From Hawke’s Bay Today
April 16, 2005
We hear about them all the time – solo mothers struggling to raise children alone after fathers walk out of a marriage and abandon their families. But what about the dads who want to be there but aren’t allowed? EVA BRADLEY exposes the dark side of divorce, custody and the forgotten fathers.
James is a typical middle-aged bachelor: unmarried, childless – at least that’s what his workmates think. In reality he is living a double life. As he makes his way to the office in Hastings, his three children, somewhere else in New Zealand, are getting ready for school, brushing their teeth, packing their lunches. When he sits down beside the Christmas tree and watches his nephews and nieces unwrapping presents, somewhere his own young family are exchanging gifts of their own. But none from him. What would be the point? For years he sent them only to hear from friends they were never passed on by the children’s mother.
It is the dark side of divorce. After the rows, the bitter custody battles, after constant attempts to take children out according to visitation entitlements have failed, the dust settles and the parent who misses out must start a new life alone.
In most cases, it is the father. In New Zealand and elsewhere, mothers are most often considered the primary caregiver and are given interim custody after a separation until fairer arrangements can be made.
But many fathers are discovering that “fairness” is a relative term and in Hawke’s Bay, a new organisation, The Union of Fathers, has been established to fight what they see as an inherent bias toward mothers seeking custody.
Thrust into the limelight against his will, Waiohiki cartage contractor Paul Wheatley has found himself heading the group after a messy separation 2 1/2 years ago left him battling the legal system, along with his wife.
Although he has access to his boys every second weekend, the prospect of a lifetime spent saying good morning to a photograph of them, instead of the real thing, has prompted him to fight for change.
“One thing that we all agree on is that we know that the system, as it is, doesn’t work and standing alone doesn’t work. “As in individual in Hawke’s Bay, you can’t fight alone. I know a lot of guys who give up because the wallet has dried up and they’ve given up hope.”
James, not his real name, is a classic example. The last time he saw his children was six years ago. You’d like to think that any dad who gives two hoots for his children would never throw in the towel, but he’s a beaten man and even if he still had money left over after weekly child-support payments to track his children down and re-ignite the battle for access, he doesn’t believe the legal system would back him.
“It’s a total farce. I have no faith in the courts and I would not want to venture into them again unless something changed.”
Awarded fortnightly access, plus holidays, James tried repeatedly to take his children out but the excuses from his wife were different every time.
After $15,000 and countless court orders, his only option was to call the police and force his wife to hand over the children. “I called them a number of times but they don’t want to get involved in domestic disputes and besides, I didn’t want to put my kids through that.”
In England, a landmark decision recently saw a mother who continually flouted custody court orders, jailed for three months. But it’s not the solution James would seek against his children’s mother, so what would be?
“I just try not to think about it,” James says.
“ They’ve moved now. The schools quote the Privacy Act whenever I call to see if my kids are enrolled there. They’re not listed in the phonebook. “To say I’m devastated is an understatement and unless you walk a mile in my shoes you’ll never know how I feel at birthdays and at Christmas.”
If he had his time again, the Union of Fathers might have given him the guts to carry on – or at least the legal nous to ditch an expensive lawyer and fight on.
National spokesman Darrell Carlin helped set up the group about the same time James surrendered his hopes of fatherhood. His own experience fighting for custody has convinced him that the family court is not giving men a fair deal.
“I talk to guys who warned me not to go near the family court. It’s not a place for men to go, unless they want screwed over.
“But, as a New Zealander, I was just expecting a process that would be reasonable and fair. Instead I was bowled over by how badly they treated you, from the front desk right through to the court room. It’s like you’re the enemy.”
Family law specialist John Donkin, of Napier Law, believes that, in theory, the system is not biased but in reality, mothers have a natural advantage over fathers because they are traditionally the child-
rearers. “I would say statistically you are on the back foot but, having said that, there are some very good fathers who have the primary care of their children and it’s a mistake to think that just because you’re a woman you will have the advantage.”
On the contrary, increasingly policy-makers are coming to recognise the importance of fatherhood and to promote its continuation through the legal system.
Ministry of Social Development research makes frequent reference to US studies that indicate disruptions in parent/child relationships appear to have the greatest potential to affect children negatively following divorce. Behavioural disorders, depression and low self-
esteem in children can all be traced to the breakdown of the family home.
But intermittent access by fathers also has its pitfalls with dads often indulging children, taking them to movies and restaurants which bring short-term happiness but don’t allow authoritative practices such as helping with homework or discussing personal problems. In addition, non-
resident fathers are frequently permissive and indulgent, not wanting to set firm rules that could stretch an already tenuous relationship.
As a remedy for these problems, the union is pushing for equal shared custody as a given when couples first separate. In Australia a bill to introduce this is already under way.
To enact such change in New Zealand means altering the social fabric that has always recognised the mother as the parent most involved with child-
rearing. “Sociologically through the 60s and 70s, women fought to work in traditional male roles,” explains Darrell Carlin. “That fight has largely been fought but now the flipside is happening and men are arguing for the right to be fully involved with their children. There just needs to be balance.”
The Care of Children Bill being introduced later this year aims to make the welfare and best interests of children paramount and recognise fathers as caregivers, provided they have lived with the mother at some stage during conception and birth.
But it is the extension of parenting rights to near-
relatives, including grandparents and even the partner of a parent, that further complicates custody issues according to the union, who want to keep the law as simple as possible. Just Mum and Dad only, thanks.
Hastings father Karl, who is happy to have his full name published but cannot talk about his experiences in the family court if he does, is six months into a permanent separation and is waiting for a court date to begin what he expects to be a long, expensive and painful battle, first for access and then for custody of his children, aged three, 10 and 11.
“My wife has made it clear through her lawyers that she’s going the whole hog.”
With $3000 each month already committed to paying child support and the mortgage on the family home where he no longer lives, he has had to surrender his own lawyer and defend himself. He’s pragmatic about the way he feels the law favours mothers but is frightened for himself and the children all the same.
“I can see the intent of the law is there – to protect against extremes and the minority out there that are a danger, and the men who don’t want to see their children. “What it doesn’t do is protect children from psychological abuse.”
In the past six months he has watched as his children become increasingly negative toward him, his three-year-old daughter even declaring her “hate” toward his new partner and her young daughter. “Those aren’t the words of a three-year-old, they’ve come from somewhere else.
“When my wife realised I wasn’t going back, it seemed things changed. Within days I was accused of child-abuse and so was my new partner.”
Karl pauses and looks into his lap. Watching a grown man cry is never easy but as his partner comforts him it becomes clear she is used to this sight.
“It’s hard because he was the kind, caring, cuddly sort of dad that was always doing stuff with the kids,” she explains.
Now it’s just an hour here and there with the kids on Christmas day and birthdays.
“You know that if you don’t get back in time you’ll have the police on the doorstep,” says Karl. “I can see why many men back off because they see it as being the best thing for the children.
“I’m torn in a number of ways because I think I’ve done this to my children because I left and do I stay away to cause less damage or fight so my kids know how much I love them?”
When faced with such impossible decisions, some men give up on themselves as well as their children and commit suicide. James admits such a final solution has occurred to him time and again and it is only the thought that one day his children may seek him out that keeps him alive. “It’s done a lot of damage to me and I just hope that one day they will want to come and see me but even then, nothing will replace all those years that I’ll have missed in between.”