Fatherhood Coalition

Local Dads Fight for Equal Custody Rights

Members of the Hampshire/Franklin branch of The Fatherhood Coalition believe the probate court system has inhibited their relationships with their children.

By Jacqueline Walsh, Staff Writer, Union News

Monday, September 25, 2000

NORTHAMPTON -Around the table are all sorts of men: a painter, an accountant, an Air Force officer, two computer software engineers, a contractor, a business executive, a regional health care director and a mechanic.

'They live in communities from Turners Falls to Agawam. But they share one crucial experience that binds them together. They believe the probate court system has driven an ax through their relationships with their children.

"I basical1y went into a court where I had no rights, where I was absolutely powerless to stay in control of being in touch with my children," said George Schroder of Chicopee.

Michael franco, with hls 3-year-old daughter Victoria, both of Holyoke and Keith Richardson of Huntington, both members of the Hampshire/Franklin branch of The fatherhood Coalition, stand outside Northampton's probate court Friday.

Last week, 15 men in the newly formed Hampshire/Franklin branch of The Fatherhood Coalition held signs outside the Hampshire County Probate and Family Court, hoping to catch the eye of motorists and a few judges.

"Honk for fathers' rights," one sign read.

"Kids are abused and neglected by courts," another read.  

"Every day is Mother's Day in Family Court," read a third.

Five men joined the group after seeing the fathers with their signs. In two months, 80 people have signed up.

On Tuesday night, 20 members sat in a meeting room at the Easthampton Public Safety Complex on Payson Avenue. The men are divorced or separated, battling to keep their children in their lives. A few lucky ones share physical custody of their children. Some get as little as two hours a week with their kids, under supervision.

While the custody laws in this state are written without giving special rights to either men or women, these men say judges unreasonably favored the wives and girlfriends in their own cases.

On Tuesday, they discussed being called "zoo dads," because some see their role as entertaining the kids.

They complained that while the courts take as much as 40 percent of their gross income for the children, there's no accounting for how the money is spent, Sometimes the ex-wife is driving a new car while the men can't put gas in the car to pick up the kids, they griped.

"Some guys have to live with their parents or at the YMCA," chapter co-founder Michael Franco said.

They want the term "visitation" changed to "parenting."

They wish records were kept on judges' custody decisions -- is custody granted mostly to the woman?

They talk of false allegations that resulted in restraining orders and minimal visitation.

"It's a nightmare getting into the system. It's Kafkaesque," said Daniel Grubbs of Shutesbury.

"You're unlikely to see the same judge two times in a row," said Steven Boutin of Chicopee.

Schroder said the men are fighting against a kind of neglect: the isolation of children from their parents.

"They need both parents," John Stel1e of Montgomery said.

Paul Trimboli of Agawam noted that 90 percent of the parents awarded physical custody of the children are women.

"We know men aren't 90 percent of the alcohol abusers. We're not 90 percent of the drug abusers. Men are not 90 percent of the mental1y ill partners," he said. "There has to be a certain percentage of good dads."

Schroder said some of the children grow up and blame their mothers for keeping their fathers away.

Paul said some judges are divorced women who have custody of their children.

"I think it's natural when they look down and every time they see the woman they see themselves,"
he said.

"There's no compassion for fathers. It's very heartbreaking. It makes us bitter and frustrated," Franco said.

Many of the men knew about William J. Bernotas' murder last October across from the Northampton Police Station of his estranged wife. Bernotas, who lived in Sunderland, was despondent about the couples breakup. He kil1ed himself immediately after shooting Pelham resident Jean Hosmer.

The couple had just come from a Hampshire county Family and Probate Court hearing at which a judge extended Hosmer's restraining order against Bernotas.

Schroder said violence is not necessary, but fathers must be treated like human beings.

Joan Kenney, spokeswoman for the state's courts, would not comment on the men's allegations about probate courts.

Being part of the group helps reduce the frustration, as does protesting, Franco said. The men enjoy the horns honking and the passersby sticking their hands out their car windows and aiming their thumbs at the sky.

"It's unbelievable what holding signs on a street corner does. It gives us a feeling of hope," Franco. said. The group meets at 7 p.m. tomorrow, again at the Easthampton Public Safety Complex on Payson Avenue.

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