I have met and heard the tragic stories of many parents. PA is a function, by and large, of a custodial ex-partner, although some alienation can start while the couple is still together.

This blog is a story of experiences and observations of dysfunctional Family Law (FLAW), an arena pitting parent against parent, with children as the prize. Due to the gender bias in Family Law, that I have observed, this Blog has evolved from a focus solely on PA to one of the broader Family/Children's Rights area and the impact of Feminist mythology on Canadian Jurisprudence and the Divorce Industry.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

On Staten Island and elsewhere ~ More dads are waging custody wars

More dads are waging custody wars

A growing legion say the system is stacked against them
Sunday, February 01, 2009
By VIRGINIA N. SHERRY
STATEN ISLAND ADVANCE

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- They have spent years -- and thousands of dollars -- battling in Staten Island Family Court for child custody and visitation rights. And the results are frustration and disappointment.

They are among a growing army of well-intentioned fathers who view the system as stacked against them because of their gender, even though New York State law requires judges and magistrates to consider only the best interests of the child in disputes between parents.

The Island's Family Court is flooded with cases -- with an estimated 3,000 case in 2008. And the emotional impact of each reaches far beyond those directly involved in the legal disputes.

It has the power to issue custody and visitation orders until children are 18 years old. While the overwhelming public impression is that Family Court is the place where women go to obtain legal redress against dead-beat dads, there's another angle to the story.

"Times have changed," one father said.

An increasing number of dads are stepping up to the legal plate to fight custody and visitation battles against women they claim are dead-beat moms, he said.

His own struggles in Family Court prompted him to organize a fathers' rights group in 2007, but he disbanded it a few months later because the emotional stress of the beleaguered fathers was too much for him to handle.

Another father, with long experience in Family Court, was not hesitant to lambaste his dead-beat counterparts.

"Some of the men are just irresponsible," he said. "There a lot of jerks out there, and they are getting what they deserve."

On the other side, "There are thousands of guys out there like me," he said. Some men find themselves victims of "moms using the system to send dads into exile from their kids, taking them out of their lives with ease."

Mothers can be vindictive, "hell-bent on destroying you," charged another father who endured a Family Court battle over the custody of his young son. "It's hard. It took me three years to learn how to play the game. It was the worst experience of my entire life."

A VERY SAD CASE

"He's gone," said Michael, a 52-year-old Island father. "Look at this poor kid -- it's just horrible."

He was referring to Jaquan Porter, who was beaten to death in a decrepit basement apartment in Mariners Harbor the day after Christmas. He was just 10 years old.

Jaquan's mother, Melissa Sekulski, 30, was charged with first-degree manslaughter. After an autopsy, the city's medical examiner's office found that the boy was a victim of "battered child syndrome." This term is used to describe evidence of repeated physical violence, including internal injuries, bruises, lacerations and burns.

Michael sympathized with Jaquan's father, Charles Porter, 30, who lives in Harlem and is employed on the Island.

What do these two dads have in common?

Plenty of frustration with the Family Court system, which in theory is designed to protect children from unfit and abusive parents, men and women alike.

The nagging fear of neglect and abuse of their children is what motivates many working dads to hire lawyers, forfeit wages and overtime pay, exhaust personal savings and go into debt as they navigate unfamiliar territory in Family Court.

And they worry about worst-case scenarios: Decisions that grant temporary or permanent custody to mothers addicted to drugs or otherwise unfit for parenting.

"Can I finally do something when my child is dead?" one father, in a custody battle with his drug-addicted ex-wife, asked in an interview 10 days before Jaquan Porter lost his life.

'TREATED LIKE GARBAGE'

The fathers are furious about the system, which they claim is hostile to them from the outset, simply because they are men.

Jim began his custody battle with his ex-wife four years ago, when their only son was a very young boy.

"The court tried to break me, and treated me like garbage," he said.

The mother is an unreformed drug addict, he charged. But her lawyer managed quickly to transform the custody fight into a battle over visitation rights, because the attorney "knew how to manipulate the court," according to Jim.

"I was the mommy and daddy to my son -- I changed his diapers and fed him. She was always conked out on the couch," he told the Advance.

The Family Court denied Jim visitation rights for five months. Then, when he finally prevailed, "I had to visit my son on Stuyvesant Place (in St. George), in a dirty, filthy room with broken toys."

"Who suffers from all of this? The kids," he said. "We need to get these stories out."

Family Court "drains you financially and emotionally," said John Lotito, 25, who lives in Great Kills.

He described hours of waiting at the Family Court in St. George for each of his appearances, losses of full days' pay and endless adjournments in his four-year battle over custody, visitation and child support for his 4-year-old son.

"It's a way of trying to get you so frustrated that you drop the case. It seems that they want you to walk away. But I will not walk away from my son," he told the Advance.

Ken Licata of Silver Lake endured a four-year legal battle for custody of his two sons, now 15 and 21 years old. This Staten Island-born dad, who is retired from the Police Department and now works as a full-time Realtor, learned the ropes of the system the hard way.

"More and more men want to be good dads and do the right thing, but the courts alienate them," the 57-year-old commented. "I've heard over 2,000 stories from dads, and none of them are good. The system does not make sense. It's a machine for lawyers to make money."

Licata spent over $150,000 in attorney fees, "just trying to keep custody of my kids. They are everything to me," he told the Advance. He suffered huge financial losses and incurred substantial debt in the custody battle, he said.

He eventually prevailed in court, after he dismissed his lawyers and represented himself in court.

"It is bad for dads in Supreme Court, but it's even worse in Family Court," said Licata. "I personally know dads who almost committed suicide because their wives alienated them from their kids."

Licata said that his divorce and custody battle over 10 years ago motivated him to help other people. He said he has remained gender-neutral. "I gave guys a shoulder to cry on, but I also helped moms and grandmothers," he said.

FALSE ACCUSATIONS

Several dads told the Advance that the mothers of their children easily managed to obtain orders of protection from Family Court judges, without presenting any evidence.

"My order of protection came the day after I threatened to go for custody," said one father. "There was no evidence, but she got it anyway."

Robert, another dad, was shocked when his ex-wife requested and obtained a temporary order of protection on behalf of their young daughter, which had the effect of putting his request for unsupervised visits with the child in legal abeyance.

Even the judge seemed surprised because the mom never raised the issue of child abuse in previous court appearances, according to the official transcript that Robert provided to a reporter. Despite the judge's own stated skepticism, a temporary protection order was issued on behalf of the child.

The judge ordered an expedited and updated investigation of the mom's allegations. This "took forever," Robert said, pointing out that in the end he was exculpated. In the meantime, during the investigation, the court ordered that visits with his daughter had to take place under the watchful eye of a court-appointed specialist, to whom Robert had to pay over $65 an hour for each visit.

"I was basically accused of being a child molester," he told the Advance. "The writing was on the wall from day one that this was a frivolous case, but it robbed me of two years that I could have spent nurturing my daughter.

BATTLE FOR VISITATION

After the custody issue is settled, visitation arrangements for the noncustodial parent can quickly turn into another protracted Family Court battle.

Visitation fights begin in Family Court with a petition against the custodial parent.

If the parties cannot agree about the type and schedule for visitation when they first appear in court, judges often order the city's child-welfare agency, the Administration for Children's Services (ACS), to carry out a court-ordered investigation, known as a COI; appoint a law guardian to represent the child, and give a temporary visitation order to the noncustodial parent. The case is adjourned until the COI is completed.

If the issues remain unresolved by the next court date, the judge may order a forensics report, a formal evaluation of the parents and children that a psychologist or social worker carries out. This leads to yet another hearing, at a later date, so the judge can assess the appropriateness of visitation, and the type of visits that will be allowed.

Unsupervised visits are the most straightforward and sought-after. But if the court decides that a noncustodial parent cannot be left alone with the child, it can order supervised visits (with a family member, friend or child-welfare agency representative), or therapeutic visits (in the presence of a mental health professional).

SOME SYMPATHY

"No real man, no stand-up guy, wants to take a child away from his mother," said Michael.

Other dads also expressed emotional sensitivity.

"We lived together for a few years and then got married," said Robert, whose daughter is now 5 years old. "My wife was the sweetest -- I married a good woman. Then she snapped, and this started a war. That was the end of my life. The Family Court ruined me. They did everything they could to keep me from my daughter."

Jim went through four lawyers in his custody battle with his addicted ex-wife. In the end, she was awarded physical and legal custody of their only child, but he secured unsupervised visitation rights.

"All I wanted was to be with my son. This game is meant to break you. But I would not walk away from my kid," he said.

"There's a terrible injustice being done here."

Licata described the process as heart-breaking. "Dads who coached their kids' baseball games, who picked them up from school . . . the courts just wipe them out of their kids' lives," he said.

©2009 SI Advance
© 2009 SILive.com All Rights Reserved.

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