Jim, a Michigan technology consultant, can't even remember what his daughter looks like.
"I haven't been allowed to see my little Caroline for over three years," he says. "The last picture I have of her was taken four years ago, when she was eight years old. The only contact I'm allowed with her is a short phone call every Sunday, and often even that is blocked."
Jim, a Commander in the Naval Reserve, has fought the toughest battle of his life to remain in his daughter's life. Twelve years ago his ex-wife left their home in Michigan and moved with their baby to Louisiana. Time and again Jim says he has paid the $600 round trip fare to go to Louisiana to see his daughter only to have his visitation blocked, even when he has come to visit his daughter on her birthday.
Jim has appealed to the courts on numerous occasions to enforce his visitation rights, to no avail. At the same time, he has paid enormous legal fees (as well as child support) and has almost been forced into bankruptcy. He says:
"I sometimes wonder if that picture of Caroline is the last one I'll ever see."
Jim and hundreds of thousands like him are part of a new generation of heroic fathers who fight a long, hard, and often desperate struggle to remain a part of their children's lives.
Three-quarters of divorced fathers surveyed maintain that their ex-wives have substantially interfered with their visitation rights. As many as 40% of mothers surveyed have admitted they have interfered with visitation and that their motives were punitive and not due to safety considerations. A nationwide study of children of divorce confirmed these sentiments.
Some fathers have even been denied all contact with their children because courts have accepted false and/or uncorroborated accusations of domestic violence or child sexual abuse. Forensic consultant Dean Tong, author of Elusive Innocence, believes that in the context of a custody battle, between 60% and 80% of domestic violence accusations are false. According to a study conducted in New York state, 75% of child sexual abuse accusations made during custody battles were shown to be unfounded or unsubstantiated.
Other fathers have suffered at the hands of "move-away moms" who permit or even use geography to drive fathers out of their children's lives. And some fathers have watched helplessly as their own children have been taught to hate them.
Fathers with horror stories are not hard to find. Like Daniel Lee, the founder of the Tennessee shared parenting group Child's Best Interest, who has flown nearly half a million miles over the last five years so that he can see his son, who was taken to live 2,000 miles away. Or Edgar P., a Los Angeles father who risked a one year jail sentence for a domestic violence charge because he knew that pleading guilty in a plea bargain would destroy his chances of obtaining visitation rights with his young daughter. He was acquitted of the charge last year but is still only allowed to see his child a few hours a week.
Some distraught fathers find the situation so painful that they destroy themselves. Following an adverse family court decision last year, 20-year Navy veteran Derrick Miller walked up to court personnel at the entrance to a San Diego courthouse, waved his court documents, said "You did this to me," and shot himself in the head. Nationwide divorced fathers are ten times as likely to commit suicide as divorced mothers, and more than twice as likely to commit suicide as married fathers.
Other fathers simply give up and drop out of their children's lives.
Increasingly, fathers like Lee and Jim, a member of a Michigan shared parenting group, are turning to political activism. Jim says:
"I want to change the system so that no father ever again has to go through what I've been through. The problem is not my ex. The problem is a family court system which allows her to do this."
©2007, Glenn Sacks