FOXBORO, Ma. - Rush hour commuters could hardly miss the huge banner and its plaintive message: "Children need both parents equally. 50/50 parenting."
Mounted on a bridge over I-95 in this Massachusetts city, the banner gets honks of support on this morning as motorists whiz past. Another sign, smaller but more to the point, elaborates on the protesters' message: " 'Family' courts are hurting children!"
The people behind Tuesday's nationwide protest, mostly divorced men, say fathers get short shrift when it comes to spending time with their children. Dubbed "deadbolted dads," they complain that courts routinely give mothers custody of kids - and then fail to act when ex-wives lock fathers out of their children's lives by ignoring visitation schedules.
A fledgling bid to try to readjust that balance got a lift this week, as divorced fathers - and a few mothers - turned out in 199 US cities (and nine countries) to publicly decry what they consider unequal treatment in family courts.
"Court is where most divorcing fathers ... leave in a state of shock after discovering they have been reduced to a mere biweekly visitor to their children," says Dianna Thompson of the American Coalition for Fathers & Children, which sponsored the protests.
The issue seems ripe for consideration. The National Fatherhood Initiative just concluded a fatherhood summit in Washington, where organizers hoped to reach out to a range of men, including divorced and unmarried fathers.
At the same time, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges met in Charlotte, N.C., where the focus was on custody and visitation. "When the parties go to family court, one party loses," says M. James Toner, dean of the council. "Sometimes, even with the best intentions, the best interest of the child is sacrificed on the altar of acrimony."
The protesters yesterday offered a different vision for families of divorce: They call it shared parenting.
Under this scenario, parents share equally the custody of children - a move that Ms. Thompson says would require a family-law overhaul. Mothers now win custody in 85 percent of cases, according to the US Census. By one count, 23 states already have shared-parenting provisions. (A shared-parenting bill is before the Massachusetts legislature.)
When parents cooperate, shared custody "absolutely can work," says Joseph McNabb, president of Laboure College in Boston, who has been divorced for 13 years. In his case, his three children spent 3-1/2 days a week with him and 3-1/2 days with his former wife, who lived three blocks away. "We had a horrible marriage but a wonderful divorce," he says. "We worked very closely at being good shared parents."
Shared parenting, says Thompson, also increases financial support for children. According to the latest census data, fathers who have joint custody or shared parenting paid their child support on time in 90 percent of cases.
But for the parent on the losing end of a custody fight, acrimony can run deep. In voices tight with emotion, protesters here in Foxboro describe the challenge of being absentee parents.
"I would love shared parenting to happen," says David Brown of Webster, Mass., who sees his children, 12 and 8, every other weekend. "I'd like to have equal time with my kids. I'm their father, but I'm not allowed to be their parent."
Wayne Torman of Mansfield, Mass., whose former wife now lives in New Jersey, spends just one day a month with their 5-year-old son. "Moveaway moms are a big problem," he says.
Men aren't the only ones with visitation problems. Elizabeth Schnee of College Point, N.Y., who organized a rally across the Brooklyn Bridge, lost custody of her four children more than three years ago. She understands how fathers lose visitation.
"I was a ... regular mom and the PTA president," she says. But her then-husband decided "that if I was not going to be his wife, I was not going to be their mother. He used all his resources to bring that about." Only recently has she been able to reestablish ties with her children.
Courts should require parents to submit a written parenting plan, outlining "how the two of them are going to work together in terms of the children's lives," she adds. Of course, "you make exceptions for [a parent's] violent behavior."
Family advocates see scattered signs of progress. Among the 3,000 US counties, 1,500 offer programs to help divorcing parents, says Sanford Braver, author of "Divorced Dads: Shattering the Myths." Aimed at helping divorcing parents bury the hatchet, such programs are "changing the culture out there," he adds.
Programs vary, from the family court in Austin, Texas, that takes as many as 2,500 calls a year for visitation enforcement, to a group in Columbia, Md., that lobbies family courts to use a "child-focused" approach. Some judges even order feuding parents to work with a parenting coordinator, who has the authority to arbitrate.
Noncustodial fathers like Mr. Torman would welcome such steps. Holding his sign on the Foxboro bridge, he says the family court system "really needs to change. It's gotta change.
For further information:
American Coalition for Fathers and Children National Fathers' Resource Center - Links