Anguish of fathers who are kept apart from their children
As Christmas approaches, a lot of fathers will be thinking even more of the children they would like to spend time with, but cannot. Nadia Arandjelovic looks at the issue of fathers who appear to be frozen out from taking an active part in raising their children despite wanting to be a responsible parent.
Paycheque. ATM. Sperm donor. These words describe how many fathers on the Island are made to feel after the relationships with their partners fail and they cannot get proper access to their children.
Eddie Tavares, co-founder of child advocacy group ChildWatch, told
The Royal Gazette that many fathers had become visitors in their children's lives rather than parents.
He said the court system was both adversarial and matriarchal and tended to paint most men with the same tainted brush.
As a result, fathers are rarely awarded joint custody and in more than 90 percent of cases mothers are the sole legal guardians of the child.
Fathers can suffer from what psychiatrist Richard A Garner coined 'Parental Alienation Syndrome' whereby one parent brainwashes the child to distance themselves from the other, according to Mr Tavares.
He said the situation was even more dire for men whose ex-spouses absconded with their children or those who have great difficulty getting access to their children abroad.
“Because we are a small community, many parents lose their children to overseas parents. A lot of them haven't seen them for years,” Mr Tavares said.
He recalled one man with an older daughter, who only recently found out that he has a younger daughter.
“The grandparents were sent a picture of the girl 15 years later,” Mr Tavares said. “The father only knows her by picture. It's a mess.
“I know of another situation where a father put a search out for his 30-year-old daughter and has not had any luck and out of frustration he has given up.
“He has asked a lot of agencies for help, but he wasn't able to locate her and it is a major problem.”
ChildWatch, which has between 150 and 200 members, was established 11 years ago under the belief that shared parenting was a better outcome and in the best interests of the child.
Mr Tavares started the organisation after struggling with his own custody agreement which gave him 48 days a year to spend with his son.
“How can you build a decent relationship with a child in just 48 days a year? We turn into visitors, we are not a parent, per se.
“That also affects the paternal side of the family as the grandparents also have limited access,” he said, adding there are nearly a dozen grandparents in his group.
According to Youth and Families Minister Glenn Blakeney, his department also advocates for shared parenting and has witnessed an increase in the number of men applying for joint custody of their children.
Mr Blakeney said he felt for fathers that deemed themselves responsible, caring and deserving of maintaining a healthy relationship with their child, but due to contentious issues with the child's mother were unable to do so.
“That is where human emotion gets involved and the child is stuck in the middle through no fault of their own,” he said.
It was difficult to know what the child wants in custody battles and sometimes other issues must be considered such as ex-spouses who say they were abused, he said.
“We need to find out how a balance can be found. I do have empathy for the men that may be very decent fathers but feel aggrieved because of their situations based on a toxic relationship with a significant other or spouse.
“Society does look very hard on men particularly with the litany of experiences that women can (tell the courts) they have been victims of verbal abuse and the like.”
Child Watch is currently advocating for legislation for shared parenting which would give both parents fair access and rights to the child.
Mr Tavares said custody battles should be taken out of the courts and is calling for a “family centre” that would assist ex-spouses in reaching a mutually agreed parenting plan.
He said: “A lot of men are really discouraged because the wheels spin slow and they want change and it is not seen so they just give up and walk away because they are looked at as a paycheque, or ATM, or sperm donor.
“We have grandmothers in our group too. They want to see the grandchildren and they see the unfairness of the way their sons are being treated and they love the grandchildren.”
At a parliamentary joint select committee meeting on violent crime and gun violence last week, Mr Tavares told politicians a high percentage of gang and drug problems are symptoms of dysfunctional families.
He said a shared parenting law would bring benefits to Bermuda and make it easier for both parents to stay in a child's life following relationship breakdown.
A shared parenting bill is due to be debated in Britain's House of Commons next summer. Such legislation is already in place in Australia, France, Denmark, Belgium and a number of US states. Sweden and Italy have adopted shared parenting laws; while Brazil has made 'Parental Alienation' illegal since August.
“We need to review the whole issue,” he urged. “We can help children and families to reconnect.”
He also defended those who are branded by society as “deadbeat dads” for not paying child support. He said fathers refused to pay because many times child support was used on the mother and the child went without their needs met.
He said they end up feeling more like an ATM machine than a parent.
“Society has labelled every father as a deadbeat dad, but you can't tar everyone with the same brush.
“A lot of these guys have too much pride. They feel they can't talk about these issues and are really devastated about it and do not want to make problems.
“But we have to step out of our shells and do the right thing.”
For more information on this issue or to get involved with ChildWatch call 292-3529 or childwatch.bermuda[AT]yahoo.com.