Plea for fathers' rights: divorced but still a dad

''The word visitation isn't in my vocabulary. I'm not a visitor. I'm a father.''

So goes the rallying cry for a growing network of divorced fathers seeking to share custody of their children with their former wives.

Since the early 1970s some 200 fathers'-rights groups, with 10,000 members, have sprung up in the United States, Europe, and Australia to strike down what they feel are inequitable custody laws and to shake up stereotyped notions about men - particularly fathers.

Many of these small 5- to 450-member groups, says one member, ''don't have dime one'' and aren't listed in the telephone book.

But the groups, at least in the US, which include Fathers United for Equal Rights, Divorced Dads, and Father's and Children's Equality (FACE), are growing increasingly vocal - and effective.

Since 1978, 24 states have passed new or revised joint-custody legislation - nine in the last year alone, says Doris Jonas Freed, a matrimonial lawyer in New York City, who attributes this in part to lobbying by fathers'-rights groups. Such legislation is ''sweeping the country,'' says David Eagle, a member of Texas Fathers for Equal Rights, despite governors' vetoes of proposals in New York and Massachusetts.

Many group members contend the custom of awarding sole custody to the mother makes a father a ''nonparent'' - with no rights, only an obligation to pay child support. By contrast, a joint-custody arrangement might allow parents to have the children on alternating weeks, although infinite variations are possible.

''Fathers are no longer satisfied to become 'zoo fathers,' '' says Dr. Freed. ''They want a share in helping raise their children.'' Adds John Rossler, vice-president of Equal Rights for Fathers of New York State: ''Men are discouraged subtly and overtly from seeking custody. Their lawyers tell them they can't get it.''

One of the services many of the groups provide members is a list of sympathetic, informed lawyers. Texas Fathers for Equal Rights holds seminars to educate lawyers, judges, and social workers about the benefits of joint custody to all parties.

Dr. Freed says that ''co-parenting,''as she puts it, is the best option for everybody: ''The child has the right to have nurturing, training, and love from both parents.'' The father, she says, can legally continue his involvement with the child on more than just a financial level. And it frees mothers, 54 percent of whom are working or looking for work, from raising the child alone.

Also, says Mr. Eagle, lack of enforcement of visitation rights is a ''massive problem'' around the country. Judges increasingly are cracking down on men who fail to make child-support payments but are much more lenient toward mothers who break court-established visitation agreements. Some states, however, are starting to suspend alimony and sometimes child custody payments for ex-wives who don't honor the agreement.

Counseling is a vital service of fathers' groups, says James Cook, president of the National Congress for Men. ''Men traditionally envision themselves as taking care of their emotional problems alone. It helps the fathers to realize they're not the only ones going through this.''

Some of these groups have women members or auxiliaries. It ''gives us a broader perspective,'' says a member of Fathers United for Equal Rights. The National Congress for Men voted to ''fully support'' the ERA, and the keynote speaker for its coming annual meeting in Detroit is former National Organization for Women president Karen DeCrow, who supports joint custody.

Some feminist groups do not support joint custody. The New York chapter of NOW, says Virginia Cornue, executive director, lobbied against the joint-custody bill later vetoed by Gov. Hugh Carey because it ''mandated joint custody by the judge,'' rather than allowing free choice by both parents. One spokeswoman mentions such problems as confusion for the children and the expense of maintaining two homes.

Nevertheless, the challenges can be worth it, says one father in Texas, who spent $50,000 between he and his ex-wife for the right to share custody. ''It's wonderful to be a 100 percent legal father,'' he says.

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