jane Doe Inc. We said we were ready to do the ‘interrogation’ - meaning we were going to interrogate our data. It’s a technical term meaning ‘compile and evaluate.’ “

Semantics aside, Basile has since backed off his quest, choosing to collect his data via a random mailing to Gardner residents. His methodology may have changed, but Basile is still certain his research will prove prejudice on the part of the courts.

“There are a lot of laws written, but they are not applied in a gender-neutral manner. We want to make the courts aware of their own biases,” he says.

To those unconvinced that the court system is gender-biased, Coalition members say people need to look no further than the case of Harold Stewart. Stewart, they say, typifies the war on fatherhood.

Described by the Coalition as a lay Christian minister, Stewart was “simply trying to help his son get into his ex-wife’s apartment so the boy could use the bathroom,” they say. His ex-wife spotted him in the entryway and reported by phone that he was violating his restraining order. The next thing Stewart knew, he was a wanted man.

Stewart, a long-time Coalition supporter, is serving a six-month sentence in the Dedham House of Correction as a result of the April 1997 incident.

“Harry Stewart is in jail because he got out of his car,” says Flaherty. “When his case came up, we knew it was ideal. It is representative of hundreds of thousands of cases just like it across the country.”

As Stewart’s legal problems played out in the Quincy courthouse last summer, the Coalition’s “Free Harry” campaign went into overdrive. Fliers and bumper stickers were distributed. Candlelight vigils were conducted outside of the jailhouse walls. Coalition members spoke to any reporter who would listen.

Stewart wore a “Super Dad” T-shirt and clutched a bible the day he was sentenced. “Here lies the real abuse,” he told the judge, “the abuse of our children. God bless our children.”

“Stewart left [his] car because his 5-year-old son had to go to the bathroom and was unable to open the outer door himself,” read a Coalition’s press release. “This was the extent of the violation for which the jury convicted Stewart ... .”

But there is more to the story than a Kafkaesque fable of a man in jail for exiting a car.

Following that first run-in with police, Stewart, a Weymouth resident, violated his 209A three more times before 1998 was over. The restraining order had been issued at the request of his ex-wife, June. In her sworn affidavit, she accuses her ex-husband of physical abuse, an allegation he denies. She says Stewart contributed nothing toward the household expenses for her and their two sons. She says Stewart only stopped by their apartment when he pleased, usually when he was low on food, money or clean laundry.

He did keep up on one bill, though - the phone bill, which was in his name. But his ex-wife says he placed a block on the service to prevent her from using it.

“His wife ran up some ridiculous phone bill - something like $700 or $800 in long-distance charges,” explains Flaherty. “Saying that he took ‘control’ of the phone - that’s all smoke and mirrors. Those types of charges are nebulous. Does someone being ‘too controlling’ mean they should go to jail? Does that mean someone should lose the right to see their kids?”

But Stewart did not lose that right, at least not initially. Four times a week he was allowed to pick-up his two boys, as long as he stayed in his car and steered clear of his former spouse. Each of Stewart’s violations stems from his failure to adhere to instructions spelled out in the restraining order. Finally, last June, after a jury found Stewart guilty of violating the terms of his 209A, the judge sentenced him to probation for two years and a six-month suspended sentence, on the condition that he enroll in a state-approved program for abusers. However, since Stewart denied being an abuser, he refused to sign the program’s paperwork.

The judge ordered him to find a similar program he could live with, but they all required Stewart to declare himself an abuser, something he refused to do. The judge, having run out of options, sentenced Stewart to jail, which is where he sits, finishing out the final months of his sentence.

Last month, the Norfolk County District Attorney’s Office announced it would not prosecute Stewart on the three remaining violations. The DA said Stewart’s ex-wife was “tired of the tension and the publicity.”

Flaherty dismisses the prosecutor’s comments. “The DA there is basically anti-man,” he says. But he applauds Stewart’s determination.

“He refused to call himself an abuser. Most men in his position couldn’t do that, because they are employed. They can’t afford to go to jail for six months to make a point. They’d loose their job.”

Everyone agrees that Stewart is making a statement. His attorney, Phyllis Field, says, “he’s trying to make a point that fathers love their children as much as their mothers do.”

One Quincy Courthouse insider, who asked not to be identified, also believesthe prisoner is taking a stand. “He was arrested four times in one year,” he says. “He was arrested the way Gandhi used to get arrested - to make a point. He definitely has an agenda here.”

Proponents of restraining orders admit the documents are an imperfect method of dealing with domestic violence.

“Anytime you have a law you need to revisit it constantly,” says Sen. Murray. “The Fatherhood Coalition has some legitimate concerns. There are people out there who abuse the 209A law, but you don’t throw the law away.”

“We operate on probability,” UMass’ Cardarelli says. “There was a Quincy study a few years ago that showed something like 73 percent of men on restraining orders have criminal records. Even if those numbers are much lower - even if it is 50 percent - those numbers are going to get the attention of a judge who gets a call from an abuse victim on a Friday night. He is going to issue a restraining order. I mean if there is a 60 percent chance of rain, what are you going to do? You’re going to carry an umbrella.”

Jane Doe’s Scannell supports that logic. “Sure, there are times when the courts err on the side of caution, but that seems fairly acceptable. The courts are saying, ‘Look, this person does not want you near them anymore.’ There is a risk with that kind of thinking, but there is also a risk that a spouse can end up dead.”

“That’s not erring on the side of caution,” counters Flaherty. “That’s erring on the side of tyranny. The Constitution doesn’t say anything about ‘probability.’ People’s rights can’t be taken away based on probability.”

But Flaherty dismisses the comments of domestic abuse researchers and lawmakers as meaningless. They have too much at stake.

“Batterers’ programs, visitation centers, lawyers, judges, feminists. They all make money from this,” he says, referring to state and federal dollars that support what he calls “the domestic abuse industry.”

Charalambous knows how such accusations sound to outsiders.

“A conspiracy theory?” he asks. “Let’s just say - for a minute - that 20 years ago a bunch of women got together and decided that they were going to destroy the father-child relationship. Well, it doesn’t matter. Because it is has happened. It’s been done step-by-step.

“Whether or not that is a result of a conspiracy is a moot point,” he says. “What I believe is there are feminists out there who want to transform our society from a patriarchal society to a matriarchal society. Do I believe Governor Cellucci is in on it? No. But I do believe it is politically expedient for politicians to go along with it.”

Such slash-and-burn political commentary does not surprise Scannell, who says a few weeks ago, members of the Coalition were on hand at a domestic abuse rally in Boston, sponsored by Jane Doe Inc.

“There were all these journalists there. State lawmakers. And here were these people from the Fatherhood Coalition yelling that we were lesbians and making all these sexist remarks. They were ridiculing the men who were there. One state lawmaker came up to me and said: ‘I used to think these guys were on the fringe, but now I think they are nuts.’ I thought: These guys are doing a better job of explaining who they really are than anyone else ever could.”

Those actions may not win many friends on Beacon Hill, but Coalition members do not expect lawmakers to see eye-to-eye with them. Lawmakers are part of the machine, they say, and that puts them in the enemy camp. It is war, after all.