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Activists Confront Melconian and Lees

By Sarah M. Corigliano, Staff Writer, The Reminder; MetroWest Edition

Nov. 28, 2001

GREATER SPRINGFIELD An advocacy group for father's rights, The Fatherhood Coalition, has been active recently in bringing attention to perceived injustices by Massachusetts bureaucracy.

On Friday, Nov. 16, members of the Hampden County chapter of the Fatherhood Coalition protested at Senator Linda Melconian's office in West Springfield, and Tues., Nov. 20 made their way to Senator Brian Lees' office in Springfield.

Both senators invited the protesters into their headquarters for impromptu discussions.

"It was clear they had some gross misconceptions," Melconian said. "I'm glad we had the meeting to clarify."

She said that they (members of the Fatherhood Coalition) think anything relating to child support, child custody or domestic violence in particular always works for the mother's or woman's benefit in the courts.

"Those are serious accusations and they have no empirical evidence," Melconian said.

She said that she talked with this group on Friday to try to clear up misconceptions about specific issues and issues that are in the process of being revamped. She suggested that the group ought to meet with her again.

"Melconian's was more of a protest because she has a track record of supporting programs that, on the surface, look good, but they end up hurting men and fathers," explained Mike Franco, state co-chair and Western Mass. coordinator for the Fatherhood Coalition. "I think she is motivated to support these programs for battered women not based on the facts but based on the hype."

He said the demonstration at Lees' office had a two-part mission, to help educate the public about issues affecting non-custodial parents, and to get an answer from Lees about his stance on Senate Bill S813 and similar initiatives.

"Senator Lees is either with us or against us," he said.

One of the bills they were protesting, and which was discussed, was Chapter 69 of the Acts of 2001, which relates to the eligibility for unemployment benefits for victims of domestic violence who must leave their jobs.

Melconian and Franco both said this law is written gender-neutral, but Franco said that once a case goes to the court, it allows the judges to forget that gender-neutrality to make decisions based on tradition and politics, which oftentimes hurts men and fathers. He also said there is no legal definition for domestic violence.

"Good citizens and innocent people are ultimately hurt by hysteria and bad laws, and a 'knee-jerk' reaction to impose them," he said.

Franco also said that there are no legal services or help for needy fathers, but that there are several for women.

He cited WIC, (Women, Infants and Children) as one of these programs. He said it wrongly excludes men.

Franco himself has been through a messy divorce, been slapped with a restraining order which he claims is unfounded, spent three nights in jail, and only has occasional visitation rights with his four-year-old daughter, Victoria, who now resides in Texas with her mother and grandparents. Franco is a Holyoke resident.

"The first day I stepped foot in that court I felt discriminated against," he said of his trial after spending a few days in jail. "Under temporary orders I did get some fair treatment along the way... thank goodness for the regular people that sat on that jury and found me not guilty."

"My life was in the hands of bureaucrats who were doing everything for my ex-wife," he explained. "As a father, you're always waiting ten feet behind."

Franco said that he would like to see Senators Melconian and Lee support a bill that is in study at the senate, titled "An Act Relative to Strengthening Family Relationships Through Responsible Shared Parenting."

"More informally called the 'Brewer Bill' in parental rights circles, will create a presumption of shared physical custody to 'fit' parents in the event of divorce and separation of married or unwed parents," Franco explained.

He said that its use of progressive language, such as "shared parenting" and "parenting plan" will ensure children frequent and continued contact with both parents.

He said the bill was presented last March to the Joint-Committee on the Judiciary, of which Senator Lees is a member.

"If Senate Bill 813 becomes law, it will afford parents and children the dignity and respect they deserve from our judicial system."

"We believe that, essentially, the state needs to recognize that fathers and children are families, too," Franco said. "Right now ... it's always women and children that constitute families...our statewide organization generally says 'we want recognition as being a family'."

Both Senators Melconian and Lees plan to meet with the Coalition again to further discuss the issues brought up by the protests.

"I think you have to help the children," Melconian explained as a priority. "Both parents have a right, and we have to deal with it on a case by case basis."

As for unemployment benefits for men who must leave their jobs because they are victims of domestic violence, Melconian said that perhaps there needs to be more public awareness of this program and the opportunities it provides to both men and women in such a precarious situation.

The Fatherhood Coalition's meetings are open to the public and offer support to fathers who need legal advice, emotional support, and more.

The Father's Rights Hotline is 295-DADS, and the website is www.fatherhoodcoalition.org.

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