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Childwatch: Some guys not given a chance

Personal anguish: Shannon Tucker with daughter Ney’Cher

The plight of men is overlooked when broken relationships end up before the courts, according to the child advocacy group Childwatch.

“We need to change the system for the sake of children because some of these guys are not even given a chance,” group co-founder Eddie Tavares told The Royal Gazette, in the wake of articles exploring the troubles of single mothers in debt because of unpaid child support.

The case of Shannon Tucker was cited by the group: Mr Tucker spoke candidly of his anguish, including a descent into heroin addiction after he fell foul of the courts.

“I got dragged out of my bed with my children there and locked up for a child that wasn’t mine,” said Mr Tucker, who was denied a paternity test and ended up at Westgate Correctional Facility. “I wasn’t the same person when I left jail.”

Mr Tucker, 39, had a daughter and a son in 2003 when he was served with paternity claims by three different women.

“I was working security at my brother’s nightclub at the time,” he said. “I decided to rewrite my life and become a father, not knowing a spree of women would say I was the father of their children.”

According to Childwatch, a court-ordered paternity test was turned down on the third instance. Distraught and angry, Mr Tucker was arrested for failing to pay child support.

“They were acting like I wasn’t telling the truth and from there if you don’t say the right thing in court, you can go to jail,” he said. “I was there in court showing pictures of the rest of my children, saying you could look and see it wasn’t my child. I couldn’t take it. As they were taking me back to the police station to go to Westgate, I pulled out of my handcuffs and ran.”

The case made headlines and meant that his 90-day sentence for failing to pay child support was added to by three months for escaping custody.

“I’d never been to jail before and I really should not have been,” Mr Tucker said. “I was in a destructive state, screaming and crying and breaking up the furniture in my cell; just blaming the system.

“Guys who had been a long time in there were telling me I had to calm it down or I was going to end up being put somewhere worse. There was heroin in Westgate and I started taking it. By the time I left jail, I was on heroin.”

Mr Tucker’s mother was able to look after his young son and daughter, who had been present during his arrest, but he said the distress of incarceration, compounded by the death of his 24-year-old niece while he was in Westgate, fuelled his miseries.

He was jailed again in 2004, and in 2005. “I did it three times, back-to-back, for child support,” Mr Tucker said. “This was while I was struggling, on and off heroin, trying to get clean and always I would fall back because of the anger I felt.”

Mr Tucker said he has only recently managed to break his addiction. He is now married, with a daughter, Ney’Cher Tucker, who is nine months old.

Meanwhile, in 2009, he learnt of Childwatch, which was calling for child-custody battles to be taken out of the courts in favour of a gentler setting aimed at guiding couples towards shared parenting. “There needs to be more for guys who are in these situations,” he said. “It’s not like you can call your MP or dial a 411 number. There’s nothing at all for men. If somebody wants to start a foundation for men, I would love to be a part of it.”

Another man spoke to The Royal Gazette but asked not to be named so as to protect his son’s identity.

“My woes started 20 years ago,” he said. “Since my son’s birth, things with his mother really took a turn.

“I was there to witness the birth and I was prepared to go the distance. I wasn’t always the best individual, but when it came to my responsibility, I was prepared to do that. I wanted to be there for my son.”

He agreed to pay child support but only occasionally got to see the boy, who he claims grew up in a chaotic environment, being “pulled out of schools and taken to other schools; moved from house to house”.

The man ended up $7,000 in arrears over child support. “There was a five-year period when I just got burnt out,” he said. “It was taking its toll on me; making me sick.”

Eventually, after counselling and getting a lawyer, he came to a new child-support arrangement, but was given little time to see his child.

“They had me paying, but I was only allowed to see him every other weekend, which I didn’t like,” he said. “She had me picking him up and dropping him off at a parking lot.”

His former partner died when his son was 18, but custody of the young man, who has emotional and behavioural issues that his father blames on his unsettled childhood, went to the boy’s aunt rather than his father.

“I just feel victimised by the whole process,” he said. “I wanted to be there with him and I wanted to get him back into school, but his aunt was having him homeschooled for $800 a month. She wanted me to pay for that, too.”

Mr Tavares acknowledged that many women struggle to get the child support that is due, but said that the present system is often stacked unfairly in the mother’s favour.

“Some of these guys are in tough situations, too, and the courts will only see one side of it,” he said. “We believe that shared parenting gives both parents the opportunity to get counselling and iron out their differences; find an option that both can work with, rather than being told to, which causes resentment. The system we’ve got now is not working.” Imprisonment can occur because “men feel aggrieved by the system that’s not listening to them”, he said.

He added: “It’s not that they are defying the system; they’re not being listened to.”

Childwatch, Mr Tavares said, “doesn’t fight for fathers’ rights — we fight for the child being in the lives of both parents”.

• To learn more, see the group’s website at www.childwatch.bm or call 292-3529.