I’ve been witness to a movement that could lead to a reform of laws to give fathers equal footing on legal ground in child custody cases in our state.
The movement will usher in Father’s Day with the N.C. Fatherless Day Rally, which is set to take center stage on June 13 at the state Legislative Building in downtown Raleigh, in tandem with similar rallies nationwide.
“Our families and our country and our culture have changed from decade to decade to decade,” said parent and child advocate Geoffrey Hurlburt, a father of two who has shared custody. “The law and the judiciary system have not kept pace with the changes in our families and our culture over the years. The courts are behind the times.”
athers, as well as paternal grandmothers, stepmothers, aunts and uncles, and others, will make their voices heard during the rally.
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The travesty of justice, they’ll say, is a family court system with laws that bleed into a multitude of corners, from courts and judges to attorneys, social workers and therapists. The result is a system that automatically favors women and mothers; pits parents against parents and ultimately drains law-abiding fathers of everything from retirement to education funds that end up boosting state coffers with federal dollars. It’s a system that enshrines the bitterness of failed relationships and robs fathers and children of access to one another.
It’s a sticky subject, I know. Before I could finish my own reporting, the “grapevine,” as one e-mailer described it, was wiggling with words of caution about what to believe and what not to believe. It’s a story with diverse dynamics, for sure; and it certainly deserves more space than this, so I’m glad to offer some balance.
“A lot of men are legitimately mistreated by the courts, but that’s not always the case,” said Caroline Paul, 23, the mother of a 5-month-old who finished her pregnancy and her engineering degree at N.C. State. She said she fears an abusive ex-boyfriend who now has joined a father’s rights organization. “I’m afraid they’re giving abusive people credibility, unknowingly, and being used as a safe haven.”
There’s no denying concerns are legitimate. In September, Derek Walker, 26, of Durham, committed suicide by cop after indicating he was hopeless after a custody battle. Just last week, a murder-suicide in a Winston-Salem maternity-ward left a mother of three dead at the hand of an abusive father who said the mother was “trying to take my rights away.”
There’s more to consider. The National Fatherhood Initiative reports 24 million – 1 in 3 – children in America are growing up fatherless, while census and child well-being statistics show fatherlessness factors into the social ills of poverty, crime, incarceration, teen pregnancy, abuse, obesity, school failure, and addiction.
The Fatherless Day Rally is being spearheaded by Dustin Long, a father with joint custody of two children, ages 11 and 8, who said he’s spent years and close to $25,000 in and out of court, fighting for his children and against claims filed by the children’s mother.
“I have never heard a father’s rights advocate ask for anything other than equal parenting time,” said Long, of Hiddenite, who follows N.C. Fathers, an advocacy blog. “We realize kids need both parents. Otherwise, it’s child abuse in our eyes.”
Long said the rally could be followed by a lawsuit, citing a federal racketeering lawsuit filed in California by a parents’ rights group, claiming extortion, bribery and abuse of office.
Hurlburt said Long is only the third person in the state to gain permits for a father’s rights rally.
Through some of my husband’s work, I’ve come up close to the efforts of two Raleigh-based organizations tackling the issue, too; each from opposite ends.
Fathers Forever, the brainchild of Glen Warren, a retired social worker and divorced, single father of three now-adult children who relied on child support to make ends meet, rescues fathers on the brink of jail time for failing to pay child support for their own children. Since its inception in 2010, more than 300 fathers “sentenced” via Wake County court-order to Fathers Forever have completed the organization’s 24-week education program, “The Joys and Responsibilities of Fatherhood.”
Milton McCoy’s Every Father Counts is working to address laws that allow parental alienation, impede a father’s access to his children. The group aims to propose laws that would alter how custody decisions are made and jail parents who block visitation.
“It’s the start of what I think is a very important conversation,” McCoy said of the rally. “We watch news reports about water contamination, teachers and education. It’s time to have a serious conversation about parenthood and the future of North Carolinians, our youth.”