Access Denied

In the he-said, she-said world of child visitation disputes, dads like Doug Watkins say fathers have no rights

Worried that gender bias in the courtroom was now favoring men, the National Organization for Women (NOW) issued an "Action Alert on Fathers' Rights" to its state and local chapters in 1996. "These [fathers'] groups are fulfilling their objectives forming political alliances with conservative Republicans by working for the adoption of legislation such as the presumption of joint custody," NOW warned. "The success of these groups will be harmful to all women but especially harmful to battered women and children."

This "action alert" came too late in Texas, because the Legislature had already amended its joint custody statute in 1995, due in part to the efforts of the Texas Father's Alliance, a statewide political action committee headed by Dave Shelton. The change leveled the playing field for both parents, mandating that Texas family courts presume that joint legal custody was in the best interest of the child unless the facts showed otherwise.

Even though Ted and Holly agreed to settle their case and become joint custodians over their son, it was an unmanageable arrangement at best: First, Holly moved from Fort Worth to Indiana before their son was born, and second, "she hated my guts," he says, partly because he had sued her for custody. The belligerent letters he wrote her about his legal strategy--"you'll never get a dime out of me"--didn't exactly help the couple's chances of becoming successful co-parents. Although there were never any allegations that Ted had physically abused Holly, she would later contend that Ted was harassing her through the legal system as he began to immerse himself in family law.

As president of the Texas Fathers Alliance, Dave Shelton lobbies the Legislature promoting the issue of fathers' rights. He is pictured here with his grandson.
Mark Graham
As president of the Texas Fathers Alliance, Dave Shelton lobbies the Legislature promoting the issue of fathers' rights. He is pictured here with his grandson.
If women's rights or fathers' rights groups hope to pass family law in Texas, they must receive the blessing of state Representative Toby Goodman, the powerful chairman of the house committee that deals with juvenile and family issues.
John Anderson
If women's rights or fathers' rights groups hope to pass family law in Texas, they must receive the blessing of state Representative Toby Goodman, the powerful chairman of the house committee that deals with juvenile and family issues.

Ted says if not for Texas Fathers for Equal Rights, he doesn't know how he would have survived the tumult of his divorce. It offered him a kind of legal group therapy: lessons in do-it-yourself divorces that at times have gotten the organization in trouble with the State Bar grievance committee.

Certainly there were men in the group who had soured on women completely, men who thought their ex-wives were living the good life with their new boyfriends on their child support payments, men who were willing to leverage their fatherhood to get those payments reduced. But many of these men, Ted claims, were just like him, finding visitation with their kids difficult, or worse, flat-out denied by their ex-wives. The few noncustodial moms who were part of the group also complained about the same visitation problems--problems that, according to the most reliable divorce studies, affect 20 to 25 percent of all noncustodial parents.

Ted's position was particularly precarious: Because his son was both an infant and living in Indiana, he had to rely on his ex-wife to see his son. In Indiana, she filed a protective order against Ted, claiming he was harassing her by phoning too often. ("I was just trying to schedule a visit," he insists.)

His frustration with the judicial system led to his activism, and after he moved to Houston in 1996, he became a legislative liaison for Texas Fathers for Equal Rights. His mentor was Shelton, and together with several other fathers' rights activists, they began to lobby the Legislature for the '97 session.

As always, the issue of visitation compliance was high on their agenda. They argued that the civil remedy of placing custodial parents (read: moms) in jail for contempt of court was ineffective: too costly (attorneys' fees could easily top $3,000), too slow (months of delays were routine), too unjust (moms were generally let off the hook with a stern warning).What noncustodial parents needed, they contended, was a criminal sanction to deter wayward custodians from this type of meddling. That it might be viewed as vengeful by their children and ultimately harm their relationship with Dad seemed of less concern.

Fathers' rights activists thought the Legislature had made it a crime to thwart visitation in 1993, when it amended the statute that made it a felony to interfere with child custody. But the statute was so vague that if prosecutors or the police didn't want to get involved in visitation disputes, they could hide behind its uncertainty.

Hulick and Shelton lobbied for a bill that would authorize the police to issue a traffic ticket for violations of visitation orders. "There is no arrest, just a ticket--a Class C misdemeanor," Hulick recalls, "which would at least make a record that a violation has occurred." Naïvely, he thought the bill would sail through the Legislature, but he didn't anticipate the fierce opposition the bill would encounter from domestic-violence and other women's groups.

"Individuals who have perpetrated family violence very often try to exercise control of their former victims through the visitation process," says public policy director Bree Buchanan of the Texas Council of Family Violence, which advocates on behalf of 68 women's shelters across the state. And what better way to perpetuate that control than with the additional threat of police involvement.

Hulick and Shelton were successful in getting two bills sponsored and passed: one that allowed judges to give aggrieved noncustodial parents makeup visitation, the other authorizing judges to extend standard Wednesday-night visitation from two hours to a full overnight stay. But state Senator Rodney Ellis, the Houston Democrat who sponsored the ticketing bill, let it die a slow death in his committee.

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