By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
But in the he-said, she-said world of visitation disputes, where the truth is regularly embellished and perjury is often a matter of perception, placing a custodial parent (mostly mothers) in jail for denying the noncustodial parent (mostly fathers) visitation is something politicians, prosecutors and judges are all loath to do. Divorce is messy business: Feelings run high; there is plenty of blame to go around and never enough money. The paralyzing fear of losing a relationship with a child can bring out the worst flaws in a parent's character. Violence may erupt during a visitation, as it did so tragically last week, when John Battaglia, a Dallas accountant, allegedly murdered his two young daughters after he argued with his ex-wife on the telephone. Yet absent access, the relationship between parent and child can be irreparably damaged. Complicate this with a parent who is hell-bent on destroying an ex's relationship with his or her children, and the courts must intervene quickly. Only they don't.
Doug Watkins has never been accused of physically abusing his children in any way, though they have clearly become his obsession. To see them, he has driven thousands of miles and made so many phone calls to his ex-wife it must seem as though he is harassing her. A reserved man, he leads a colorless life, isolating himself out of fear that his behavior might be misinterpreted in court. Unlike those fathers who have turned their personal pain into a public crusade, he isn't interested in the issues surrounding gender politics or equal justice. He just wants to see his kids.
Although Ted Hulick's marriage ended after only a year, the bitterness his divorce engendered may last a lifetime. That he and his wife Holly didn't know each other well but got married anyway seemed a forgivable mistake. What was unforgivable, at least to Ted, was that only four months into their marriage, Holly became pregnant, consulted a divorce attorney and interviewed for a medical internship in Indianapolis instead of Fort Worth, where they lived. (Holly, through her lawyer, declined to comment for this story.)
It didn't help matters that Ted sued for custody of their son within weeks of his birth. Or that Holly agreed to give up all child support payments if Ted agreed to terminate his parental rights. The message he gleaned from Holly's offer scared the hell out of him: I value you so little as a father, I will let you buy your way out. "That told me all I needed to know about my chances at getting to see my son," he says. "That's when I got involved in Fathers for Equal Rights."
Since its inception in the early '70s, the fathers' rights movement has been cast by its natural enemy, the women's movement, as a paragon of political incorrectness, a financial obstacle to women claiming their rightful place in the workforce. To them, this pack of radical crusaders seems interested in only one thing: dodging child support payments. And if that meant feigning a fight for custody in order to gain some strategic advantage in child support negotiations, they were willing to stoop just that low.
Dave Shelton, former executive director of the Dallas branch of Texas Fathers for Equal Rights, believes this reputation is mostly undeserved. "The beginning of the father's movement was a response to the women's movement," Shelton says. "As moms started going to work in the '60s, dads were forced to start helping more with their children. And you know what? They liked it."
With divorce growing rampant by the late '70s, some men felt the courts were relegating them to the role of Uncle Dad, a visitor who takes his kids to McDonald's twice a month and forfeits his status as a parent. Those fathers who decided to fight for custody were confronted, at times, with a prejudice that presumed Mom was the best parent simply because she was Mom. "That's when our numbers started growing," Shelton says, "and the fathers' rights movement began to confront bias in the courthouse."
It didn't help their reputation when Shelton and his ilk protested regularly in front of the Dallas County Courthouse, calling family court judges "bigots and child killers." Or when they openly confronted an ACES (Association for Children for Enforcement of Support) candlelight vigil or called its Dallas leader, Linda Benson, "the High Priestess of the Meal-Ticket Mamas" because the organization supported an increase in child support in the '93 legislative session.
Texas Fathers for Equal Rights only became a viable political force after it went indoors and began to lobby judges and legislators, demonstrating with studies and testimonials rather than placards and name-calling. Armed with the latest research, they insisted that children of divorce were more likely to thrive when they had loving relationships with both parents. Fathers weren't just a biological imperative; they were necessary for the well-being of their kids.
"Fathers for Equal Rights felt they needed to hit us over the head with these facts, which gave them the appearance of having a militaristic attitude," recalls Dallas family court Judge Dee Miller. "When they began soft-pedaling, we became more responsive."