Thursday, May 19, 2011

Custody Evaluations

Much has happened in the last two months that has kept me away from this blog...including me finally having read Alec Baldwin's book, A Promise to Ourselves, which left me thinking about more father's rights and finally pushed me to make time for this blog again.

In particular, I'm focused a bit on custody evaluations and what happens during them.

First. if you are about to undergo a custody evaluation...DO NOT RELY ON YOUR LAWYER TO PICK HIM OR HER.

I cannot stress this enough.  While your lawyer can recommend someone to be your evaluator I would highly recommend that you retain the right to agree to who the final choice is...and you are the one who will end up footing the bill for their services...and your lawyer barely knows you so why would you think they can select wisely for you?

Let me tell you part of our story...
Billie J. Bell was the evaluator for my DH's custody case.  The first time we met her it was apparent that she did NOT like my DH.  She was abrupt with her answers and dismissed lots of our questions by telling us to "ask our lawyer."

When we heard we were having a custody evaluation done, DH and I spent the next 2 months gathering documentation from friends and relatives and putting together a binder with photos and medical reports and letters of recommendation and school reports and grades and just about anything else we could think of that might be considered pertinent for determining the custody of a child.

During that first meeting we handed over our precious binder...she opened it up, read the first page, flipped through it quickly, paused at a letter of recommendation from my uncle who was a Representative of the Oregon House of Representatives...took out the page and tossed it aside remarking, "Well, this one is a waste of time...what could a Republican possibly have to say."  Additionally it was very clear to us that the fact that DH was in the military was a giant negative in her eyes.

DH's time with her lasted approximately 1 hour.  She informed us that she would be asking us to disseminate a packet to people who could provide a recommendation and ask them to fill it out.  She wanted all the documentation returned by a certain date.

No problem....the date was still a month away...she told us to take the binder back as she would "never look at it."  and while we were frustrated, DH and I figured we'd just better do things her way.

Now, just so you don't think we were total pushovers...DH did complain to his lawyer about her dismissive and negative attitude toward his personal beliefs, his political beliefs and his job, however our lawyer told us that it wasn't enough to "change" evaluators and ultimately we'd have to file a formal complaint with the state to get anything done about it...

It was too bad we hadn't had a chance to meet her BEFORE we paid her $3000 to dig into our lives and our friend's lives...we never would have agreed to her as the evaluator.

There is more to our personal story and I will finish it later, but let me just stop and focus for a minute about your first meeting with an evaluator.

They have one get the dirt.  They will ask you questions all about your difficult time getting custody, the frustrations of working with your ex to co parent, the time you get to see your kids, etc.

And when you finally have an outlet to tell someone all about the awful things you've endured just trying to receive equal and fair parenting time with your kids...too many of you dads open the floodgates and spill your guts...all the hurt, frustration, anger, sadness comes spilling out.


If you need to spill your guts call a psychic your your best friend...go see a to the not use the evaluator as a way to release that pent up frustration of the unfair shake you are getting as a father.

You can't spill your guts to the evaluator.  You can't speak badly about your ex.  You HAVE to learn to correlate everything back to the children and what is best for them...or you will be picked apart as a bitter, unhappy ex who is just trying to "steal" away the kids to punish their former spouse.

In our almost included anger management classes...which for anyone who knows my DH can laugh right along with me...if there is one man in the world who remains calm under pressure its him, but he made the fatal flaw of assuming that Ms Billie J. Bell was unbiased and impartial and was a friend that would hear him out and understand his pain.

Do not bother with a binder of all the wonderful things about you and your kids...So many websites told us this was a perfect way to introduce ourselves...its not.  In fact, I think it irritated Billie J. Bell that we presumed that she would be interested.  We quickly discovered how important it was to play by HER rules or ELSE.  It was very disheartening...and were I to ever go through it again I would not play the passive role that I played.  I was sure that the courts would be fair.  They aren't.  I was sure that Billie J. Bell was unbiased and impartial.  She was not.  I was sure that it would all work out the way it was supposed to... it didn't. 

How do I know that?  Because 4 years later there we were...
* custodial parents of one child
* siblings separated
* child was moved more than 60 miles from the maternal unit
* father still disciplines the way he see's fit and has never taken those anger management classes recommended by Ms. Billie J. Bell.


And the result?
* child we currently have custody of no longer suffers from all those behavioral and aggressive problems that were blamed on DH's awful parenting by our custody evaluator.

Funny how that works...

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Who's to Judge?

I had a friend send me a link to an article that was about two different mothers who gave up custody of their children in order to pursue other interests and dreams...

I'm having mixed feelings about this.

First - the article is found here... And it starts off with the sentence, "Rahna Reiko Rizzuto says that she never wanted to be a mother."  Then follows up with "...when her sons were 5 and 3..."

Hmmmm...first major problem...If you don't want to be a mother...why are you having children...and not just one child, but two???

But...I don't want to digress into nitpicking this woman apart.  The thing that this article made me really think was also a topic of conversation among my friends and I and centered around this question...

Do you judge mothers who don't have custody of their children?

First, you may be wondering why this is pertinent information for a father's right's blog.  Well, consider the family court climate in our country that we KNOW caters to mothers first...and then consider if a mother who doesn't have custody of her children is criticized and much harder does that make it for you dads to receive equal and fair parenting time...or even full custody of your children...simply because your ex is afraid of the stigma of a mother who "gave up her children?"

Now, I know that you fathers get a bad rap for not sticking around, doing more with the kids, attending every activity, etc.  In fact, the article was terrible, as far as I was concerned.  When I read it I wondered where the author, Lylah M. Alphonse, has been for the past 10 years and if she's EVER known anyone who was divorced that was male and non-custodial.

She actually makes this statement about mothers who choose to not have custody of their children, "But it shines a light on a glaring double standard: When a man chooses not to be a full-time parent, it's acceptable—or, at least, accepted. But when a woman decides to do so, it's abandonment."

Ok...let me jump on my soapbox for just a many of you fathers chose to not be a full-time parent? 


Thats what I thought.  How many of you were even given the option?  Yeah..  Strike one against Laylah. 

Second, in who's world is it "acceptable - or, at least, accepted?"  I'm guessing the same world where fathers just let the judge know they aren't interested in being a parent anymore.  Strike two, Laylah. 

Finally...I think I may have actually laughed when she said for a woman its termed "abandonment."  For you dads we just use the terms dead-beat and loser.  You should thank your lucky stars that its not abandonment (*note sarcasm puhleeeze!)  Strike three, Laylah.

You're OUT.

The unfair glossing over of the issue that fathers aren't even considered as a primary custodian isn't mentioned in the article.  Just the fact that these two women who made the choice to give up custody are some kind of "new breed" of women.  It almost made it seem like we're supposed to pat them on the back for their progressive attitudes and thank our lucky stars there are women out there like this.

And yet, if a father were to make that same statement or decision he is tried and hung without the benefits of a jury or trial. 

I suppose the big picture idea is that once a parent you are always a parent.  Regardless of whether you are custodial or not.  Just deciding one day that taking care of these children you brought into the world isn't what you want to do anymore is about the most selfish thing I've ever heard.

And that goes for mothers OR fathers.

I suppose another lesson is to not judge what you may not understand...but its really hard and we're not especially.

So I have to end with one of my favorite of the 16,135 comments that were left on this article...

"I couldn't finish the article, I got bored with her story just like she got bored with her kids."

Monday, March 7, 2011

Applauding Illinois

Steve Watkins was a divorced father who had custody of his daughter, Alex, from his first marriage.  He met and married his second wife, Jennifer, who gave birth to their daughter, Sidney. 

Jennifer and Steve had a weird relationship.  Mostly because Jennifer Skinner's idea of the perfect marriage was Steven and his daughter Alex in their own home and her and Sidney living in her grandparents home (where her mother and father also live) and they (Jennifer, Steven, Alex and Sidney) could "have dinner a few times per week."

Fifteen months after their marriage, Steve and Jennifer separated and Sidney became the center of a bitter divorce and custody battle.

November 25, 2008 Steve Watkins arrived at the home of Shirley and Kenneth Skinner (Jennifer's grandparents) to pick up his daughter Sidney for his visitation.  He arrived at 5:30PM and 20 minutes later was dead.  Shot twice in the back of the head.

Shirley Skinner has been charged and convicted in the murder of Steve Watkins and is serving a 70-year sentence.  Jennifer Watkins retained custody of Sidney.  Dale and Penny Watkins (Steve's parents) have custody of his oldest daughter Alex and have been awarded visitation priveleges of Sidney.

Well, that was until Jennifer skipped town and disappeared.

On March 1, 2011 an arrest warrant was issued to jail Jennifer Watkins indefinitely until she complies with the visitation awarded to Steve's parents, Dale and Penny Watkins.

On March 2, 2011 the Illinois House Committe passed the Steve Watkins Memorial Bill.

To read a comprehensive story on this case go here.

I suppose the Steve Watkins story is truly the worst case scenario in a custody battle situation.  If you take the time to read the whole story you will be amazed at the truly heinous actions of Jennifer Watkins.  You will shake your head with disgust that this woman has been allowed to retain custody of her daughter.  You will wonder how many thousands of dollars of therapy might help little Sidney when she is old enough to understand the actions her mother and her mother's family took to keep her away from her father.  And you will wonder if the right woman is in jail for the murder of Steve Watkins.

But, there is a bright star in this sad story.  In Illinois if a parent choses to not abide by the court ordered visitation schedule there are two ways to try and enforce the court order.

1.  Criminal Court.  The victim (the person not receiving the visitation) reports the violation to the States Attorney and they prosecute.  The first two violations result in a fine and the third violation makes it a Class A misdemeanor which heresay shows police departments refuse to enforce because they consider it a petty crime.

2.  Civil Court.  The victim files a contempt case against the abuser of the visitation priveleges.  Remedies for visitation abuse are outlined in 750 ILCS 5/607.1 and currently include a modification of the visitation order, supervised visitation, make up visitation, counseling, or other appropriate relief as deemed equitable.

Whats the reality?  Well, I don't think Illinois is more advanced than any other state and I think I can pretty safely say that most of the time it results in N.O.T.H.I.N.G.  Maybe a lecture on being nice from the judge...maybe a slap on the hand...maybe threatened jail time.  But nothing that would deter someone from refusing visitation a second time.

And in a well-stated sentence from Illinois Fathers the end result is, "...This trend of dismissal sends a powerful message that visitation, the primary vehicle for non‐custodial parental involvement with their child, is
insignificant and trivial."

The death of Steve Watkins has resulted in a step forward for non-custodial parents.  Who, for the purposes of this blog are most often fathers.  Now, in addition to modifications, supervised and makeup visitation or counseling, the judges in Illinois can jail a parent, revoke their drivers license, revoke their professional license(s) and increase fines against them.

Its already got many people lamenting its passage.  The inspector general with the Secretary of State doesn't want to have to enforce revoking driver's licenses.  Members of the State bar agree.  And then there are the oppositions that focus on battered women who are just trying to protect their children.

I agree that abusers should have limited or supervised contact with children and I hate to be a cynic, but Jennifer Watkins tried crying abuse to remove Steve Watkins from Sidney's life too.  False allegations are all too common.

I'm applauding Illinois' step forward to enforcing visitation and parenting priveleges.  And when I look at the face of Steve Watkins and his two beautiful daughters... I can't help but feel they did the right thing.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Thumbs up Research

I am constantly keeping my eye out for good solid research on the benefits of shared parenting and recently I found a gem of a paper written by Dr. Linda Nielsen.

Who is Dr. Linda Nielsen, you ask?  Well, she's the Professor of Education and Adolescent Psychology at Wake Forest University and just happens to be one of my new favorite people.

Dr. Nielsen has her very own website, which may not be fancy, but is easily navigated to buy her book, Between Fathers and Daughters, find helpful father friendly links and a great list of articles that she's written such as Demeaning, Demoralizing and Disenfranchising Divorced Dads or one that I'll definitely be digging into soon, Stepmothers:  Why so much stress?

But, the meat and potatoes of this blogpost is to focus on a recent research paper about Shared Parenting. 

Shared Parenting: A Review of the Supportive Research is written, well, like a research paper.  But if you can get past the classroom typeset there is a virtual goldmine of great information.  For example, she talks about the present system of mother's having primary custody which relegates fathers to seeing their children a minimal amount of time.  She makes the statement that by not allotting more time to fathers there is an unstated accusation they they are not committed to their children.

I think its pretty safe to say that is a fairly common assumption made about fathers both by the judes and the legal system and by general consensus after the court days are done and the custody papers are filed.

I found this particular idea about why fathers tend to continue to disengage from their children's lives very interesting, "First, because most fathers are awarded so little parenting time and because the children live almost exclusively with their mother, fathers are seldom able to maintain an authoritative, engaged, intense relationship with their children. Moreover, 35 percent of these fathers have no legal say in how their children are raised.

Being legally disenfranchised and physically marginalized, the father often feels demoted to a “Disneyland Dad”, an adult “playmate” or an “uncle” who can do little or no real fathering.

Then too, the mother’s behavior and attitudes often make the father feel unwelcomed and excluded (DeCuzzi & Lamb, 2004; Trinder, 2008). Indeed, too many mothers move the children such a distance away from the father that his contact is drastically reduced or ends altogether. Feeling discouraged and disheartened, unwanted and unnecessary, many dads realize from the outset that they have little or no chance to be the fathers they once were."

But gets even more interesting when she correlates this disengagement with the father-child relationship and makes quite a bold statement about the worth of a father...

"Even children and young adults who are successful in other areas of their lives often suffer from the loss of their relationship with their father. 

The question thus becomes: Even if the research were to show that shared parenting contributes absolutely nothing to children’s financial, social, educational or psychological well being at any point in their lives (which is not the case), what if shared parenting does contribute to children’s having an ongoing, meaningful relationship with their fathers for the rest of their lives?

Is their relationship in and of itself not worth as much as the other measures of “success” for children of divorce?"**

**Note that the bold is my own addition because I LOVE that question and I want to make sure you now have it rolling around in your mind.

W.O.W.  What a different point of view than our legal system has set as the precedence of determining custody.  Why is a good relationship with your father not more important to the judge and jury determining custody of a child?  Why has that relationship lost its value when thinking about the "best interest of the children?"

(Are you loving Dr. Nielsen as much as I am yet?)

How did our fathers become an afterthought?  Fortunately, Dr. Nielsen shows research that more and more people are agreeing that fathers have an important role to play in a child's life.  Unfortunately, for the purposes of this paper her conclusions are based on a shared parenting strategy where no parent has less than 30% of a child's time.  Thats still a far cry from the 50% I advocate for in this blog, but its a start. 

She continues through her paper to focus on the conflict between parents and concludes with this thought, "In shared parenting there are trade-offs to grapple with: the benefits of living with both parents versus the inconvenience of living in two homes, the challenges of coparenting versus the “winner take all” single parenting.

There are also die-hard beliefs that need to be set to rest: the belief that children will not benefit from living with both parents after divorce, the belief that fathers are generally inferior to mothers as parents, the belief that children only benefit from living with both parents when there is no conflict between them.

Despite these tradeoffs and challenges, the research is abundantly clear on this: only allowing fathers and children to live together 15 or 20 percent of the time is not in most children’s best interests. This view is widely held by experts who do research, mediation or therapy with divorced parents as evidenced by the research presented in abundance throughout this paper. Our society and our legal system can – and must – do better than this."

Hear Hear, Dr. Nielsen!  I applaud your ability to demonstrate the value of a father in today's society.  I only wish we didn't have to convince the courts of their worth.

Friday, February 25, 2011

I'm not the Father

I'm back!  I know you are all thrilled to find me back and ready to spread the good word of equal and fair parenting rights for both mothers and fathers.  My 2-week sabbatical was well spent adoring my soldier during his R&R time while he took a break from Afghanistan.

And now back to our regularly scheduled programming...

I got an interesting "Action Alert" from the American Coalition for Fathers and Children about comedian Carl LaBove.  If you haven't heard his story yet, its all about how he was married, had a child with his wife, got divorced, paid child support but was denied access to his daughter.

That was part 1.

Part 2 starts when Carl LaBove found out he wasn't actually the father of the child, confronted his ex-wife who admitted having an affair with his good friend who is now dead from a tragic accident, had an agreement with his ex-wife that she would drop the child support requirements, she did nothing and let the State of California continue to badger him.

Part 3 finishes off with the aftermath...Carl LaBove now has an adult "daughter" who he barely knows, but still sought him out to hear his side of the story (I love her for that.).  He has had his license, passport and credit all destroyed for the past 2 decades.  The man isn't even allowed to DRIVE.  And finally, he is STILL being hounded to pay more than $188,000 in back child support and fees for a child that isn't his.

You can read the story from Yahoo News here.  Or, if you are more of an NPR kind of person you can read their version here.


This is truly the tragedy of a man finding out that the little girl he was madly in love with and who desperately tried to see her every moment he could, but was continually thwarted by the ex-wife as much as possible (sound familiar?)...

If you want to see a video interview of Carl from the ACFC National Family Law Reform Conference please click here and scroll down to the section titled interviews and click on Carl LaBove's name.  Its pretty interesting to hear how before he knew he was not the father he suffered many of the same frustrations that divorced men have in dealing with an ex-wife who makes it hard to see your child.

I am particularly amazed that the State of California continues to believe that even though it has been proved through a paternity tested that Carl LaBove has a zero percent chance of being this child's father; he should actually continue to pay child support to a woman who cheated on him.  Gee...nothing like twisting the knife once they stick it in you.

Because in order to get this order erased Carl LaBove has to show he was coerced into signing his agreement with his ex-wife.

Now I suppose I should say that Carl is not above a little reproach here...  You kind of want to give him a slap upside the head and say, "What were you thinking?!" He had been told by his ex-wife that he wasn't the child's father, but he never got paternity testing done until now.  His lawyer never suggested it...the divorce from his ex-wife took SIX years (kill me now!) to finally be settled.  Within that six years he discovered he wasn't the child's father...he had a verbal agreement with his ex that he didn't have to pay child support, but he still signed the documents stating he would.


Does this make any sense to you at all?

Carl LaBove is speaking out...and, in fact a week ago went to court to get this ruling of child support overturned.  The actual petition won't be heard until March 29th...

He, like so many others that have come in contact with the family courts, is frustrated and angry at how these courts seem to never listen...never hear the man's side.  In Carl's own words“The day my ex-wife blurted out that Sam had fathered my daughter – that was the day my life changed forever. I was devastated. But after all these years, I’ve learned to forgive. Now I’m just mad at the unjust law. I want to set the record straight and get my life back. I’ve been punished long enough for a crime that was committed in my bedroom. I’ve made it my mission to help others in my situation who are suffering from an unfair law.”

Now, I know this blog is supposed to be about father's rights...but don't you think this just highlights all the problems fathers have in the family court system?  Is it the bad lawyers who don't make the case?  The sneaky ex-wife who just wants to "stick it" to her ex-husband?  The "deaf" judge who automatically assumes the worst of the father and never gives the benefit of the doubt?  The law that doesn't clear a man from a responsibility that should not be his?  Do we go so far as to blame those who don't pay attention and vote for whoever is running for that judicial seat (because nobody really pays attention to who is running until you have to stand before one of them and try and explain your case.)

This feels like one of those moments when I should jump on a soapbox and holler, REFORM!  But I'm not even sure that really makes any sense.  The reality is that until people start to pay attention to the injustice in the family court systems...until people who aren't actually involved in the system start to care about what kind of crazy rulings are being thrown around by elected officials...

Well, until then...none of this is going to change.  

I have many a single mother friend who probably cringes to hear me say what I say.  But, I still ask you to spread the word, dear readers and share your viewpoint. even if it's not the popular one, and maybe we'll see that reform start to happen...    

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Book Review - A Promise to Ourselves: Fatherhood, Divorce, and Family Law

Today's post is a guest book review.  Meaning that I actually have not read this book even though it is on my "to read" list.  Instead, a supportive friend offered to read the book and write down her opinion of it and I jumped at the chance to have 1.  a guest contributor and 2. someone else's opinion.

The book is called A Promise to Ourselves:  Fatherhood, Divorce, and Family Law.  It was written by Alec Baldwin.  In case you aren't familiar with why Alec Baldwin would be writing about this topic, I suggest you read up on his personal struggles with the biased family law court system here

So, without further commentary - Thank you, Janet, for your book review:

A Promise to Ourselves: Fatherhood, Divorce, and Family Law

In A Promise to Ourselves: A Journey Through Fatherhood and Divorce, Alec Baldwin puts a celebrity face on dirty secrets which few know, and even fewer understand, that comprise America's current family law system. Contorted to favor custodial parents--usually women--and structured to perpetuate expensive, legal conflict, the only winners in ongoing custodial wars are the paid professionals associated with the case. The biggest losers are children over which wars are being fought, followed by non-custodial parents. Hopeful non-custodial parents usually enter the family court system, perhaps having heard a whiff of what hell might be coming, confident that decisions are made based on the facts of the case, fairness and what is best for the child. A Promise to Ourselves dispels that naivete and then breaks it all down.

Mr. Baldwin uses anecdotes of his own experience and that of other non-custodial parents--usually men--to expose the systemic dysfunction that allows one parent to hold a child hostage from the child's other parent, often beggaring the non-custodial parent in the process. However, these memoirs are much more than a cathartic exercise. Supported by studies, and an expert interview, Mr. Baldwin goes deeper to address Parental Alienation Syndrome and provide strategic advice to non-custodial parents fighting for their child's fundamental right and developmental need to have healthy relationships with both parents.

It's all spelled out: well-funded legal opponents having no incentive to seek win-win solutions; custodial parents who violate court orders with impunity; courts that do not enforce their own orders or effectively penalize parents that violate orders; courts that do not closely evaluate testimony that is contradictory, reflecting a conflict of interest, or containing an obvious lie when it favors custodial parents; custodial parents that actively alienate their children from their non-custodial parents; parents that rely on false abuse charges as a legal strategy and more.

I recommend this book to anyone, but especially to non-custodial parents who are entering or are currently in the family court system. I couldn't put it down, reading it in a day, because it was so truthful and resonated so well with experiences that are known to me. It contains all of the wisdom that comes from hindsight and is the guidebook that many non-custodial parents wish they had at the beginning of their legal journeys

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Short sabbatical

I apologize for my short sabbatical over the past couple of days.  My husband is home from Afghanistan for 2 weeks and I've been all consumed with his return.

However, I don't want this blog to go totally by the wayside.  So, I am reprinting here an article that was part of what spurred me to start this blog.  I'd be interested to hear your thought on the article.  One of the first comments I received on this when I reprinted it on my Facebook account was from a stepmother married to a man with two daughters.  She made the observation that every father she has come across fighting to see his children knows exactly who and what they are fighting for.

I appreciated the thought.  Why is it that "parents" are lumped together in the family court system.  The reality is that more often than not the father just wants an equal amount of time with his children.  If courts were more fair wouldn't there be less fighting and arguing?  Less appeals for more visitation?  Less casualties in the children?

Fathers continue to fight for more time because they are so poorly represented.  Make the bias disappear and so does so much of the "warring" between parents.       

Childhood Casualties of the Family Courts

By Tracy McVeigh
The Observer

Fathers still have the odds stacked against them when it comes to custody battles in the family court system, but are warring parents forgetting what and who they are fighting for?

When Paul returned home from a six-month tour of duty in Afghanistan, he found his key no longer fitted his front door.

"My wife had changed the locks on the house I was paying the mortgage on, and my kids were inside with her new bloke," he said. "I can't tell you what I felt, trying to make sense of it all. It was a bad dream. She had a lawyer lined up to talk about money and they seemed stunned when I said I wanted contact.

"I had kids because I wanted to be a dad. I am a dad, not a sperm donor."

His little boys were then aged three and 18 months. He hasn't seen them for almost two years and struggles on with his legal battle.

In the past, public sympathy may well have rested with the court, assuming it was doing its best for the children. But now there is growing evidence that family law has spectacularly failed to keep up with the changing role of men within the home and that children are suffering as a result. Judges are accused of stereotyping, making a legal presumption in favour of the mother and awarding meagre access rights to dads.
With the maturing of the "men's movement" into more child-centred lobbying and support groups, and with rising numbers of divorce lawyers moving into mediation work and away from adversarial courtrooms, there is a growing understanding of the raw deal many fathers – and children – have been getting from the secretive British family court system.

This week, the consultation period will close on the family justice review, commissioned in part because of money (the present legal system costs the state more than £800m a year), but also intended to make the process quicker, simpler and fairer.

"Fathers and grandfathers regularly tell us that they do not feel well served by the current system," admits the Ministry of Justice in its introduction to the review, which will be heard by a panel of experts and chaired by pensions watchdog David Norgrove. Final recommendations are due by autumn 2011.

Many professionals, including Resolution, a collective of almost 6,000 lawyers across the country who are committed to nonconfrontational divorce, hope it will usher into law the concept of shared parenting, and back mediation, not courtrooms, as the place to settle disputes over children.

It was in a speech to Families Need Fathers last Sunday that Sir Nicholas Wall, president of the family division of the high court and Britain's most senior family judge, warned that parents harm children by using them as "the battlefield, the ammunition" during divorce proceedings.

Families Need Fathers is at the forefront of a shift in tone in fathers' rights – away from the notorious stunts of Fathers 4 Justice, which involved grown men dressed as superheroes unfurling banners on public monuments, towards a professional lobbying approach, deploying reasoned argument and concern for the child.
A measure of its mainstream status is that David Blunkett and novelist Louis de Bernières are among the group's patrons.

"He [Wall] was bang on the button," said Liz Edwards, vice-chair of Resolution, who as well as being a family lawyer is a trained mediator who favours a "round the kitchen table" approach for couples who are splitting up. "We find you can stop the process becoming a huge conflict if you give people information," she said. "They won't even talk about custody and courts. They will be focusing on the children. Mediation can take the heat out of a time when people are in a lot of pain, make people see they need to focus on the child.
"A lot of people cannot afford to litigate over children and end up having to sort things out all by themselves and do it well. Very wealthy people who have nothing to lose financially go through all their issues in the courts.

"Ultimately, it's the children who will look at their parents and the job they did and they can be very critical. Parents have to realise that what they are doing at this point may well decide their future relationship with their children."

She said it was impossible to ignore the part that fathers' pressure groups had played in highlighting issues previously hidden behind the secretive doors of the family courts.

"Fathers being more involved has brought new problems. Some children now have to live with parental conflict, instead of living with the sense of rejection that came when the father walked away.

"We have to decide what we want for our children. Mediation is not about rights as much as responsibilities to the children. It's asking people, 'can you put your children first?' "

The government estimates that one in four children has separated or divorced parents. Despite all the evidence that children thrive best when they enjoy the support and love of two parents, only about 11% of children from broken homes will go on to spend equal amounts of time with each parent.

A significant number of fathers, some estimate as many as 40%, will within two years of the split lose all contact with their children. Previously this had been seen as a sign of male fecklessness, but now it is also being recognised that dads are being pushed away, not only by the residual conflict with ex-partners, but also by a legal system that works against them maintaining relationships with their children.

"A lot of our members are not men with great careers but ordinary men who go out to work in order to bring home money for their families. When they lose that family, everything breaks down for them. We have had five suicides so far this year," said Mike Kelly, spokesman for Real Fathers For Justice, distinct from Fathers 4 Justice.

"It was seen as comical and that wasn't the message we wanted out there. Fathers and grandparents were suffering. It had been an in-your-face campaign, but it was time to move on and reflect the seriousness of the issue that was seeing us getting suicidal phone calls from fathers in a spiral of depression that they couldn't see a way out of."

At the time, he says, "there was no political will to stop the gravy train running", but the group had helped to shine a "public light" into the family courts. "But we can't take credit until change has happened, and judges are vastly behind the times and parents are being forced in front of them like criminals. All they've done is fall out of love. One isn't guilty and the other innocent."

Ian Julian, 49, is one of the tiny percentage of fathers in the UK to have won a shared residency court order for his son, now aged 16. But that was pared away into alternate weekends when his ex-wife sent their son to boarding school against Julian's wishes. He has had to move four times to follow the house moves of his former wife.

"When I first went to a lawyer, she told me I had no chance of anything, but I was prepared to go to 100 lawyers to find one who would take my case," he said.

Julian now works as a "McKenzie friend", someone who gives moral support in court to a litigant who can't afford legal representation, and is a trustee of Families Need Fathers.

"I've heard a judge call a man 'possessive' for wanting more than two hours a week, and others make 'no contact' orders on hearsay evidence," he said. "I've known mothers taken back to court for ignoring contact orders, but nothing is done. Bad behaviour isn't just tolerated, it's encouraged. Some of the judges I have sat in front of have traditional values along the lines of a woman's place being in the home. But it's not the experience of the average British family and a father seeing a child once every two weeks isn't a meaningful relationship."

For modern fathers, expecting and expected to be far more involved with childcare than perhaps their own fathers were, it can come as an enormous shock when they hit a legal system running on a whole different set of presumptions.

"One weekend in a fortnight is what's commonly awarded and it's not a meaningful time," said Adrienne Burgess, director of research at the Fatherhood Institute. "It allows fathers to drift out of their children's lives. If we want to keep men in children's lives we might have to work a lot harder. High-quality relationships with their mother and their father is what is successful for children after separation. Having one without the other doesn't help them much."

But Burgess makes the point that shared parenting requires more than just more enlightened judges. "It's interesting that in the past 30 years, men's involvement with their children has gone up 800-fold, but there are fewer father-headed lone-parent families than ever as it's overwhelmingly mums who get the children.
"The courts may prioritise mothers to a ridiculous extent, but it's also going to be hard for us women to give up. True shared parenting means not getting your own way, which is tough. When the child might not run to you first at the school gate, that's hard," said Burgess.

Without doubt the present system seems to be serving no one very well and certainly not men like Paul. He received an up-to-date photograph of his children a few months ago, posted anonymously. "I'd like to think it was my wife," he said. "She knows we both love them like nobody else ever can."



Sir Bob Geldof who had a protracted custody battle with his ex-wife, the late Paula Yates
"There's this emptiness, this utter loneliness, and you ask, What have I done? Why has this happened? The despair of going to the door that was your home, the door to this thing that locked away the crap of the world and having to knock and hearing their laughter inside... And this life that was yours a week ago. That is their home, your home, this is your family, and now you have to knock and ask can you come in. And when you're with your children, it's not like, 'Great, I've got three hours with my children', it's 'There's a second gone, there's another second gone' – and all the time it's the going, it's not the being-with. This is the thing that destroys people."

Author Louis de Bernières after his partner Cathy Gill left taking the couple's two children, Robin, five, and Sophie, two
"It was really dreadful. The worst thing, practically, was finding the house so quiet because it was always so full of laughter and rampaging and stampeding. The emotional desolation is hard to describe. There were many times when I felt suicidal."

Writer Tim Lott
"Parting from my wife, Sarina, and children Ruby and Cissy in 1999, left me with too many agonising memories to count. The lonely weekends in the parks alone with other sad single dads. The lies I told my children in order to reassure them – 'Isn't it wonderful – you're going to have two homes instead of just one'. The memory that sticks in my mind is of Ruby, then seven years old, running after my car screaming for me to come back after my designated weekend was over. That image – of her running down the street after me, as I stared at her diminishing image in my rear-view mirror – still replays in my head."

Writer William Leith, who is now back with his partner
"I remember the weekends. Going to pick my son up on a Saturday morning. I remember walking down the drive of the house where my son lived, where my ex lived, where I had lived. The anxious moments on the doorstep. The sudden, terrifying thought that I might have come at the wrong time, or on the wrong day.
"My son! There was always a rush of emotion, a balloon expanding in my chest. As a father, when you are separated from your child, you feel vulnerable, even if you see him a lot. It's the separation. It's the sense of not belonging.
"You stand on the doorstep, and you hear your son's voice, and you feel two things, the tremendous rush of love for your son existing inside the hollow pang of separation."