Elian Case Turns Focus to Fathers

One of the ripple effects of the Elian Gonzalez case has been to focus a national spotlight on the issue of fathers’ rights.

By Rebecca Segaloff, Taunton Gazette

May 14, 2000,

And hundreds of thousands of aggrieved dads across the country are saying a collective "It's about time."

"If the genders were reversed they would not have done that. It's apple pie, the flag and motherhood, not fatherhood," said Mark Charalambous of the many politicians who sided with the boy's Miami relatives. Charalambous is a co-founder of the Fatherhood Coalition, a statewide fathers' rights support and advocacy group.

Fathers' rights groups say that the promise of justice as a wise and blindfolded figure, impartial and fair, is often empty when it comes to custody disputes. They lament a court system that tends to grant custody to mothers over fathers when both are equally fit and even often when the father is clearly the more fit parent. What's more, they say, the court system tolerates widespread abuse of restraining orders, which have become the method of choice for mothers who wish to force non-abusive husbands out of the house and gain custody of children, they say.

"Divorced fathers essentially live in a police state. Once you are declared an abuser you have no rights. A person can have you thrown in jail just because she says she saw you. These men live in fear. For these men it's not a free society," Charalambous said.

Al Gauthier, a longtime area resident who now lives in Newport, R.I., says he is still trying to put his life back together after his marriage of 25 years ended in 1998, the culmination of a bitter seven-year ordeal in which his wife obtained a pair of restraining orders several years apart that suddenly ripped him from his home and children with little more than the clothes on his back.

"Guys may hold things in, but they love their kids, too. When you see them crying because daddy's leaving, that just tore my heart out," said Gauthier, who says his only crime was trying hard to save a marriage that his wife no longer wanted to be a part of. In order to obtain the restraining orders, Gauthier's wife told police that she was in fear for her life, but the 50-year old electrical engineer says he has never been remotely abusive and that his ex-wife had no reason to fear him. He describes himself as a mild-mannered man who gets along with everybody.

The couple even reconciled in 1993, two years after their first break-up, he says. But by 1996, the year his wife obtained the second restraining order, it was evident the marriage wasn't working out and the couple decided to

divorce. Gauthier says his wife took out the second restraining order not because he was being abusive, but because she felt he was dragging his heels on getting an apartment.

Gauthier, who is a member of the Fatherhood Coalition and works with other fathers going through difficult divorces, says he never tried to obtain custody of his two daughters, now 20 and 11, but spends a lot of time with them and let them know they are always welcome to live with him in the future.

Activists estimates the fathers' rights movement numbers anywhere from 150,000 to 500,000 members nationally. But it is a crusade distinguished by a lack of cohesion -- scores of state and national lobbyists and long membership lists, others with little more than a Web site spouting misogynistic tirades. Compared to the women's rights movement, the divorced dads remain a relatively ineffective lobby. They have some legitimate complaints -- even their critics concede that -- but sometimes their strident tone obscures the substance, critics charge.

But Charalambous says the Fatherhood Coalition acknowledges that there are many legitimate cases of abusive husbands and the court system used to treat the issue of domestic violence cavalierly. The problem with the domestic abuse regulations crafted to remedy the situation, he says, is that they are handled as a civil matter, with a much lower burden of proof than the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard of criminal proceedings.

"The attitude is better safe than sorry. This is a paternalistic attitude. We want to protect women, but don't shred the Constitution and the Bill of Rights to do it," he said.

Family law attorney Margaret Aleixo, who estimates that about half her clients are men and half women, says the reason women are usually awarded custody is not anti-male bias but that they are usually the ones who have been the child's primary caretaker during the marriage.

"I've found on numerous occasions, if the roles are reversed and the woman is less available for the child on a day-to-day basis, the father is awarded custody," said Aleixo, whose practice is in Taunton.

But Aleixo agrees that on the issue of restraining orders, fathers' rights groups have a legitimate concern. She estimates that very roughly speaking, only about one-third of restraining order requests are on really solid ground, another one-third are marginal and the final one-third are outright fabrications.

Still, Aleixo said there are times when a restraining order is an essential tool for defusing an explosive situation before it takes a tragic turn, though she added that they are often ineffective just when they are needed most.

"People who are out of control won't necessarily respect a piece of paper," she said.

ŠThe Taunton Gazette 2000

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