Divorced British dads push courts for more access to children

Former cabinet secretary's push to see his child highlights a growing father's rights movement.

A British cabinet minister has an illicit love affair and fathers a child. When the news becomes public and it emerges that his private and public lives have become entwined, he resigns.

The recent woes that drove Home Secretary David Blunkett from office last week have a familiar ring. Yet instead of denying his indiscretion and clinging to office like previous errant ministers, Mr. Blunkett did the opposite, broadcasting his liaison and rejoicing in his child. Contact with his toddler, he said, was more important than political prestige.

Almost overnight, Blunkett has become a hero to a burgeoning movement that has dramatically raised its voice: noncustodial dads.

Charging that for too long they have been mistreated by ex-wives as well as the courts, British fathers who are separated from their offspring are starting to clamor for their rights. Over the past two years - often using controversial tactics - they have begun to agitate for laws that reflect more accurately a society where living together and divorce are increasingly common, and more men are shouldering a share of child care.

"Access shouldn't be ... the gift of one parent," says Louisa Cross of the Solicitors Family Law Association. "There should be something put in the law itself that makes it crystal clear on that front." She says offending mothers who prevent innocent fathers from seeing their children should face, for example, community-service orders "to show the courts mean business."

Blunkett's case has neatly encapsulated these activists' concerns: After his affair went awry, the mother of his child refused access. The only way to maintain contact was through the courts - and that meant going public.

"He made the mistake of falling in love with someone, having a child with her, but now ... it's no longer convenient for her to have him in her life," says Matt O'Connor, founder of the advocacy group Fathers4Justice. "So like changing a light bulb, she wants to change the child's father [to her husband]."

Of course, there are many fathers who choose to lose touch with their children, and others who are barred from contact with their children because they pose a threat. And parents of both genders may use the courts to exact revenge on a former partner.

But fathers who legitimately yearn for access to their children argue that the courts have consistently overlooked their interests. The issue has achieved wider resonance through films like "Mrs. Doubtfire," in which a desperate father masquerades as a nanny in order to see his kids, but F4J says the scale of injustice has now reached a tipping point.

The group estimates that 100 British children lose partial or total contact with their fathers every day. About 2 million children , they say, now live separately from their fathers. When a relationship goes wrong, fathers charge, they almost never get custody and are frequently denied court-mandated access.

"There has been a strange alliance between feminists who feel women should have rights to their children, and ... judges who feel that children are women's work and can't see why men should want to get involved anyway," says Jim Parton, a former chairman of Families Need Fathers, a charity.

He says that when his marriage broke down in the early 1990s, generous contact was agreed. But that broke down when his Japanese ex-wife took the child back home. His experience of the courts told him that protest would have been futile. He last saw his son a year ago.

"There is a presumption that a father has to prove himself," says Mr. Parton. "We are constantly up against this accusation that a father doesn't deserve his children. Mothers never get that even if they are hopeless."

But attitudes appear to be changing. Led by F4J, fathers' groups have managed to politicize the issue. Many have deplored their provocative tactics, which have included pelting the prime minister with purple powder in the House of Commons, handcuffing an activist to a government minister, and dispatching another dressed as Batman to a Buckingham Palace balcony.

But the campaign (set to be repeated in the US as the group launches in New York next month) has worked.

Suddenly, there seems to be greater acceptance that troubled youngsters are often the product of broken homes. The opposition Conservatives are already proposing the notion of shared parenting, whereby custody would be split, a practice more common in New Zealand, Australia, and the US.

"Conservatives believe that there should be a strong legal presumption in favor of both parents having equal rights in the upbringing of their children," said leader Michael Howard recently.

The Labour government has responded that 50/50 rights rarely work in practice because of everyone's busy schedules ("children can't just be divvied up like furniture," says one official).

Ms. Cross of the Solicitors Family Law Association agrees, saying that, "50/50 is the wrong way around - it gives conceptual rights to the parent rather than thinking about the child."

But the government is mulling action to give courts greater authority over custodial parents.

Currently, a mother who does not allow her children court-ordered access time with their father can be fined or imprisoned. In practice, this never happens because the child would be the big loser.

"It's rarely used because this would be taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut," says a government spokesman.

Cross says this is one area where legislation is required.

The Blunkett saga has raised another issue that confounds fathers' groups, politicians, and cultural observers. For legal purposes, a British man was until recently considered a dad only if he had fathered a child within wedlock.

This leaves entire classes of fathers in limbo - particularly those who were raising children not their own. As many as one in 10 British children lives with "social fathers" - stepfathers, boyfriends, or men who have raised children who they discover are not their biological offspring.

But F4J's Mr. O'Connor argues that however important the "social father," the biological link will always prove stronger.

"The inescapable fact is that when that child becomes a teenager or adult, they'll want to know who their biological father is, who they are, where they came from, and their history," he says. "You can't encourage children to live a lie, to eradicate the biological father who wants to be involved with his children."

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