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Fathers protest unjust custody laws

By Wendy McElroy
web posted November 24, 2003

Last month, Spider-Man was arrested in London after spending five days atop a cloud-kissing crane next to the historic Tower Bridge .

In donning the costume of his daughter's favorite cartoon character, 36-year-old David Chick tried to draw attention to the misery of estranged fathers who have been denied access to their children by a family court system he believes is anti-male.

Was Spider-Man fighting the forces of evil? Or, by snarling London  traffic, did Chick's "frivolity" damage the serious complaints of an internationally surging father's rights movement?

I vote for Spider-Man. The mayor of London disagrees, comparing Chick and his tactics to Osama bin Laden .

Between these diametrically opposed responses lies a question: at what point do you give up working within "the system" and step outside of it to achieve change ... to demand justice?

That question haunts the most passionate issues of our time. For example, abortion: Some pro-life advocates go so far outside the system as to advocate violence against clinics and doctors who provide a legal procedure. For example, protecting molested children: Some mothers go so far as to kidnap their own children and live "on the run" rather than return them to abusive situations. At what point do you give up on the possibility of the law providing justice?

People who go outside the system usually do so in the belief that the system has become part of the problem. In other words, the system -- whether you are speaking of family courts, the Child Protective Services or some other bureaucracy -- is acting to perpetuate the injustice rather than to solve it.

This belief creates a Spider-Man  who looks at the family court system and perceives no chance of seeing the 2-year-old daughter from whom he has been estranged for close a year.

Most of those who agree that "the system" is severely broken do not sit on 150-foot cranes in the middle of London. To a large degree, Spider-Man's decision was determined by the issue he was confronting. For Chick, there was and is no possibility of compromise or of avoiding conflict.

Other rebels are luckier. They are able to withdraw from the system and provide for their own needs. Homeschooling parents  remove their children from what they view as a hopeless educational system even though they are forced to continue paying for it in taxes. Those approaching retirement privately fund their own futures even though they are forced to pay into Social Security.

Spider-Man can't similarly withdraw. Withdrawal means abandoning his daughter. Given the high stakes, confrontation becomes inevitable.

Chick could have confronted the system through letters to the editor, petitions to lawmakers, and appeals to the court. But estranged fathers in the U.K. and North America have been pursuing those strategies for decades now and they are still estranged.

According to the English Lord Chancellor's Department, mothers are granted custody about four-fifths of the time. Moreover, English courts have become infamous for failing to enforce visitation rights for fathers. In commenting on Spider-Man, Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips observed, "some senior judges recently acknowledged that with so many ... [visitation] orders being flouted by mothers, the law is being brought into disrepute."

The absurdity of Spider-Man is nothing compared to the obscenity of a system that deprives fathers of their children and children of parental love. In the same vein as theatre of the absurd, politics of the absurd is emerging on the issue of child custody.

It should be applauded as a benign alternative to the open violence that could easily replace it.

Politics of the absurd began on Dec. 17, 2002, when 200 men in Santa Claus outfits descended on the Lord Chancellor's offices in London to dramatize the plight of "father" Christmas: That is, of fathers who would not see their children over the holidays. Then, last Valentine's Day, fathers dressed as Elvis Presley crowded "Heartbreak Hotel" -- the London family court -- in an attempt to present officials with a 20-foot inflatable heart.

This Oct. 22, hundreds marched to London's Royal Courts of Justice where family law decisions are handed down; the crowd discovered two men, dressed as Batman and Robin , perched atop the structure.

And yet, the message is far from absurd. Competent fathers want and deserve access to their children.

The message has attracted support from celebrities such as Pierce Brosnan who recently directed and starred in an Irish film, "Evelyn," in which a father loses custody of his three young children after his wife leaves with another man: The movie is based on a true story.

Rock star Sir Bob Geldof has pleaded for mothers and fathers to share equal custody. Speaking from bitter experience after his wife left him for another man, Geldof declared, "I was handed a piece of paper saying 'you may see your children on this day and every second weekend.' Why? What had I done? I saw them every day, I took them to school, I bathed them, fed them, cooked for them ... Why now was the State and all its instruments of justice ... aimed at me?"

Commenting on the law restricting a divorced father's access to his children, Geldof added, "This law ridiculed me."

Now divorced fathers are going outside the system to ridicule the law. They should be applauded. Of all possible responses, laughing with scorn in the face of injustice is one of the best. And infinitely preferable to violence.

Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, "Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century" (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.

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