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Father Anger Strikes Again

It seemed that the government had been listening: Laws have been passed in the last few years which aim to make it harder for one separated parent to shut out the other completely, and to make the Family Court system a little less adversarial.

While the government has never actually admitted that the system was biased against men, it has become more open in acknowledging that some things haven’t been working too well.
For some men that is not nearly good enough and they have taken to the streets, demonstrating outside the private residences of some lawyers they see as deliberately trying to remove men’s influence on their children.

Mark Stephenson talked to both sides of the argument..

A few years ago the actions of the Family Court were the subject of much public scrutiny and angst. Many fathers were angry at their treatment by the court. Several stories appeared in the press.

Society demanded changes. The Care of Children Bill was drawn up, one reason being to make the Family Court fairer. Now it has become an Act of Parliament and is the basis of law used in the court.

So has it made any difference, in practice?

Not much, according to Jim Bagnall, of the Union of Fathers. He was one of those men you may have seen on TV 3 recently in a very vocal demonstration staged outside a Family Court lawyer’s home.
What are they so upset about?

Cases like this, as related to Father and Child by Jim Bagnall

One father has been going to the family court for seven years to gain the legal right to parent his child. His ex-partner has repeatedly thrown the ace card: sexual harassment. With her lawyer’s help the father has been accused of abusing his own daughter, in court. This has never been substantiated, he has never been charged, no evidence has been offered.

Not surprisingly, he always lost, until recently. The ex-partner took the child (again) to a hospital to have her examined intimately (again) for sexual abuse. No evidence was found.

We can’t know all the details of this case. We do know, however, that the court finally found in favour of the father (and the daughter) and gave him full custody. After seven years.

For Jim Bagnall, there are two problems: the law as it is; and it’s use and abuse by lawyers and other professionals.

The Care of Children Act still allows ‘untested evidence’ in the Family Court. As in the case above, a parent or a lawyer can make an accusation but they do not have to substantiate it, still less prove it. It is hearsay. And yet the judge must hear this ‘evidence’ and he or she is likely to be influenced by it.

What follows from this, Jim feels, is that it allows lawyers, psychologists, or other professionals to impose their own agendas on the case.

Their agendas may be: money (one case has continued for 14 years, imagine the fees!), feminism (all men are guilty), or chivalry (women need protecting).

Either way the principal victims are the children who are denied their fathers as the years drag by. Meanwhile 300,000 men are paying child support (IRD statistics).

According to Jim Bagnall, what’s needed is coined in legal language – ‘rebuttable presumption’. The presumption is that equal shared parenting is what’s best for the child. For the court to consider removing a child from either of its parents, the evidence in support of this must be open to argument or proof – i.e., ‘rebuttable’.

How does the law respond to this criticism? Bill Atkin, Professor of Law at Victoria University, says that evidence is heard in the Family Court that would not be admissible in criminal cases. However, ‘admissibility is different from weight’. The court can hear evidence from any source, including the children, but it may not be given any weight in the decision-making process. He points out that evidence rules are relaxed in other courts too, e.g., the Environment Court and all tribunals.

Professor Atkin maintains that the welfare and best interests of the child are the court’s paramount concern. If an allegation of, say, child abuse is made, ‘the court is obliged to consider whether or not it is proved’.

Cross examination is allowed and the civil standard (of proof) of the balance of probabilities is used. However, if the accusation is not proved, but not ‘negatived’ either, ‘the court can still take the evidence into account if there is a real risk to the child.’ He admits this is ‘difficult to make a judgement on’ but has to be seen in the light of protecting the child.

One of Jim Bagnall’s complaints is that this can be the basis of ex parte separation orders or custody decisions. It is a discrepancy, perhaps, that evidence about physical or sexual abuse is heard in a civil court, and may be taken into account, though it is a criminal offence.

Is it still possible that some fathers are punished (inadvertently even), by removal of their children, though they have committed no crime?

Another potential problem in certain cases is that of influence. The decisions are made by a judge, not a jury. It is hard to assess the influences on a judge. What ‘weight’ will he or she put on a particular piece of evidence? What assumptions may be brought to bear on a case? With the best will in the world, we are all subject to pressures from society, the press and our own past.

As far as lawyers are concerned, Professor Atkin feels they cannot commit perjury and are subject to professional discipline. Every profession has some bad ones in it, perhaps, but even Jim Bagnall would agree it is only a minority of lawyers who set out to prevent fathers from being treated justly.

The increased use of mediation and appointment of independent counsel for the child in custody disputes do seem to be a step forward, and the Act may have helped with this. Clearly, there are still some problems.
What should a man do when faced with an acrimonious separation and possible loss of his children?

It still seems best to avoid the courtroom if possible. The vast majority of couples work things out on their own or with mediation services. If this isn’t happening, Jim Bagnall’s advice is: use the fathers and men’s groups – they can provide McKenzie friending, mentoring, and recommend lawyers who remain fairly and squarely on the side of children’s rights.

Another Wrong Wont Make A Right

Ron Thow is less than impressed by the tactics employed by self-styled father

It’s very difficult to imagine how a bunch of angry men waving signs and yelling through megaphones at passers-by on a quiet suburban street can have any chance of effecting positive change in the Family Court system. Especially when they haven’t even bothered to find the correct house, as was reportedly the case on more than one occasion.

Watching the videoclip on TV3’s Campbell Live website, my immediate reaction (and that of the other people I showed it to) was that it was these fathers that were the bullies, not those they were protesting against. This media-fuelled perception was only strengthened when one stood mere feet from a small woman neighbour and screamed through his megaphone at her.

How do the men involved expect their activities to have any positive outcomes? Isn’t the real danger that their activities will merely entrench any negative perceptions that the media coverage is creating?
How does trying to intimidate court officers, their families and neighbours benefit anyone? In fact isn’t the whole message of the protest counter-productive for anyone involved in supporting Father-Child relationships—should we dissociate ourselves from these protests?

In the emails I’ve received there is a definite air of protesters having gotten lost in the process – that the protest itself has become the goal and that the longer term strategy, if there ever was one, has become completely irrelevant. Like some carefully planned military plan the protesters have their transport bus, and rendezvouz points. And afterwards there is a barbecue.

No mention of what they are trying to achieve, the reason they need to take this action or how it is going to make life better for themselves and their children. There is talk of mens rights but that isn’t automatically the same as benefits to children.

The real tragedy is that many of these fathers probably have legitimate grievances. I have no doubt that they are taking these extreme actions because they feel that that the agendas of individuals in the Family Court system need to be exposed and publicised.

But in taking to the streets in this manner they lose any public sympathy they may have been entitled to expect. Instead they are portrayed as the aggressors by the media and the message they are trying to publicise is lost in the circus of media coverage.

There does seem little doubt that there are individuals involved with the Family Court system that pursue their own agendas. Stories of these individuals advocating and making decisions based more on their own biases and prejudices than on the facts or the benefit of the child abound. Such people undermine the intent of the system – to provide a forum to mediate family disputes when other channels have failed.

But likewise, some parents also seem unable to set aside their own desires to punish their former partners.

These parents use the Family Court system and access arrangements to continue doing so, rather than working as parents for their children’s best interests. Relationship endings can be messy, painful and unpleasant. Often one parent feels the need, consciously or unconsciously, to keep punishing the other for both real or perceived mistreatment.

Using the Family Court in the first place is an admission that the parents have not been able to come to their own arrangements or agreements. Factor in the financial issues and unresolved interpersonal conflicts and the situation is a pool of petrol waiting for a match.

The simple truth is that both parents are important. That’s the message that these disenfranchised fathers need to be sending, not anger. Children are the ones that suffer when fathers aren’t in their lives. These fathers care deeply for their children, they need to do more than just lash out at what they perceive as a biased system.

If these fathers use their intelligence as well as their passions they may just achieve their goals.

Wouldn’t that be something.

Understanding Father Anger

Brendon Smith thinks that father anger should not be condemned outright, rather that the reasons for it should be explored.

Many of the recent TV and newspaper articles featuring fathers emphasise anger.

In our stereotype-laden world, this evokes fear, especially when warnings are included that the protester’s anger may have been the reason for his issues in the first place.

Anger in itself is frowned on, no reason can justify it, plus it is portrayed as a male syndrome. Sometimes men are called angry males for simply adopting a stern voice.

Why are men resorting to shock, news-worthy protests to be heard? What makes New Zealand males involved in custody disputes commit suicide at record rates? In many developed countries men have started rights movements, not against women, but to assert men’s rights. Why should men need to assert or protect their rights?

Part of the men’s rights question was answered in the “frozen embryos” case in the UK where a man was asked whether his divorced wife, who could no longer bear children, could use frozen embryos impregnated with his sperm. The court decided that as the “father” did not want to enter into a parenting arrangement with the “mother” she could not use them. The same rights do not apply in real life.

Since the pill and women’s sexual liberation, the responsibility for deciding when children would come has been blurred. The beginning, I am sure, of many angry Dads, happens when he is asked to support a child he was not intending to have.

One recent article featured a NZ father whose child was taken out of the country with no warning or permission, then he was accused of various crimes to justify the action. It took a court in Sweden to rule that the child be returned to NZ.

Along with the stereotypes of problematic males in this country, it seems that certain systems have failed men, and fathers in particular, at many levels. As recent investigations show, prison inmates are given little useful assistance and welfare representatives often exclude fathers, rather than encourage them.

Reporters or politicians never seem to connect high teenage pregnancy rates or drug abuse with fatherlessness, despite a growing body of overseas research pointing to the relationship Dads are also vital for their children’s self-esteem, having a huge effect on what sort of career options many children will like or be suitable for.

In the event of a parental split, men often struggle, feel shame and humiliation, but most will sacrifice almost anything if they are sure their children will be better off.

Some men are violent, but one of England’s most bloodthirsty warriors was Boudica, and NZ’s most famous infanticide criminal was Minnie Dean. There have been recent convictions for rape and pedophilia by women, while a regional survey found that in half of domestic issues, the violence was initiated by women.

Too many men assault women, but more often, men assault men, and only rarely do men harm their own children relevance? Men do not like competition for affection or untrue information from their lifelong partner.

Some men are the victims of emotional and financial abuse, suffering simultaneous losses of family, self esteem and support. Even a good Dad can be badly portrayed by a bored or vengeful partner, who may undermine him for reasons of their own.

Hopefully men will learn to play the PR game, mount reasonable arguments in the press, contain their anger and direct their protests at appropriate targets.

However, what can’t be hidden in PR Spin is that more fathers and men are asserting their rights. Many dads are now rearing infants or wanting more complete lifestyles. Where women have shown they can do anything, men are realising they can too.

As long as neither sex insists on doing everything, maybe we can keep anger away.

Next: Kayaking With Tracy

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