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Going to extremes
By Wendy McElroy
In the last two weeks, more than 60 family court offices in Britain received hoax bombs that were apparently sent by fathers' rights extremists: perhaps by one individual.
The issue of fathers' rights in the U.K. may be entering a more violent phase. If so, this should act as a cautionary tale for North America.
No one was injured by the "bombs" but Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Services were closed down, streets were cordoned off and businesses disrupted. More importantly, the "bombs" clearly threatened violence. An anti-terrorism team is investigating.
Violence is the worst possible "strategy" for anyone who seeks social reform. It is not only immoral and illegal, it is also counter-productive to the cause being advocated. The first time an innocent human being is injured, a movement using violence loses all moral credibility; it also creates a justified backlash of anger from the public and repression from authorities.
The abandonment of argument is one of the characteristics that distinguishes a revolutionary movement from one seeking reform. Reformers work to change a system of laws or attitudes, which means changing the hearts and minds of people. By contrast, revolutionaries have given up on the possibility of reform and, so, wish to sweep the system away -- a process that does not require consent. The distinction is captured in the difference in how Martin Luther King and the Black Panthers each approached black rights in the '60s.
A question confronts anyone who cares about family and children in our society: How do we prevent the fathers' rights movement in North America from becoming revolutionary? This question does not shift the blame for violence onto the shoulders of society. Those who initiate force are responsible for their criminal actions and no one should negotiate with someone who is threatening them. That is the point at which negotiation and reason end. Having stated this, however, it is productive to ask why people become frantic or enraged enough to use violence.
Child custody and visitation rights are becoming flashpoints in our society: Men are desperate to be a part of their children's lives. And, if they are non-abusive, such involvement should be the right of every parent, male or female. Moreover, children should grow up knowing both of their parents.
The problem usually arises through divorces in which no private agreement on child custody can be arranged and, so, the decision is left to the court. There is a growing trend toward joint physical custody -- with more than one in five divorces handling child custody in that manner -- but courts still overwhelmingly favor sole custody for the woman.
The wording of many state laws direct a judge to consider which parent is likely "to act in the best interests of the child." But, in practice, the sole custody of children is often assigned almost automatically to the mother, with joint custody being possible only if both parents agree.
To those journalists or activists who have any contact with the men's rights movement, the pain of estranged fathers is almost deafening.
Fathers cry out that even their scant visitation rights have been denied -- sometimes arbitrarily, sometimes through circumstance such as the mother moving out of state. Their concern is not merely for themselves but also for the wellbeing of their children, many of whom grow up without a father.
Fathers' rights organizations are springing up on the grassroots level across North America and most of them are similar to the Alliance for Non-Custodial Parents Rights in what they advocate. The ANCPR states: "many aspects of the current and proposed laws concerning visitation, custody and child support enforcement violate the constitutional rights of all non-custodial parents" both male and female. ANCPR continues, "it is in the best interest of the child to have equal access to both parents ... joint physical custody should be the presumption in Family Law."
There are less temperate voices. As a commentator who addresses father's rights, I hear these voices personally. Not only through letters of "thanks" but also through open threats of violence when the particular phrasing of a sentence is considered "anti-male."
It is my policy to confront threats of violence. For example, there was a recent and public call on the Internet for "God to bless" the hand of any man who beat me up. When the head of a men's rights organization seemed to endorse the call, I confronted him. Happily, the "endorsement" was a misunderstanding that embarrassed him more than me. He issued a public apology.
Given my commitment of standing up to threats, it is not in the spirit of conciliation but of justice that I say, "The family court system in North America must be reformed to include the rebuttable presumption of joint custody." This means family courts should presume that divorcing parents will equally share the legal and physical custody of children unless there is compelling reason to rule otherwise.
Reform is necessary to provide justice to fathers and to children in divorce. As a salutary side effect, reform may also be society's greatest protection against politically motivated violence.
Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and
a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She
is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new
book, Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century (Ivan
R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.
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