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Fathers Have Feelings Too
|by Barbara Lewis|
A British campaigning group - suspended in January following reports linking it to a plan to kidnap the prime minister's youngest son - has played a major role in raising public awareness of a father's right to custody of a child.
For some, its more extremist elements proved the point that mothers care more responsibly. They argue that Fathers 4 Justice distorted the picture by focusing on a small number of cases that do not represent how most are treated. Even detractors, however, have admitted that it brought the issue into the mainstream British media - and on the premise that no publicity is bad publicity, its suspension, like all its other well-publicized activities, has concentrated minds on fathers' as well as mothers' rights.
But the time has come, they say, to focus on quiet, hard work and pressing the government to ensure that its new Children and Adoption Bill, slowly progressing through Parliament, facilitates good relationships between children and both parents.
Women's groups preferred not to be quoted on Fathers 4 Justice; many referred comment to Families Need Fathers, a London-based advocacy group established long before Fathers 4 Justice, but with a very different profile. "Now that the headline-grabbing stunts of Fathers 4 Justice may have stopped, the quiet and effective work that Families Need Fathers does may be better recognized," said John Baker, chairperson of the charity.
Fathers 4 Justice on January 18 announced it was halting activities pending enquiries into the press reports about an alleged plot to kidnap Prime Minister Tony Blair's youngest son as a publicity stunt, but it insisted none of its current members had been involved. In a statement, Fathers 4 Justice said "the group is increasingly having its name 'hijacked' by a growing number of militant extremists".
"After peacefully campaigning for three years to ensure children get to see their fathers, we condemn any individual who planned this appalling outrage, which is anathema to our campaign," said Matt O'Connor, leader of Fathers 4 Justice.
In the past, the group's high-profile activities have included throwing packets of flour at Blair in Britain's House of Commons and scaling Buckingham Palace dressed as Batman.
Years before Fathers 4 Justice burst on to the scene, Families Need Fathers was set up in 1974, marking the beginning of the British campaign to protect fathers' rights. "There must have been earlier opposition to the loss of the old patriarchal rights by fathers, but we are not in that tradition," said Baker. "Our cause is not to restore the rights of fathers who did little actual child care. It is to get recognition of the rights of children to direct care from both their parents, and for this right to be recognized post-separation. We do not use rights as applied to adults, but responsibilities."
Baker argues the too-slow progress towards gender equality created the void in which the most extreme actions of Fathers 4 Justice took root, but stresses that his group's approach is very different. Devoted first to social care and then to lobbying, Families Need Fathers is in the process of delivering comment to the government on the forthcoming Children and Adoption Bill.
The new law proposes sanctions that might be applied if a resident parent defies a court order to allow children to see their non-resident parent, said Baker, adding, "at present this can usually be done with impunity".
"There are also moves afoot to amend the bill to insert a presumption that children be allowed to see both their parents and grandparents unless there are contraindications."
Acknowledging the need for some reform in a consultation document ahead of the draft legislation, the government stated its aim to facilitate "meaningful, ongoing relationships" between both parents and their children, provided the parents do not pose any risk.
It stated that some three million of Britain's 12 million children have experienced the separation of their parents and highlighted the risks to a child's development, especially if a child is drawn into parental conflict.
"Evidence shows that children in this situation are likely to do less well in life. They are more likely to do less well at school, to play truant or to run away from home," said the government consultation document - 'Parental Separation: Children's Needs and Parents' Responsibilities'.
One Parent Families, a London-based support group for single parents, agrees. "In recent years, the focus has been very much on non-resident parents being denied access without any good reason. However, we regularly hear from resident parents who would like the non-resident parents to be more involved. We need a new emphasis on parenting after separation as, in most cases, a joint undertaking, which requires reliable involvement from both parents."
Fortunately, not all the cases are dragged through the courts as, in 90 per cent of them, parents agree on custody without resorting to the law, the government says.
One parent who took issue with what he sees as the courts' bias is pop star and Live Aid founder Bob Geldof, who won a legal battle over access to his three daughters. In a passionate declaration of a father's rights and denunciation of the court system, he wrote a report 'The Real Love that Dare Not Speak its Name: A Sometimes Coherent Rant'.
"Upon separation, the system is slow and delay occurs immediately. This allows the status quo to be established. As the process labors on, it becomes impossible to alter. This is unfair. It is nearly always possible for the resident parent (let's face it, the girl) to establish a pattern. It is then deemed in the child's interest not to break this routine," he wrote.
Former British Home Secretary David Blunkett's struggles to remain in touch with his youngest son turned him into a more unwitting champion of fathers' rights. Blunkett, whose turbulent personal life led to his resigning twice from ministerial office, fought an expensive battle to establish the paternity of his son William with his former married lover Kimberly Quinn, publisher of The Spectator magazine.
He has been quoted as saying of his son: "He will want to know not just that his father actually cared enough about him to sacrifice his career, but he will want to know, I hope, that his mother has some regret."
Two wrongs do not make a right, but feminists might point to the many millions of women have sacrificed their career for a child's sake.
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