In The Name Of The Fathers
Across Europe, desperate dads are taking dramatic action - on public landmarks and in the courts - to win the right to see their own children
Direct Action: Batman At The Palace
Grandparents: Grey Rights
Letters to: firstname.lastname@example.org
By JAMES GEARY AND APARISIM GHOSH
ACTION MAN: Hatch put dads' rights in the headlines by perching near Buckingham Palace's balcony dressed as Batman
Sunday, Sep. 19, 2004
The balcony of Buckingham Palace is normally reserved for photo ops of Queen Elizabeth and the royal family. But last week, it was a man dressed in a Batman suit who was waving regally to the crowds. Perched on a ledge next to Britain's most famous balcony, Jason Hatch, a 32-year-old painter and decorator from Cheltenham, unfurled a banner - superdads of Fathers 4 Justice fighting for your right to see your kids - and settled in for a six-hour-long photo op of his own. His protest was designed to draw attention to the plight of fathers who are shut out of their children's lives by their former or estranged wives - and by a legal system they say discriminates against men in custody and visitation cases. "It is abuse to deny a child the love of a father," Hatch told Time after his caped crusade had ended. "That's what we're fighting to stop, and we're going to keep on doing stunts like this and embarrassing [the government] until things change."
Hatch is an imperfect messenger for a very real problem. He has been married and divorced twice. He and his first ex-wife lost contact (their son lives with her), and he has fought a bitter, protracted battle for the right to see the children from his second marriage. That crusade drove him to the ledge outside Buckingham Palace - and led his current girlfriend, with whom he has a seven-month-old daughter, to leave him because, she says, his activism took too much time away from her and the baby.
Hatch and his second wife were divorced in 2001. She declines to speak to the press, citing ongoing court proceedings. He says she prevented him from seeing the children for at least a year and did not respond to his calls. After being taken to court for threatening his wife - he admits to harassing her - another 18 months passed before he was allowed supervised visits with his kids. He says his ex found excuses to cancel the meetings. Even though she now lives nearby, he says he has only seen his kids a few times in the past three years.
In desperation, he turned to Families Need Fathers, an organization that offers support and counselling, but soon became frustrated with what he saw as the group's inaction. He joined the more radical Fathers 4 Justice (F4J) about a year ago, signing up as a grade 5 member: someone willing to engage in direct action and risk arrest for the cause. That's how he ended up on the Buckingham Palace ledge, a stunt that led to a security shakeup and got F4J global press coverage, though many media outlets ignored Batman's message and focused on the potential threat to the Queen. "If you want to go to a pub and watch a load of grown men cry, then go to [Families Need Fathers]," Hatch says. "If you want to get off your arse and get this law changed, go to F4J."
Dads across Europe are taking Hatch's advice, banding together in activist groups and lobbying for legal and social change. They're keeping the fight for dad's rights in the public eye with a mix of humor and guerrilla tactics. In Britain, daredevil dads have donned superhero costumes to occupy the roof of the Royal Courts of Justice and the top of the London Eye ferris wheel. Their most brazen stunt came in May, when two F4J members hurled purple flour bombs at Prime Minister Tony Blair from the visitors' gallery in the House of Commons. In October 2002 in Madrid, two members of SOS Papa, a divorced-dads protest group, doused themselves with gasoline and set themselves alight outside the Cortes, the Spanish parliament building. (The men were wearing fireproof suits, so they weren't injured.) At the Colosseum in Rome last Saturday, a group called PapÃ Separati (Separated Fathers) held a small demonstration; some members turned up in Batman costumes in salute to Hatch. The French chapter of SOS Papa is more restrained, avoiding direct action but organizing marches every Father's Day.
The impact of these protests is mixed. "There is wide public sympathy for the plight of fathers who are maliciously denied access to their children," columnist Deborah Orr wrote in Britain's The Independent in May. "But there is also an uncomfortable recognition that if a former couple are so unable to decide between themselves what is best for their children, then the courts have little prospect of doing it for them." But custody statistics suggest that the disgruntled dads have a legitimate gripe. In most European countries, the law is supposed to be gender neutral and custody can be awarded to either parent, depending on the best interests of the children. But in the overwhelming majority of cases, the mother gets custody - and activists claim that discriminates against fathers. Even in Germany, where joint custody is the legal norm, 85% of children of divorced or separated parents live with the mother. In France, the percentage is the same. In Italy, mothers get custody in 90% of cases; in Britain, the figure is 93%. Many divorcing fathers don't seek custody. But activists say the state should not presume that. And if a mother decides to relocate with the children, they say, the father has no recourse.
As a result, thousands of divorced or separated fathers are denied access to their children by the courts or an embittered ex-wife. In Britain, government statistics show, 713 fathers were refused contact with their kids by the courts in 2001, and 518 in 2002. But those extreme cases - many involving fathers who were barred from seeing their children for good reason - aren't the measure of this problem. Divorced dads say custody rules granting them only a handful of visits per month don't let them develop meaningful relationships with their children. And many accuse their ex-wives of flouting visitation agreements - but how many such cases there are is unknowable, not least because the courts tend not to enforce the agreements. "There has been a trend over the past two or three decades in favor of women's rights in relation to their children," says Catherine Hakim, a sociologist who specializes in family and women's issues at the London School of Economics, "so it's actually become necessary to reassert fathers' rights."
Rock musician and social activist Bob Geldof is trying to do so. In the 1990s, Geldof and his ex-wife, Paula Yates, fought a bitter battle over access to their three daughters. The dispute was settled in 1998 when he gained custody; Yates died of a heroin overdose in 2000. In a Father's Day television interview in 2002, Geldof spoke out against laws that favored mothers in custody matters and expressed the agony felt by many fathers. The response was overwhelming: a flood of letters from anguished fathers, more mail than his advocacy on behalf of Africa had ever unleashed. "I just wanted to be with my kids 50% of the time," he told TIME. "If a man and a woman live together and it fails, that's tragic. But if you have children, whole universes close to you" if you're prevented from seeing them.
Geldof, who's making a TV documentary on the issue for Britain's Channel 4, blames the courts. "Our system is adversarial," he says, "designed to spiral into acrimony, rage, bitterness and hatred. The law says it's gender neutral, but 93% of children go to the women - how is that neutral? It amounts to state-sanctioned kidnapping, the willful breakup of families."
"We're in a period of social change and the law has not kept pace," Geldof continues. "This mirrors some of the battles women have had to fight, like when it was said women couldn't make business decisions. Now we value emotional intelligence so highly, and assume men don't have any."
Recent research supports keeping fathers involved in their children's lives after a divorce or separation. According to Michael Lamb, a professor of psychology at Cambridge University who has spent over two decades studying this issue, children who live in single-parent families are nearly twice as likely as those in two-parent families to perform poorly in school, become delinquent or have difficulty maintaining relationships. "If you were able to look at a normal population, 15-18% would be maladjusted," Lamb says. "When you talk about kids in single-parent families, 30% are maladjusted."
Although child-development experts disagree about how much time children should spend with their noncustodial parent, Lamb says there's a consensus that every- other-weekend visits, comprising about 15% of nonschool hours, are inadequate. Some experts suggest at least one-third of nonschool time should be the norm. "Where the system has failed kids is in not recognizing that they need the other parent as well," Lamb says. "You don't have to have a 50-50 split to be an involved father, but you do want more than twice-a-month visitation."
Ralph Traviato is a Roman corporate communications specialist whose separation last February ruptured his relationship with his two children. "I was used to coming home and having my kids jump all over me," he says, with a nostalgic smile. "Then suddenly they're not there anymore. It's devastating." Traviato, 47, sees his kids every other weekend, but that's not enough for a man who describes himself as a hands-on parent. He knows about fathers who lose touch with their kids after a divorce, and is determined that won't happen to him. But he worries about how the separation will affect the children's perception of him. "I can tell you about my emotional needs, but what about theirs?" he says.
Traviato isn't an activist and has no hope that the laws can be changed. But Italian groups like PapÃ Separati are lobbying for new legislation, titled Law 66, to give children the right to maintain a balanced relationship with both parents. The present law, reasoning that children of divorce need continuity and structure, says it is in their best interests to live with one parent. The new law would provide for joint physical custody.
Even in countries that encourage joint custody, fathers say the courts are biased. Christian Bade, a Berlin surveyor, says his ex-wife used a one-sided legal system to drag him through the courts for three emotionally wrenching years. (Like the wives of other men in this story, Bade's wife didn't respond to requests for comment.) "It's so unnerving. Your whole life is destroyed," says Bade, 44. "You lose friends because your whole life revolves around this matter. I lost interest in everything else. I lost my job and didn't have the energy to find a new one." Bade now sees his son each weekend, and an additional three-and-a-half hours every second week. He has to keep precise time. Once when he returned the boy an hour late, he says, his wife went to court, claiming a violation of their right of access order; he may have to pay a â‚¬1,000 fine.
Journalist Matthias Matussek describes himself as an accidental "missionary of the men's movement." He was cast in the role after he wrote a 1997 cover story in the German weekly Der Spiegel that railed against the "feminist power of mothers" who used children as "trump cards in the gender war." Matussek looked into "the abyss of a possible custody battle" after his marriage hit hard times - it is now running smoothly again, he says - and he learned how "rightless dads are in case of conflict." "In movies, books for women and cartoons, men are today only depicted as ridiculous creatures and no longer as role models - it's time for that to change," says Matussek, who went on to write The Fatherless Society, a much debated 1998 book that says fathers are emasculated in child custody and visitation battles because judges and youth welfare offices are naturally sympathetic to the moms. As a consequence, he says "mothers can prevent their former husbands from seeing their offspring for years on end - to the detriment of the children." The feminist magazine Emma griped that the book was misogynistic and nominated Matussek the pasha (chauvinist) of the month. With so much arguing going on, it's no wonder that governments and politicians are finally beginning to pay attention. At a British Conservative Party conference on family issues last month, leader Michael Howard vowed to reform family laws to give divorced and separated fathers more rights. "There should be a strong legal presumption in favor of both parents having equal rights in the upbringing of their children," he said. "There are many fathers in Britain today who do want to play their part, yet can't get access to their children." But in the view of Constitutional Affairs Secretary Charles Falconer, "There cannot and will not be an automatic presumption of 50-50 contact. Children cannot be divided like the furniture or the CD collection."
While Britain is now considering reforms to the family justice system, other European countries have gone much further. German custody legislation was amended in 1998 to give the children of separated couples the right to be in touch with both parents as well as their siblings and grandparents. And in Cochem-Zell, an association of towns and villages in western Germany, the Youth Welfare Office came up with a model that sees to it that divorces end in consensual shared custody. The initiative, called the Cochem Way, was devised by social workers and backed by lawyers and judges. It requires both parents to agree on how to divide responsibility for the kids so that one can't deny the other access. "The parents find themselves in a network of lawyers, judges, social workers, all of whom tell them the same thing: You are both responsible for your child," says social worker Manfred Lengowski, co-author of the Cochem Way. "Faced with this network, the parents don't have a choice." Parents who unreasonably resist a settlement are required to see court-appointed counselors, and legal proceedings are frozen until both sides have agreed to shared custody. "We simply do not let parents escape their responsibilities," says Lengowski. When the authorities suspect there is a danger of violence or abuse, contact between parent and child - if it is granted at all - only occurs under supervision and if it is deemed to be in the interest of the child.
Elvira Steffes, 35, spent two-and-a-half years denying the father of her twins access to them (he disputed that he was the biological father). After his paternity was proven, they were both nudged along the Cochem Way, attending counseling sessions until she agreed to allow him access. "If it had not been for the Cochem Way, I would never have let the father be in touch with the children," Steffes says. Now, he sees the kids once or twice a month. "I know I have done my children a lot of good by agreeing to this process," says Steffes. "They know where they come from and where they belong."
In France, divorced dads have had some success changing the law, but complain that the realities haven't changed. In 2002, the efforts of the national SOS Papa chapter led to an amendment to the civil code that encouraged alternating residency. The code now states that all children have the right to be raised by both a mother and a father under a principle of "co-parenting." But an October 2003 study by the Ministry of Justice showed that in 75% of custody disputes, judges deny alternating residency. That's why Jean-Louis Touchot, president of the French SOS Papa, still has a sign reading objective: alternating residency on the wall of his modest Paris office. A thickset man with the smooth demeanor of a veteran campaigner, Touchot is visibly saddened by his limited progress. The fight to change the civil code has consumed all of his spare time and most of his energies since his 1994 separation from his wife severely reduced his access to their daughter. "We helped change the letter of the law," he says, "but in practice things haven't changed too much." Even if the National Assembly amends the code again, it will come too late for Touchot. His daughter is 18, and with only limited access to her father for the past 10 years, she's grown distant from him. "She can live wherever she wants," he says, quietly. "Mostly, she lives with her mom."
That's a fate Xavier Savidan is determined to avoid. Since his divorce in 2002, the Parisian dentist can only see his kids every other Wednesday and alternating weekends, so he has to work hard to build a relationship with his two children. He is in a bright mood on a recent Wednesday as he watches them play in the leafy backyard of his home. They amuse themselves on a swing set, stopping only to run over to him, dangle from his legs and giggle. But Savidan, 40, worries that as the kids grow older, these occasional visits, which already seem like far too little time, will be insufficient. So he plans to petition again next year for joint custody. He knows his ex-wife will oppose it, and fears the fight may get ugly. During the divorce, she accused him of alcoholism and violence against her, charges the judge threw out. His great fear is that his ex-wife, who has Spanish roots, will move to Spain someday. If that happens, he says, "I'm prepared to uproot myself, sell my house and the practice and go there to be near the kids." Should the law prevent a woman from shutting out her spouse - or even living where she wants to live? Or should it preserve her freedom at the expense of her ex-husband's relationship with his children? In the torturous world of divorce, custody and visitation, Solomon and Superman might both throw up their hands.
Reported by Andrea Gerlin and Helen Gibson/London, Mimi Murphy/Rome, Grant Rosenberg and Lee Hudson Teslik/Paris, Jane Walker/Madrid and Regine Wosnitza/Berlin
Society | Fathers 4 Justice
Batman At The Palace
Meet Britain's direct-action dads
By HELEN GIBSON | LONDON
Lead: For The Sake of the Children
Grandparents: Grey Rights
Sunday, Sep. 19, 2004
When new members join Britain's Fathers 4 Justice (F4J), they're asked to indicate how far they're willing to go on a scale from 1 to 5. Grade 1 members show up at meetings and write letters, while grade 5 members risk arrest by taking part in direct action. F4J's grade flvers - including Jason Hatch, who occupied a ledge outside Buckingham Palace in a Batman suit last week for six hours - have been busy lately. In July, a dozen disgruntled dads dressed up as clergy and infiltrated a morning service in York Minster, led by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, to deliver a sermon of their own on fathers' rights. In May, two members threw condoms filled with purple flour - the group says the color represents equality - at Prime Minister Tony Blair. "There is an art of protest and we apply creative methods and themes to practice it," says Matthew O'Connor, 36, a divorced father of two who founded F4J two years ago.
O'Connor says he models F4J stunts on the direct-action tactics of Greenpeace, "with a dash of humor thrown in for good measure." O'Connor runs the organization with a casual authority but insists on strict discipline and secrecy. Only a small core of members is involved in planning demonstrations, and strategy sessions take place face-to-face. After several protests were foiled by police, O'Connor became suspicious that F4J's phones were bugged and e-mails tapped. O'Connor claims F4J has more than 10,000 members, 200 of whom are direct-action activists, and branches in Australia, Canada and the Netherlands. Members say they find solace in discovering they're not alone; as one F4J organizer puts it, "After all the frustration you go through, making no headway with anyone or anything, you feel you can at last be proactive."
The group's activities go beyond just donning superhero outfits and climbing onto buildings. F4J has written its own 52-page Blueprint for Family Law in the 21st Century, which urges such reforms as a 50-50 starting point for parenting time and a mandatory mediation system to help stop constant court battles. Though the opposition Conservatives have promised to reform the law to give separated and divorced fathers more rights, O'Connor says the government isn't listening, so he's moving into politics. For the Sept. 30 parliamentary by-election in Hartlepool, England, F4J is fielding its own candidate: Paul Watson, 35, a sports-center manager, who is promising reform in family law. Watson, who had a private meeting with the Prime Minister in July, is keeping his sense of humor, though. His purple campaign bus will be decorated with Batman motifs.
Society | Gray Rights
"As if We Died Before Our Time"
Grandparents, too, feel the pain of separation
By APARISM GHOSH
Cover Story: For the Sake of the Children
Direct Action: Batman At The Palace
Sunday, Sep. 19, 2004
Of all the victims of divorce or separation, paternal grandparents get the least attention. With European courts tending to side with mothers in custody and visitation battles, paternal grandparents often find themselves dealing with two tragedies - when their sons are cut off from their children, they too are cut off from the most important people in their lives. For Roman grandmother Irene Rinaldi, 72, the sadness is doubled: two of her sons are separated from their former partners and have little access to their children. This means Rinaldi is estranged from both of her families. By discriminating against dads in custody cases, she says, Italy's courts are "not only depriving the child of its father but also of the father's family. It's as if we died before our time."
Like fathers, paternal grandparents are beginning to demand their rights. Rinaldi, known as Nonna (Grandma) Irene, has been active within the Italian fathers' group PapÃ Separati. Now she's involved in launching Nonni Separati to push for custody arrangements that allow both parents - and both sets of grandparents - ample access to children. Similar groups have sprung up across Europe. Britain's Grandparents Association runs a hotline; many of its 3,000 annual callers complain of difficulty contacting their grandkids. The association estimates that over a million children in the U.K. are denied contact with their grandparents. People are usually advised to seek access through mediation - with professional help offered by a national network of local centers - rather than through legal action. "Even if there's a court order for contact, the mother can decide that the child is unwell or has a dancing class," says Denise Joy of the Grandparents Association. "There are few courts that can enforce these things. They are not going to say that the mother is in breach and put her in prison."
Other groups have been more successful at forcing legislative change. In Spain, a group known as Abumar (an acronym derived from the Spanish for Grandparents in Action) has been making the case for grandparents since 1997. Last year, the Spanish parliament finally approved a law granting grandparents specific visitation rights. "The law says grandparents cannot be prevented from seeing their grandchildren in case of separation or divorce," says Marisa ViÃ±es, 69, president of Abumar and grandmother of six. "It's not a perfect law, but as a start we're satisfied with it."
German grandparents are far from satisfied with the 1998 reform of the Child Act that gave children the right to contact both sets of grandparents - but only if it could be demonstrated that this would be in the kids' best interests. "We demand that, even in controversial cases, both sets of grandparents are allowed to keep regular contact," says Rita Boegershausen, spokeswoman for the Federal Initiative for Grandparents (BIGE). Rostock grandmother Hiltrud Adam thinks the law leaves too much power in the hands of mothers. Adam and her husband took care of their grandson for a year after his parents' separation in 1997. Then his mother found a new partner and took the child away. Both his father and his paternal grandparents have since been denied access to the boy. In 2000, the grandparents won a court decision to allow two visits a month, but his mother appealed and Adam says she has not yet had a single visit. Adam and her husband can only see the boy, now 9, if they go to his school and watch as his mom drives him home. "When he sits in the car with her, he very shyly looks in our direction," Adam says. "When she cannot see, he looks at us directly." For grandparents, there can hardly be a sadder sight.
Reported by Helen Gibson/London, Mimi Murphy/Rome, Regine Wosnitza/Berlin and Enrique Zaldua/San SebastiÃ¡n