If Elian Gonzalez had been taken from Cuba, not by his mother, but by his father, he would have been returned to Cuba within days of getting a clean bill of health from the hospital, no questions asked.
It's a point of irony in fatherhood support groups across Connecticut as they draw parallels between their own situations and that of Elian's father. They, too, have found themselves facing unfounded allegations of abuse and questions about whether they are capable of raising a young child. And they have had to battle agencies, relatives and longstanding medical and legal viewpoints that assume, at least in questions of child welfare, that mother knows best. The U.S. government may have sided with the father in Elian's case, but in many of theirs, government agencies have sided with the mother.
This gender bias is not just the men's perception.
"I think they're right," says Patricia Wilson-Coker, acting commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Social Services. "Systematic constraints have inadvertently been built up to separate fathers from children. There's a lack of advocates in the court, a lack of connection between child support and visitation. Frankly, that a father should be thought of as no more than a paycheck is what we're working against."
Mark Roseman knows that feeling firsthand. A Hamden father of three, he has not seen his children in three years, although they live in the same town and he pays child support. "I feel like the walking wounded. The kids have been turned against me," says Roseman, who separated from their mother in 1997. "My former wife has revised history, thrown out any old photographs, quit the synagogue we used to go to, quit old mutual friends. Not having used the legal system before, I expected the process would be much smoother and reassuring for all parties."
Instead, Roseman says the court's adversarial system pits one side against the other and the kids pay the price. Roseman says he had to file motion after motion for therapy, for visitation, and has shelled out $40,000 so far in legal costs. He's paying for a guardian ad litem, appointed by the court to represent minor children, who he says doesn't return his phone calls. Meanwhile every month that goes by is another month away from his children, now 7, 12 and 16. To add insult to injury, family services counselors are beginning to suggest that it would be too traumatic to reunite Roseman with his children after so long. It's a Catch-22 many fathers say is hauntingly familiar.
Roseman has heard plenty of horror stories since founding the Connecticut chapter of the national Children's Rights Council last year, a forum and guide for non-custodial parents. "We've got problems here, and one is the way people divorce," says Roseman. "It's not enough to permit disgruntled non-custodial parents to walk away. Both parents must be part of the children's lives."
Indeed, a large body of research overwhelmingly suggests children do best when they have both a mother and a father in their lives. Specifically, children whose fathers are involved in raising them do better in school, are less likely to get into trouble with the law, and are more likely to be better parents themselves.
Dr. Kyle Pruett, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the Yale Child Study Center and Medical School, writes of this in his new book Fatherneed. Even in the first few months of life, he writes, an infant can distinguish between a mother and a father's style of care. What's more, developmental research shows that children are born with a drive to connect to their fathers and their fathers, in turn, have an instinct to respond.
Doug Edwards, facilitator of the Real Dads Program, based in Manchester Family Development Center at Manchester Memorial Hospital has seen this dynamic firsthand. Many men referred to this eight-week program come by way of the judicial branch's Alternative Incarceration Center.
"Eighty-five percent don't have a relationship with active fathers in their lives, and they're following the same pattern. They're looking into a mirror and seeing their father on the other side," says Edwards. The idea is to help these young men learn to be good fathers. But there's one thing Edwards doesn't have to teach them.
"There's a certain instinctive part, especially if they've seen the child born or very early on when the child is very dependent," says Edwards. "One guy saw his child born and his eyes just filled up with tears. I couldn't think of one guy who said, 'I don't want to be a dad. I don't want to have anything to do with my child.'"
Yet many of these men don't have much contact with their kids, says Edwards. "The fact of the matter is there is a bias. DSS itself admitted they've spent 35 years trying to keep fathers away."
Currently, 23 percent of all families in Connecticut don't have a father in the home. Nationally, 17 million children live in fatherless homes. According to DSS, only one in five unwed fathers visited their school age children once a year and non-resident fathers tend to become less involved as their children get older.
Research like this was one reason the legislature launched the Fatherhood Initiative last year to strengthen the connection between fathers and their children.
"There's cultural bias within society that moms are essential and dads are incidental," says Bill Pinto, director of youth development for the Department of Children and Families. "Within our system it's really clear we're focussed on the mothers because the mother is the custodial parent."
One of the things the advisory board set out to discover was what institutional barriers keep these men away. Pinto notes that some DCF forms don't even include a space for the name of the father. Nor is this the only agency to have such obvious biases. The Department of Correction has programs for mothers to help them become better parents, but few for fathers. Even the prison's designs are different. The women's prison has colorful murals of animals and a play area where moms visit with their children. The men's visiting rooms are stark and definitely not kid-friendly.
Schools send information about children addressed only to the mother. Some divorced fathers complain that when they go to their children's school to discuss their child's performance, they're told by school principals that they need the mother's permission to get any information. Although this is not the law, many fathers aren't aware of their rights, and so they leave feeling frustrated.
"Early childhood centers haven't really been welcoming to fathers," says Connecticut Women's Education and Legal Fund's Amy Miller, who coordinates a father-oriented child support pilot program in Litchfield, Hartford and New Haven. "Dad comes to pick up Johnny and is told, 'Tell your wife Johnny needs diapers.' It's [implied] that mom is primarily the caretaker." Too often, Miller says, fathers are looked at as "little bank machines."
The state's view of fathers as sources of income and little else begins at birth.
Because so many babies are born out of wedlock, fathers are now asked to sign an acknowledgement of paternity at the hospital. While the new mother is offered child care advice, or directed to child development programs and baby exercise classes, fathers are given a legally-binding piece of paper to sign that deals with finances exclusively. It warns they will be financially liable for their children and could have their wages garnished and their tax returns taken by the state to pay towards child support.
Should a father decline to sign the piece of paper, he could be forced by court order to take a paternity test. In such cases, he's entitled to legal representation because this is a quasi-criminal proceeding in which the man is technically "found guilty" of paternity.
Then there's the term "deadbeat," referring to fathers who don't pay child support. The move to attach wages and tax returns, threaten to take away drivers' licenses and throw men in jail for non-payment of child-support was necessary because some men have abandoned their families. But these sanctions are imposed even if there are legitimate explanations, ranging from unemployment to imprisonment, for why a man may fall behind in payments. Many men, for instance, don't know they can go to court to modify their child support orders. Others have called support enforcement to ask about this procedure and been confronted with rude and unhelpful "enforcers."
"I'm not saying I'm in any way soft on men who don't pay child support," says Wilson-Coker, "but there's beginning to be a greater recognition that they're not so much deadbeats as dead broke."
Under federal law, the DSS can't forgive the payments that are in arrears. Still, these hard-line policies may not always make sense. For instance, Marvin Conaway has been the custodial parent of his five children for the past 10 years. The Department of Children and Families took his youngest children from their mother because they were at risk living with her. Conaway objected when the state returned the children to their mother after she completed a rehabilitation program. He lived across the street from his family and could see that not only had nothing changed, but that conditions for his kids were getting worse. He had to fight hard for custody, but in 1991, he was awarded full custody of all five of his kids. That's when he learned his ex had been collecting child support from himself and another man.
Claiming that one of the children wasn't his, the mother demanded the child be returned to her, according to Conaway. Conaway believes her main motivation was to continue collecting child support from this other man. Conaway took a paternity test to prove the child was his child. He still owes the state $8,000 in child support payments because his ex went on welfare when she had custody.
Wilson-Coker says her department will try to recoup all that money, because technically it's a loan. "Although the mother is jointly responsible for those payments, it's not common for the state to go after her for the money," says Wilson-Coker. It is, however, common practice for the state to go after the father to take it back through child support.
"I don't feel accountable for that $8,000," says Conaway. He explains that if the money had gone to support the children, he'd feel differently. But he doesn't believe his ex spent most of that money on his children.
Conaway makes $25,000 a year gross and needs every cent to support his children, now aged 19, 16, 15, 12 and 9. As he sees it, the state is taking food out of his children's mouths by attaching his wages and taking his tax return under the child support enforcement laws. "The state has threatened to put me in jail," says Conaway. "Why not put her in jail? I want the state off my back. Where's the system that works for me and my kids?"
At the Dads Do Make A Difference Program, and other support groups across the state, paying child support is a main topic of conversation during meetings. They don't object to supporting their children financially. What galls them is they're paying for children they don't see.
In his book, Pruett refers to a 1981 survey in which newlyweds were asked to rank, in order of importance, qualities they looked for in their mate. Sharing in the emotional and physical care of their children ranked 11th out of 15. In 1997, that moved up to be the second most important quality on the list. When the couple separates, however, the idea of co-parenting can get thrown out along with those old family photographs.
Although divorcing couples are more likely to opt for joint custody than primary custody these days, the courts and society tend to discourage men from being as active as they were previously in their children's lives. Primary residence is often at the mother's house, and fathers are reduced to "visitors."
"It's a nightmare," says Shayn Turner, who describes himself as a "Mr. Mom" prior to his divorce. "My children are just as important to me as if I were a woman. There's instantaneous discrimination simply for the fact you're a male. In the court's eyes, the best interests of the child are that the child is raised by the mother."
Bob Tompkins, deputy director for regional services of the court support services division, would dispute that. He says that surveys conducted regarding custody show that, in Connecticut, fathers have some form of custody in about 45 percent of the cases. But while he believes that the court tries hard to make sure both parents are actively involved in raising their children, he concedes there is a bias in favor of the mother when the child is an infant. These are the so-called "tender years" and the prevailing wisdom was that up until the age of five, a child was better off with the mother.
Although this is no longer written into law, as it once was, many working in the family services division of the courts still believe that babies shouldn't stay overnight with their fathers.
"One of the standard debatable issues that come up in court is at what age should the child be allowed overnight visitation," says Tompkins. "My personal answer would be at birth. If you expect a father to connect and get involved with parenting, you can't say, yeah, but your first three years have to be a couple of hours at a time."
This is the situation Mark Bibbins finds himself in, and it galls him. When his daughter was born, the 28-year-old Windsor man arranged his schedule specifically so he could take his child during the day while her mother worked. The court, however, decided that on the recommendation of the family support services, the baby should be with her mother or in daycare. "[Family support services said] since I'm a male, and so young, the court would not look favorably on me spending so much time with an infant girl," says Bibbins.
Bibbins is limited to just three hours a week and a five-hour visit on weekends, and then the visits must be supervised. He especially resents that he has to prove himself a fit parent in order to gain greater access to his daughter, while the mother is under no such constraints. His situation is not uncommon. "In out-of-wedlock births, we see a hesitation on the part of the mother to trust the biological father," says Judge Anne Dranginis, chief administrative judge for family court.
The mother's reluctance to relinquish custody, even temporarily, to the father, isn't always motivated by an overly-developed maternal instinct.
"What happens in divorces is that parents use the power they have," says Tompkins. "Moms have the power of kids. Dad has the power of money. That's the vehicle both sides have, if they chose to use them."
Government has taken away some of dad's ammunition with the power to garnish wages and seize tax returns. Forcing visitation on a reluctant father or a mother is much trickier. If the custodial parent decides to keep the children away from either dad or mom, even filing a contempt of court order might not make a tangible difference.
Judge Dranginis occasionally sends women to prison for failing to comply with court-ordered visitation. This tactic is really a last resort, however, because it's disruptive for the children. In contrast, men who repeatedly fail to make child support payments are quickly locked up. The disparity, in this instance, may have more to do with the difficulty of proving the mother intentionally violated the court order, than it has to do with any gender bias.
Proving a man has stopped paying child support is evident via checks and bank balances. Visitation issues often come down to he said/she said situations. He says he wasn't allowed to see his children. She says he came an hour later than the appointed time. He says he called 48 hours in advance. She says he didn't talk to her directly.
"Unfortunately, when these cases get into family court, children are looked at as property. They're chattel. Until we view children differently, we're going to have a lot of problems in our family courts deciding these issues," says Pinto.
There's an important link between the amount of contact a non-custodial parent has with a child and the willingness of that person to pay child support. In 1991, about 4.4 million non-custodial parents with visitation privileges and/or joint custody owed child support. Of that number, 79 percent paid all or part of it. By comparison, only 56 percent of the 900,000 people with no visitation or joint custody rights paid all or part of what they owed.
Wilson-Coker is hesitant to legally connect visitation to child support, but right now, most people agree the issues are too separate. For instance, when the mother is receiving state assistance, child support issues are heard before a magistrate, custody issues are heard in family court. So if a father is called before the magistrate on child support issues and says he's not paying because his visitation rights are being denied, he's told he has to take it up in family court. It's just one more hurdle that, if magistrates had the power to rule on visitation issues or better communication existed between the two court systems, could be removed.
One idea everyone endorses is more counseling for separating parents. The Collaborative Divorce Project, a pioneering research project by Marsha Kline Pruett at Yale University in collaboration with the court under the direction of Judge Dranginis, is currently measuring the effect of parenting classes and counseling on divorce cases.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that counseling significantly reduces conflict in divorce, allowing parents to come to agreements about their children and develop parenting plans that work for their children, and drastically cuts down on the number of motions filed in court. The research project, which involves 180 families, half of whom are a control group, should show whether this is true. If it is, the court system could then adopt it as standard procedure. If parents can agree on a parenting plan that really is in the best interests of their children before they set foot in a courtroom, everyone stands to gain.
Without a lot of support, separating couples can't be relied upon to play fair. At the moment, however, many men feel shut out of a system that is more supportive of mothers than it is of fathers. Lisa Nkonoki, founder and coordinator of the Dads Make A Difference support group, has seen and heard all the horror stories. A strong advocate for fathers' rights, she also knows how powerful a child's longing for a father can be. Just two weeks ago, she managed to reunite her foster son with his.
"We were trying to find out where his dad was, but the state wouldn't give us any information," says Nkonoki. After months of phone calls, Nkonoki's threat to sue yielded results. "It turns out, he's been paying child support for the past four years. He thought the money was going to the mother," says Nkonoki. "Some of the case workers said, 'You cannot let this child see his father under any circumstances. We can't say this is a safe situation.'"
Nkonoki checked the file and found there was no reason to suggest the situation would, in any way, be dangerous. Besides, she points out, she was asking the boy's father to come and visit as a surprise for her foster son's 18th birthday.
Not only was this young man reunited with the father he was named after, but he met two of his aunts and learned he had 15 brothers and sisters, and a grandfather. Suddenly, a foster child who felt alone in the world learned he was part of a whole extended family, a benefit that is often overlooked when fathers are taken out of the equation.
"I think it's important to feel good about family," says Nkonoki. "Regardless of the relationship between the mother and the father, a child needs to be able to feel whole."