When Mom and Dad Battle to Visit Their Kids
WHEN Kevin S. and his wife separated two years ago, they agreed to a custody arrangement that seemed workable. Their two young children would live with their mother in the family's suburban home, then spend alternate weekends and Wednesday evenings with their father.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The agreement hasn't worked. Sometimes the children's mother calls to cancel a visit, offering reasons ranging from skating lessons to a child's stubbed toe. At other times, when Kevin arrives at the agreed time, the house is dark. When he tries to telephone his children, he gets the answering machine.
''There's always one excuse or another,'' says Kevin, who asks that his full last name not be used, because the divorce is not final and he fears retaliation. ''I've been to court many times. It's expensive financially, but it's expensive emotionally too.''
Call them ''driven-out dads,'' ''disenfranchised fathers,'' or ''displaced parents.'' They are divorced or separated parents, women as well as men, whose former spouses block access to their children despite court-ordered visiting schedules. The emotional cost is often accompanied by an economic one.
Jeffrey Leving, a Chicago attorney who specializes in such cases, calls it ''visitation abuse.'' Although no statistics exist on the number of fathers who are ''involuntarily excluded from the family unit,'' as he puts it, he sees such cases increasing. Noncustodial mothers, whose ranks are far smaller, face similar problems.
''Courts are very aggressive in enforcing child support, but when it comes to enforcing visitation, they are very lax,'' Mr. Leving says. ''Stereotypically, fathers are not seen as being needed emotionally in the parenting process. Stereotypically, they are considered breadwinners, and their job is to earn money and support the family.''
Yet As a result, Leving says, angry divorcing parents ''know they can ignore visitation and get away with it.''
In January 1994, a pioneering law took effect in Illinois, making it a crime to block a noncustodial parent's visitation rights. Under terms of the Unlawful Visitation Interference Law, the first two violations are petty offenses. The third becomes a misdemeanor. The measure also covers grandparents' visits, which are sometimes interrupted or denied after a divorce.
Republican State Rep. Cal Skinner Jr., who sponsored the bill, sees the law as an ''educational tool.'' He says, ''It's not about putting people in jail or fining people. It's about telling people that society thinks it is important that children have access to both parents, even if the parents hate each other.''
In Representative Skinner's view, no-fault divorce has contributed to an increase in visitation problems. ''I believe couples fight over kids more than they used to,'' he says. ''They used to fight about the question, 'Do I have a reason to get a divorce -- infidelity or whatever?' Now they fight about the kids.''
A report released two weeks ago by the Illinois State Police shows that in 1994, 411 visitation complaints were filed. Of those, 365 were classified as actual offenses.
Even so, the law does not always translate into support from police officers around the state. Often they want such cases returned to civil court, according to Skinner and other advocates.
Andy Knott, a spokesman for the Cook County State's Attorney's Office in Chicago, faults the state's measure as a ''get-a-free-attorney law,'' because it enables private parties to use local prosecutors to enforce visitation decrees. Explaining that the state attorneys' association wants to have the law repealed, he says, ''A private attorney is more appropriate to enforce an agreement that people negotiated with a judge in the first place.''