Massachusetts Fathers Fighting Custody Injustice or a Phantom Menace?

Filed under: Divorce & Custody, In The News, Single Parenting

Brian Ayers, who has a child with his ex-girlfriend, is paying child support and fighting in court to get more time with his 14-month-old son. Credit: Nancy Palmieri

Many men across the country -- across the globe, really -- are fighting what they argue is a bias in child custody cases toward women.

One of the latest battlegrounds for this conflict is Massachusetts where activists are pushing a bill before the state Legislature that would force courts in custody cases to start with the presumption that both mothers and fathers deserve equal time with their children.

Critics argue the bill is unnecessary -- that fathers are tilting at imaginary windmills -- and they warn children could get skewered in the process.

Brian Ayers of Brookfield, Mass., is among the activist dads behind the bill. The Boston Globe reports his former girlfriend, who discovered she was pregnant after they broke up, has primary custody of their 14-month-old son.

To get joint custody, he tells the newspaper, he learned he would have to mount an expensive custody case.

"I was very upset," Ayers tells the Globe. "I thought in this country you wouldn't have to necessarily fight to spend time with your own child."

That's why the law needs to be changed, Ned Holstein, the executive director of Fathers & Families, a national advocacy group based in Massachusetts, tells the Globe.

"What we have right now is essentially a maternal veto (over joint custody)," he tells the newspaper. "We don't understand why Mom should have a veto over what is in the best interests of children."

This concept of a "maternal veto" is a myth -- and a potentially dangerous one at that, according to organizations that deal with domestic violence.

"If the world were a perfect place where everybody was just able to get along and put their differences aside, we might have a different lens on this," Nancy Allen Scannell, director of policy and planning for the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, tells the Globe. "But we all know the reality of what happens."

The bill, she tells the newspaper, eliminates the ability of judges to examine the nuances of what is best for the child on a case-by-case basis.

Custody cases are often too complex for this one-size-fits-all approach, Thomas Barbar, co-chairman of the Massachusetts Bar Association's family law section council, tells the Globe.

He says he rarely sees judges simply make knee-jerk decisions in favor of mothers.

"What I've noticed is the court tries to make sure that the kids are spending time with each parent and nobody is being prejudiced," he tells the Globe. "They try not to make decisions rashly."

The bill also is opposed by the Massachusetts chapter of the National Organization for Women.

"I think it's an unnecessary step," Christina Knowles, the state director of NOW, tells the Globe. "I think judges explain their decisions anyway. It seems redundant."

Yet, Ayers tells the Globe it shouldn't cost father a minimum of $15,000 in legal fees to seek joint custody.

"In the probate court, you're guilty of being a deadbeat dad the minute you walk through the door," he adds.

The bill, originally proposed by state Rep. Colleen Garry, of Dracut, Mass., two years ago, is now before the joint Judiciary Committee. The Globe reports the committee has until July 13 to act on the bill, but an extension may be granted.

Other countries have headed where Massachusetts is contemplating going.

Australia has a shared parenting law that came under fire after a 4-year-old Melbourne girl was allegedly thrown to her death from a bridge by her father last year.

Critics argue the girl's mother was too frightened to raise allegations of violence in family court, lest she be considered an uncooperative parent trying to undermine the father.

Australian Attorney General Robert McClelland ordered a report on the law by retired family court judge Richard Chisholm. Chisholm concluded the law was a "tangle" that makes it more difficult for women to raise allegations of domestic violence in Australia's family court system.

Related story: Report Criticizes Australia's Parenting Law

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