Finding Fairness in Family Court

Divorced fathers bristle at a system they say often treats them as little more than a wallet

IT is the first evening of an eight-week parenting class for fathers. Four men - three participants and a group leader - relax on sofas at the Rondo Education Center. One by one, they introduce themselves and describe their family situations.

``I have custody of my two boys, who are five and three,'' says Layne Kirk. ``They spent a year in a foster home. I've had them for six months. I care about my kids, and I'm trying to do better for them.''

``My divorce was just finalized,'' says David Nelson, the father of a 22-month-old son. ``I filed for custody, but naturally she got him. I'm trying to learn how to be a better father.''

``My fatherhood has been frustrated by a nasty divorce,'' says Paul Clyde. ``Until last year, I hadn't seen my eight-year-old daughter for five years. I haven't been able to be the kind of father I want to be. We're going through a rebuilding process, trying to reestablish bonds.'' Fathers face court system

For the next hour and a half, Charles Yue, a family counselor, gently leads the discussion, listening to the men's concerns and suggesting ways to strengthen their relationships with their children. After the class, sponsored by the nonprofit Fathers' Resource Center, Mr. Yue says, ``Their desire to be really involved with their children is sincere and genuine. I sense a lot of determination in this room.''

For these and other divorced men, the desire and determination to be good fathers represents a story seldom told in recent years. The pejorative term ``deadbeat dads'' has obscured the efforts many noncustodial fathers make to be caring parents - efforts some say are blocked by a family-court system that they believe favors mothers and unfairly penalizes fathers.

Many noncustodial fathers accept the court system as a necessary fact of divorced life. ``They know they live under the legal system, and they're making the best of it under the circumstances,'' Yue says.

Others see the courts as a hindrance. ``I'm frustrated with a legal system that has left me financially crippled beyond what is reasonably fair or just, given my situation,'' says Mr. Nelson, who also pays support for a son from a previous relationship. ``I feel bad about the amount of overtime I must work just to break even. That decreases the already limited time my sons and I have together.'' Nelson, a production worker, lives in his parents' basement and works 60 to 70 hours a week to meet his obligations.

Jerome Schoenecker, a parent trainer who conducts fathers' classes in Minneapolis, describes the mood of many noncustodial fathers this way: ``They're feeling so sad, so hurt, because they're cut off from their kids. They don't get a chance to be a dad, but they still have to pay.''

The divorced father's perception that he is an invisible money machine, ordered to provide material but not emotional support, may be heightened in January by a new federal law requiring mandatory wage withholding for child-support payments. Still, the need for more systematic collection becomes apparent in statistics showing that one-third of all court-ordered child-support payments are never made. In 1989, noncustodial parents paid $11.2 billion in child support. Another $5.1 billion went unpaid.

Experts anticipate more legislation to enforce child support. Robert Griswold, author of ``Fatherhood in America,'' says, ``There's a social consensus that fathers have to take responsibility for their children.''

But, say many fathers, responsibility should bring some reward. They tell of mothers who won't follow court orders that say children may visit fathers, and of mothers who move out of state, further separating fathers and children.

One long-distance father, John Hedin of Burlington, Vt., has a six-year-old son living in California with Mr. Hedin's former wife. Hedin sued to have his son returned. ``The mother's right to move outweighs the father's right to visitation,'' he says. Last month the Vermont Supreme Court remanded the case to family court.

``I have followed the court order that says it is most important to see my son,'' says Hedin. ``I've spent every last cent I have to meet my obligations and to pay for legal expenses in order not to be alienated from my son. I spend thousands of dollars a year to visit him and let him know I'm still his dad and that I love him.''

For unmarried fathers, custody issues can be even more complex. Phil Manz, a health-care administrator in St. Paul, stayed home for three months after the birth of his daughter, now 15 months old. Yet because the child's mother vetoed joint physical custody, the time he spends with his daughter is now limited. Changing a preconception

``I'm a defendant,'' says Mr. Manz. ``Why am I a defendant because I co-created a child? I want to be a parent. If you're not married, you're assumed guilty until you're proven innocent, and there's no effective means of being proven innocent. It just gets incredibly adversarial. I think the system sets it up that way.''

If the legal system has an inclination to see the father primarily as the providing parent and the mother primarily as the nurturing parent, how can this preconception be changed to benefit both? James Levine, director of The Fatherhood Project at the Families and Work Institute in New York, sees a modest beginning if the blame game can be curtailed.

``Two decades ago we were blaming working mothers,'' Mr. Levine says. ``Now it's shifting, and we're blaming absent fathers. Blame doesn't solve anything. We have to figure out what are some of the approaches that work.''

In small but encouraging ways, new approaches are being forged. Last month the Hennepin County (Minn.) Bar Association held a luncheon meeting titled, ``What's Dad Got to Do With It?'' Forty family-law attorneys heard three men who work closely with fathers emphasize the need to include fathers and not just mothers in family courts.

Theresa Farrell-Strauss, an assistant Hennepin County attorney who organized the meeting, says much of her practice involves establishing paternity. ``Most of the time we're concerned primarily with the financial issue,'' she says. ``But what we hear from dads all the time is that there's more to being a dad than being a wallet. We don't really talk about that in court very much. There is an important social policy here - that children are better off if they have a dad in their lives as soon as possible after birth.''

To encourage fathers' participation, a Minnesota statute taking effect next year will provide a paternity recognition form for fathers to sign at the birth.

``Get them in the euphoria of the moment,'' says Gary Greenfield, coordinator of a paternity education project. ``Dad will be on the birth certificate, and paternity will never have to be adjudicated again. You don't establish paternity just to get child support but to keep fathers involved in their children's lives.'' Some feel shut out

Other organizations are working at reforming the culture itself, seeking not only to change laws but to educate fathers that they are entitled to participate as parents - and are needed in that role. Anne Mitchell, an attorney in Palo Alto, Calif., is founder and director of a national organization, Fathers' Rights and Equality Exchange. Members, she says, are fathers who recognize their responsibility and their obligation to support their children but feel shut out by mothers and courts.

Yet many fathers in their position are less aware of a fuller and more rewarding role they could play as parent. A study by researchers at Stanford University finds that, as Ms. Mitchell puts it, ``Fathers have bought into this whole thing. They believe that kids belong with their mom. They think, `It's my job to pay. I'm nothing. I'm just a weekend dad.' It just doesn't occur to them that they should still be parenting.''

Mitchell has seen both sides of the court system. As a divorced parent who has ``not received a dime of child support in 10 years,'' she says, ``I am often told that I am a traitor to my sex by being an advocate for fathers. But in terms of custody, time-share, and support, women have a lot of power in family court. It often never occurs to them to be fairer to the father.''

John Davich of Bloomington, Minn., the divorced father of a four-year-old son and an 18-month-old daughter, says, ``In the business world, women have to fight the battle. In the family world, men have to fight the battle. The pressure of the court is really tremendous on the father. I'm strapped a lot. The father's getting squeezed.''

Experts agree that any legal and cultural rearrangement of parental privilege and responsibility will take time. Dr. Griswold cautions: ``Before we rush headlong into talking about the virtues of joint custody, we need to pause and look carefully. Most of the childrearing has been done by the wife. Before we start talking about equality, we need to talk about how daily responsibilities can be arranged.''

In the end, it will not be anger and legal contentiousness that work out a new covenant. The determination of both parents to cooperate as parents for the sake of a child after they have ceased to cooperate as husband and wife or as lovers - this desire is essential, family advocates agree. They add that love of the child, manifested in practical ways of care-giving, has to prevail over all other motives.

Tony Ross of St. Paul is one of many encouraging models emerging. Ever since his two-year-old son, Jamin, was four months old, Mr. Ross has had full physical custody and joint legal custody. While he works full time at his parents' stained-glass studio, Jamin goes to a day-care center.

``I refuse to believe that men can't be the primary care giver,'' says Ross. ``As much difficulty as I've had through the legal system, I'm still for the courts. I never thought about how hard it would be to raise a child alone. I just knew that I love my son. This is what I want to do.''

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