Access Denied

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

Undaunted, Hulick returned to the '99 Legislature with another ticketing bill, a dressed-down version of its earlier self, which authorized only a $50 fine for a visitation infraction. The bill passed the full Senate, but it needed the support of state Representative Toby Goodman, the powerful chairman of the house committee that considers family issues. Hulick approached Goodman's chief of staff Peg Henley, who Hulick says "has absolutely no sympathy for fathers' issues and is closely tied in with women's groups." Although Shelton had better luck meeting with Goodman, Hulick believed Henley was preventing him from lobbying her boss.

"To say that she screens people [prevents them from seeing Goodman] is an insult to Toby Goodman," Buchanan says. "Yes, we [domestic violence groups] can certainly talk to her about our concerns, but her only allegiance is to Chairman Goodman."

Although Goodman has supported some fathers' rights legislation, including joint custody, he bagged the ticketing bill and never let it out of his committee. That's why Hulick was shocked this session when Goodman sponsored legislation that would unequivocally make it a felony for a custodial parent to deprive the noncustodial parent of access to his or her child.

Doug Watkins claims that his ex-wife has interfered with his visitation rights and alienated him from his children.
Doug Watkins claims that his ex-wife has interfered with his visitation rights and alienated him from his children.
During much of their 13-year-marriage, Doug Watkins (seated right) claims that his wife, Kandee (seated left), tried to put their kids in the middle of their arguments.
During much of their 13-year-marriage, Doug Watkins (seated right) claims that his wife, Kandee (seated left), tried to put their kids in the middle of their arguments.

The problem was, Goodman didn't know exactly what he was sponsoring. "The bill came out of the Department of Public Safety, which wanted help with missing children who are kidnapped by their parents," Goodman explains. "But it went way too far." Goodman never intended it as fathers' rights legislation. "If we criminalize every technical violation of a visitation order, the number of cases would explode...I don't want DA's offices in the possession enforcement business."

That Hulick offered a much narrower version of the bill didn't matter. Once Goodman began to hear from prosecutors and domestic-violence groups, he left both bills pending in his committee, where they remain today. Again, Hulick underestimated the resistance. Armed with research that suggests that fathers who have joint custody or visitation are twice as likely to pay full or partial child support as those who have no relationship with their children, he thought they could mollify women's organizations. He was wrong.

"The real problem isn't fathers who can't see their children; it's fathers who won't see their children," says Linda Benson of the Dallas ACES. "True denial of visitation is really a minor problem. Fathers' groups blow it way out of proportion."

Doug Watkins' only savior was his divorce decree, which he followed as though it were divinely inspired. Every other Friday, during what he calls "ritual Fridays," Doug and his friends waited for his ex-wife to bring their children to Denton, in accordance with the court's order. He planned dinner, went grocery shopping and rented a weekend's worth of videos, knowing that 6 p.m. would come and go and she probably wouldn't show. His friends then signed affidavits, swearing to the non-event and giving him proof he could use in court.

"This piece of paper is the only thing that tells me I can see my kids," he says, holding up the decree. "If it's worthless, why have I spent so much time and energy getting someone to enforce it?"

He must have known that enforcement wouldn't be easy where his ex-wife was concerned. Throughout much of their 13-year marriage, he says, she put their three kids in the middle of their marital problems, and he claims she divided their loyalties by insisting Doug didn't love them the way she did.

After they separated in October 1999, Kandee packed up the kids and drove to Bryan in the only working car they owned. Doug needed the car for work and brought it back to Denton without Kandee's knowledge. "When Kandee found out, she went on a tirade," says Doug's sister Tonya Dixon. "She brought the kids [Jeffrey and Jana] over to my house and said to me, 'Tell my kids why their father loves his car more than he loves them--they want to know.'"

Doug claims that Kandee had the use of a second car at her parents' home. His kids, however, didn't see it that way: "Dear Dad, I love you. Thanks for stealing the car!!!" Jana wrote him. "You're are a bad boy." Her postscript included the line: "Mom is not telling me to say this." So did Justin's, who also wrote, "I am disgusted with you...if the car is more important than us, keep it."

Doug aggravated matters just two months after his separation when he began dating a divorced neighbor who was more Kandee's friend than his. In April 2000, after Doug and his kids went on an Easter egg hunt with the neighbor and her kids, Kandee stormed into his home, Doug claims, and hurried their crying children out the door. "I remember her telling Jana she would never see her daddy again," Doug says.

On May 19, Doug was entitled to a weekend visit, or so the temporary court orders stated. Parked outside his house, Kandee phoned the Denton County Sheriff's Department, telling a deputy who arrived at the scene that her kids were afraid to go inside. Doug says that just 20 minutes earlier, he had seen his children at a nearby 7-Eleven parking lot, and they seemed fine. But according to a police report, "Ms. Watkins stated her children had told her that Mr. Watkins and his girlfriend are always drunk, Mr. Watkins' girlfriend called Jana Watkins a cunt and a slut and calls Jeffrey Watkins a son of a bitch and a motherfucker." The deputy also reported that the children were crying, were frightened and "confirmed the allegations made by Ms. Watkins," which both the neighbor woman and Doug would later deny, but not before the deputy arrested Doug for some unpaid traffic tickets and put him in jail. There would be no court-ordered visitation that weekend.

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