4 May 1999

Fathers: Movement for rights as parents ready to take off

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By DEBORAH MATHIS

Gannett News Service

WASHINGTON – They have not marched through the streets, burned their undergarments or proposed a constitutional amendment recognizing their equality.

They have not even captivated the ever-curious news media, save for a few instances.

But, just beneath the surface, their campaign seems to be growing so fast that it is a question when, not if, it will erupt into a full-scale movement.

They are fathers.

The surging movement has spawned hundreds of organizations and conferences, loads of scholarship and countless Web sites. As an indication of the movement’s growth, men will descend upon San Francisco for an International Fatherhood Conference next month, sponsored by the Ford Foundation, the U.S. Department of Labor, the state of California and other mainstream institutions.

"It may take a while for an actual fatherhood movement to take off, but I think we’re making great strides," said Steve Baskerville, a political science professor at Howard University and, for the past eight months, a fathers rights activist.

Baskerville, 41, says the movement is on two tracks: one, advocating men’s rights, the other promoting preparedness and responsibility in fatherhood.

Baskerville channels most of his admitted outrage into the rights arena, alleging that family courts automatically favor women in divorce and child custody cases. It is, he contends, the impetus behind the movement.

"So many fathers are being hit by this, it’s an epidemic," Baskerville declares. "I think it is more than just gender bias. I think it’s a system of organized crime. It is legalized child-stealing for profit and power."

Like many of his colleagues in the movement, Baskerville was jolted into action by his own divorce.

"The court ordered me to stay away from my children most of the time," Baskerville explains. "I was stripped of all custody rights and decision-making rights under pain of incarceration. I pay about 60 percent of my income to people who took my children. … This is the kind of shake-down rack that these courts are."

As many as 19.5 million American children live apart from their fathers. Four out of 10 do not live with their biological fathers.

"There was a time in the past when fatherlessness was more common than it is today," states sociologist David Popenoe, writing in the Wilson Quarterly. "But death was to blame, not divorce, desertion and out-of-wedlock births."

What fathers do – their special parenting style – is not only highly complementary to what mothers do, but is by all indications, important in its own right," writes Popenoe, who wrote "Disturbing the Nest: Family Change and Decline in Modern Societies" a decade ago.

In a bow to the problem, the Clinton administration launched an initiative in the summer of 1995, ordering all federal agencies to examine their programs and policies "with the purpose of strengthening the role of fathers in families."

The initiative is little known outside men’s activist groups and the upper echelons of federal government.

Regardless of how they approach the problem, special interest groups, researchers and government agencies agree the absence of fathers can be troublesome and long-range. In a 1996 Gallup Poll, 79 percent of respondents agreed that the absence of the father from the home is "the most significant family or social problem facing America."

However, few paint a bleaker picture of fatherless children than the Washington, D.C.-based American Coalition for Fathers and Children, a self-described "growing, national civil rights movement."

According to that organization, children from fatherless homes are five times more likely to commit suicide, 32 times more likely to run away, 20 times more likely to have behavioral disorders, 14 times more likely to commit rape and nine times more likely to drop out of high school.

Compiling statistics from state, federal and academic reports, the ACFC also says children without fathers at home are 10 times more likely to abuse chemical substances, nine times more likely to end up in a state institution and 20 times more likely to be imprisoned than others.

Fourteen states and the District of Columbia now require family court judges to act on the presumption that joint custody is in the child’s best interest.

"People are unaware that fathers are having their children simply stolen…by family courts," Baskerville says.

But, Sheri A. Bekoff, a Michigan lawyer who represents women in divorce and custody cases, says "it’s probably a myth that the courts automatically favor one parent over another" and that other factors are weighed in determining custody

While women have custody in the whopping majority of cases – 85 percent to 90 percent of them – the number of custodial fathers is growing rapidly. Currently, 2.1 million single-parent households with children under 18 are headed by fathers. That’s three times the number 20 years ago.

"It’s the fastest growing household configuration in the country," said Dr. Ken Canfield of the National Center for Fathering in Kansas City, Mo. "The tough thing for judges right now is to get good evaluations of both sides."

"If you’re talking about the idea that a father should take responsibility for the care and upbringing of his children, I think that’s a wonderful idea," Bekoff says. "Sometimes what you find is that when someone is going through a divorce, they realize they have been taking things for granted and, in a way, they become a better parent."

Bekoff says parents seeking custody sometimes use their child "as a pawn" to leverage other demands from their estranged spouse, "knowing that it’s the only way to really get to them."

Some women’s activists are wary of the joint custody trend.

"To impose joint custody on parents in conflict is a frightening proposition for many women and places them and their children in harm’s way," said Gloria Woods, former president of the National Organization for Women’s Michigan chapter.

"My experience with presumptive joint custody as a domestic relations lawyer in Louisiana was almost uniformly negative," said Kim Gandy, of the National Organization for Women, quoted in an essay by Woods.

"It creates an unparalleled opportunity for belligerent former spouses to carry on their personal agendas or vendettas through the children and with the blessing of the courts."

Meanwhile, men’s rights groups say fathers may be accused falsely of sexual or physical abuse or child support violations in order to deny them custody or visitation rights.

Baskerville says Virginia’s Child Support Enforcement Division is pursuing 428,000 fathers for payments.

"This is absurd on the face of it," Baskerville said. "Half a million fathers are turned into criminals."

The federal government inaugurated a nationwide database last fall to help states collect the $50 billion ordered in child support each year. States had been collecting less than one-fourth of the total owed by the 16 million parents required to pay. Most are men.

The other side of the fatherhood movement focuses almost exclusively on increasing men’s involvement and improving their performance as fathers.

The patrons of this effort include religious groups, corporations and social service agencies, who sponsor workshops and support groups for men who want to be better fathers.

Still, Baskerville – hot on the speaker’s circuit these days – believes the militant wing of the fatherhood movement will soon upstage the self-improvement wing.

In late April, he testified at a regional hearing in Virginia, where a task force is looking at gender bias in family courts.

"I think I’ve struck a chord," Baskerville said, "and I think you have a new generation of fathers who are outraged at the way we’re being treated in the courts."

Baskerville noted that the Virginia task force includes 15 women and eight men.

"Some fathers are upset about that ratio," he said.