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, December 18, 2005

PBS Documentary “Breaking the Silence”: Evidently a Conspiracy

Sunday, December 18, 2005

In October, PBS released a scandalous documentary about domestic violence titled “Breaking the Silence”. Despite studied science on the issue, the producers of the show intentionally censored all information contrary to their partisan mission, which we know now was to go to extraordinary lengths portraying fathers as batterers who take custody of children as the final act of abuse. Breaking the Silence pretends that the system “routinely penalizes women who are victims of domestic violence by favoring their abusers in battles over child custody”. Anyone who knows about how domestic violence laws are routinely applied knows that when a woman files any allegation of abuse, or even fear of abuse, the father is immediately thrown out of the home and has little chance of custody and even visitation. The tactical purpose of the documentary is to synthesize an epidemic of unrestrained male batterers who seize children from completely unprotected abused women. Perhaps if this documentary were about life in Sudan, they might have a point. The producers walked into their own trap. One of the supposedly-abused women, who was attempting to seize custody of the child from the father, was found responsible for multiple acts of child abuse in court. Despite being informed of this fact in advance, the producers filmed the documentary according to the prefabricated story board, while refusing to include any perspectives from fathers with legitimate cases. CPB and PBS Ombudmen Agree That Breaking the Silence Is Flawed A tsunami of equalitarian organizations and activists rose to the occasion, taking PBS and CPB to task. Glenn Sacks, Carey Roberts, Wendy McElroy, Cathy Young, the American Coalition for Fathers and Children, Mark Rosenthal, Fathers and Families, and a cotillion of others called PBS and CPB out on the carpet. It did not take long for ombudsmen from PBS and CPB to agree with us. Ken Bode, the CPB ombudsman found that "there is no hint of balance in Breaking the Silence". The PBS Ombudsman, Michael Gettler opined “My assessment, as a viewer and as a journalist, is that this was a flawed presentation by PBS. I have no doubt that this subject merited serious exposure and that these problems exist and are hard to get at journalistically. But it seemed to me that PBS and CPTV were their own worst enemy and diminished the impact and usefulness of the examination of a real issue by what did, indeed, come across as a one-sided, advocacy program.” PBS published an article in Current, glossing over the major flaws in the documentary. The focus is quickly shifted away from the core issues we raise –- which are that the documentary is deeply unbalanced, partisan, sexist, and a fakery of science. Current conveniently changes the subject, pretending that the brouhaha is merely over whether parental alienation syndrome (PAS) exists or not. Whether or not parental alienation is a diagnosable psychological disorder is not an issue we have raised. We are interested in the fact that parental alienation often takes in divorce and custody situations, most often disrupting the child’s relationship with the father. It should be noted that even the leading critics in the “syndrome diagnosis” debate agree with us that parents often alienate children in divorce and custody situations. The issue we raise is the maltreatment of fathers, science, and facts surrounding divorce, child abuse, domestic violence, and parental alienation that masqueraded as documentary on domestic violence, intended to ensure that men are not afforded equal standing to be custodial parents in the event of divorce. Censorship, Multiple Abuses of Science, and Absence of Journalistic Ethics Dr. Richard Gardner defined parental alienation as ”any constellation of behaviors, whether conscious or unconscious, that could evoke a disturbance in the relationship between a child and the other parent”. Breaking the Silence is, in itself, an act of parental alienation aimed at all fathers. It is intended to cover for or rationalize-away the alienating behaviors of mothers -- even mothers known to be abusers – and generate irrational public fears and discrimination against fathers in public policy and law. Dr. Murray Straus, the leading authority on domestic violence objected strongly to misuse of his research cited out-of-context in the NNEDV Guide to “Breaking the Silence”. The intent of the guide was to create an illusion that fathers are responsible for the substantial majority of spousal and child abuse. Lasseur flatly justified censorship of all fathers perspectives (reasonable or otherwise), on the insupportable grounds that the fathers perspective is generically “destructive”. Read: when you are getting paid a half million dollars by radical feminists to do a partisan documentary, you only cite liturgy from the feminist “bible”. Lasseur’s alternate (and equally indefensible) excuse for his decision to entirely censor the father’s perspective pretends that censorship is somehow more balanced than giving the father’s perspective short shrift; ”If we had featured the stories of one man and five women who had been victims of domestic abuse, statistically we would have overstated the problems of men in this area. Nevertheless, we recognize that men are also victims and men are also sometimes victimized by family courts, but the fact is that many more women are victims”. Despite the torrent of valid criticism of the documentary, Dominique Lasseur, the producer of Breaking the Silence, clings defiantly to his indefensible film. He states in the Current article, “we believe that the comments and concerns that have come in so far [concerning the documentary] are often not based on the full and complete content of the program”. The reverse is true: the content of the program was intentionally not full or complete, as the producer has admitted in his prior two statements. We strenuously object to the fact that the producer intentionally censored information and perspectives that do not explicitly adhere to the radical feminist propaganda he attempts to transmogrify into social policy and jurisprudence. The Current article also features an evasive exculpatory statement by the producers, but nothing by anyone legitimately criticizing the film. Here, the producer cites the long-debunked feminist myth “while women are less likely than men to be victims of violent crimes overall, women are five to eight times more likely than men to be victimized by an intimate partner”, as his excuse for committing an hour of journalistic hate crimes. Lasseur has generated a number of nebulous statements in defense of his film. None of them would win in debate class because he has never directly rebutted the points of our remonstrance. Evidence Of Conspiracy Our complaint is now much more serious than before. I have uncovered evidence that the producers of Breaking the Silence were aware that it was not an honest film. Lasseur is planning another documentary aimed at establishing judicial accountability when judges do not acquiesce to the demands of radical women’s organizations. He is apparently working with Meera Fox, an attorney and executive Director of Abuse Solutions located in Berkeley, Ca, who among other things works the issues of domestic violence and child abuse as a trainer and presenter for public policy symposiums. Fox is evidently working with street-level women’s operatives, including the Mothers Research and Resource Center (MRRC), located in Gilbert, Arizona. As is the case with most non-professional street-level feminist advocates, MRRC is rather loose-lipped about what it is doing, revealing feminist Schadenfreude that can often be witnessed when internal information accidentally falls into the public eye. The MRRC website demonstrates what the entire chain of actors was really thinking and doing behind-the-scenes of Breaking the Silence. Both Meera Fox and Dominique Lasseur are apparently aware they are fabricating yet another false documentary, and that collecting supportive anecdotal footage might not be an easy task. The MRRC website contains an apparent confession [emphasis added]: “Dominique is passionately interested in continuing his work in this area, as he can see how raising the public's consciousness about this problem and indeed, creating a public outcry about it, will be key to achieving the reforms we seek in Family Court …. I know you will all agree that this is a project that would be worth its weight in gold if he [Lasseur] can pull it off. He envisions marketing a series on Family Court failure to Court TV, Frontline, America Undercover, or all three, if we can get him enough information, footage and support. The reason he met with me about this project is because I know all of you and he was hoping I could rally you troops to help him with his project.”
The phrase "worth its weight in gold" likely reveals Meena Fox’s end-goal as a feminist attorney in steering courts to liquidate fatherhood, seize family assets, and children. Is there any other substantial benefit she could possibly be chasing? We think not. "Pulling it off" is a term commonly used in planning bank robberies, political subterfuge, and other illegitimate activities. The statement that Lasseur is actively pursing the same target, and driving the execution of it all, suggests that he is on the same page.
We have archived this web page for future reference, since it will probably be deleted by the time you read this article. The business relationships between the Mary Kay Foundation, the producers, PBS, and feminist activists appear to constitute a profitable conspiracy against men in marriage and society. The actors used the profits of cosmetics to finance a false and inflammatory documentary, transmitted via the federally-supported public television network, thus allowing feminists the largesse to easily end marriages behind the closed doors of courtrooms for arbitrary and even irresponsible reasons. This can be done successfully only if radical feminists can project all family problems on the husband, thus seizing chattel control of family, assets, and income. Breaking the Silence plays into the larger multi-billion-dollar conspiracy of the “no-fault” divorce industry, that has bilked about half the fathers in America out of their earnings, savings, and social position as husbands and fathers. Divorce hurts far more women than it helps. In fact, divorce has left more women and children in poverty, without health insurance, and at risk than any other event in American history. CPB does not understand that it can help more women and children by helping spouses work through the normal problems and processes of marriage and aging than it does by perversely magnifying feminist agenda into a cause celebre for mass divorce. Dissembling Science to Suit Feminism Both MRRC and Meera Fox repeatedly refer to mothers as being the “protective parent” {archived copy]. In their usage, “Protective parent” means that motherly interference with the father-child relationship is expected to take place on ideological grounds alone. Read: parental alienation is “protective” when committed by a mother, but destructive and to women and children when committed by the father. The conversion of parental alienation into a label with two vastly disparate meanings based solely on gender of the actor, and the tactical reason for using this label, has certainly been discussed with Lasseur given the fact that it is core terminology for Fox and MRRC. In their review of Breaking the Silence, CPB and PBS must take note that “Protective parent” is a clearly fraudulent substitute label for parental alienation. This leaves Lasseur with no foundation in credibility to now justify the legitimacy of his recipe applied in Breaking the Silence. MRRC makes wildly-expansive claims about the results of its “National Protective Parents Survey”, reciting many factoids about divorce and domestic violence known to be either unreliable or false. Elsewhere on the MRRC web site, Meera admits that the survey includes only 157 respondents (apparently all are women). As is the norm for feminist activists, the MRRC website is loaded with anectodal stories, emotion, and factoids; and lacks any evidence of scientific balance or credibility. It is quite clear that MRRC is a highly-unreliable partisan information source that any responsible journalist would immediately avoid, but which Lasseur is apparently actively engaged. A major thrust of the pending documentary is to create the illusion that abusive fathers seizing control of children is somehow an American epidemic. This is absolutely false. According to The US Census Department, in 2003 single mothers represent 80% of all single-parent households, single fathers only represent 20%. If fathers seizing control of children in divorce is pandemic, the statistics would be reversed. If anything, the statistics prove that mothers seizing control of families is a problem – a fact reflected by the fact that father-absence has become our greatest social problem since 1960. MRRC and the documentary attempt to create the illusion that men are responsible for all family violence. The vast majority of credible studies and papers prove that women initiate slightly over half of all serious spousal altercations, and are responsible for over 2/3 of all serious child abuse. Breaking the Silence takes a position opposite of these facts by citing a variety of unreliable feminist studies. When observed from an aerial view, it is not unreasonable to conclude that Breaking the Silence was an act of parental alienation, collectively committed by all parties involved the creation and dissemination of the documentary. This places additional responsibility on CPB and PBS to make a robust and accurate documentary, to undo the damage it has done. Many Organizations Expect Responsible Decision by PBS PBS has taken a surprisingly long time to publish the results of its inquiry. At worst, this could be “stonewalling” (as they say in management science parlance). I do not see any justification for further delay. The issues are bright and clear. There is no evidence suggesting that this documentary is well-founded either in truth, science, or balance. It is merely a question of whether PBS has the simple corporate candor to set the record straight and make an acceptable compensatory documentary to correct the damage it has done to public attitudes towards men. PBS cannot take the position that it is innocent. At least on PBS affiliate was actively working with local feminist activists to place the film as training material to influence legislation and court decisions. PBS affiliates were also providing free advertising directing women to local feminist activists. CPB and PBS have done great damage by allowing Breaking the Silence to be aired on hundreds of stations, completely unvetted by leading experts on domestic violence and parental alienation. PBS now has a distinct responsibility to issue a balanced documentary, which should feature balanced, well established scientists on family violence, such as Dr. Murray Straus. It should openly include the situations of fathers who are most often the target of parental alienation. PBS must also implement a stringent pre-release review policy for all programs covering marriage, divorce, domestic violence, and child abuse, since they have often been similarly misrepresented by both NPR and PBS in the past.
Given the seriousness of this situation, I anticipate PBS will respond responsibly. In the event they do not, we are all fully prepared to pursue this issue, using all ethical means at our disposal, for as long as it takes until PBS finds reason to be responsible. Fathers will no longer sit for being abused by the media. Nine years ago, I organized the first national protest in the history of the men’s movement, over the movie “First Wives Club”. The protest, hastily organized in eight days and held in 26 cities across America, was covered briefly in Time Magazine. A segment was filmed for Hard Copy. Universal Studios immediately cancelled the sequel, which was already in progress, and has avoided these waters ever since. Our 2001 “Bridges for Children” father’s day informational protest was held in 226 cities around the world. Our movement is much stronger today. The Violence Against Women Act [HR 3402] now requires appropriate funding for services for men living in violent environments. Many women have walked away from radical feminism to advocate for healing and marital responsibility within the legitimate marriage and family-rights movements. Structural discrimination against men in education, home, and family is now common knowledge, and a major issue for forthright media outlets and state legislatures. Times have changed, and so must CPB. If PBS fails to honor its public mandate, Congress should end all funding of CPB and PBS. CPB is using public funds to broadcast perverse feminist social re-engineering propaganda to illegitimately influence legislation and judicial decisions. Secondly, if PBS fails to act appropriately, everyone considering membership or making a gift to CPB or PBS, should take note that their monies may be misused to spread hate and arbitrarily destroy marriage, fatherhood, and the futures of thousands of women and children. David R. Usher is President of the American Coalition for Fathers and Children, Missouri Coalition
posted by David R. Usher at 12:03 PM http://mensnewsdaily.com/blog/usher/2005/12/pbs-documentary-breaking-silence.html

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The FRO under scrutiny

by Leslie Whatmough,

August 31, 2005


Leslie Whatmough

On June 9, 2005 the McGuinty government announced the passage of Bill 155, legislation that promised to “increase enforcement, improve fairness and enhance efficiency at the Family Responsibility Office (FRO).” However, the legislation did not address the problem of accountability and, as things now stand, the FRO is a threat to every Canadian affected by a government–regulated support and custody arrangement system. Think of George Orwell’s 1984 and you’ll have a good picture of how issues are handled at the FRO.

They have legal power to extort money from Canadians, but are not responsible or accountable for their actions. Last year an FRO staff member decided not to wait for a court date to review the financial status of an out-of-work truck driver and took it upon themselves to suspend his license because he was, understandably, behind on his payments, having lost his job earlier in the year. Although he was looking for work, the FRO cut off the only way he knew of to earn a living. His suicide note explained how he’d lost all hope. Is this what we want FRO to be doing? It is one thing to chase after “dead-beat dads” (this philosophy is an integrated part of the FRO mandate), but what of the majority of people who pay regularly and lose their job or run into tough times? Should they too be stripped of their civil rights?

The FRO is a government agency and thus immune to extortion laws governing Canada.

The title, Family Responsibility Office, is misleading. Families are made up of connected individuals with complicated histories. To have a responsibility to a family is to have a responsibility to each individual member within the unit. Theoretically, the FRO should be an impartial third party in divorce and custody settlements introduced solely for the purpose of enforcing judgment, much like a collection agency.

According to the official FRO website, “This mandate requires FRO to be neutral in any dispute between a payor and a recipient.” The FRO has the power to enforce court orders for the benefit of the recipient, but if its system is neutral then shouldn’t enforcement be based on court decisions and none taken if the payor no longer has a source of income and is in the process of having it reviewed by the courts?

Instead, the structure of the system is adversarial and automatically assumes that the payor is irresponsible and deceptive. For the sake of comparison, note the tone in this letter sent from the National Student Loans Centre to all loan recipients: “If at any time during the repayment of your loan you experience financial difficulty causing you to have trouble in meeting your monthly payment obligations, please call us. There are options available to help you.” These options are not available to FRO payors. In fact the website states “If a payor no longer has an income source or stops working, the payor must continue to make support payments to the Family Responsibility Office.” Exactly how they are to do this with no income is a mystery.

The payor is expected to return to court to have his support obligation amended to accurately reflect his current situation. But the FRO can, and often does, decide that the court process is taking too long and will take enforcement action against the payor, without a trial or hearing. Enforcement action can include seizing a bank account, suspending a driver’s license, reporting the payor to professional licensing bodies, seizing and selling a payor’s assets, suspending a passport, reporting a payor to the credit bureau, collecting funds from any federal benefits, jail time of up to 180 days, and identifying information about the payor can be posted on a public website. Also, there are fees associated with every enforcement actions, for example a fee of $400 is charged to the payor if the FRO suspends their driver’s license. Is it any wonder they don’t want to wait for the courts when they have such a lucrative administration structure in place? The fee structure takes money out of the hands of the children the office was set up to protect, especially when they charge a parent who has lost their job and their income. If it weren’t a government organization these actions would be viewed as extortion.

According to Statistics Canada, there were 70,828 divorces in Canada in 2003. For every divorce involving children there had to be a legal proceeding to determine custody and support arrangements. This is an expensive process. The Canadian government is capitalizing on this system with an agency that ensures that parents paying support will be forced to revisit the courts every few years as their financial status changes. Those who try to challenge the system are punished with huge administration fees (payable to the FRO) and even jail time.

At the time of separation, unsuspecting Canadians are encouraged to enroll with the FRO, the agency empowered by the Ministry of Community, Family and Children’s Services, because it is supposed to simplify the support payment process. The reality is that once families have enrolled, all money is channeled through this agency, which profits from the interest earned while the funds sit in the coffers for weeks, even months, during the administrative process. The children and parents the FRO are supposed to be helping do not get any of the interest earned. There are also some very real concerns about the civil rights of Canadians with respect to some of the FRO enforcement powers. Prominent Toronto lawyer Clayton Ruby expressed his concern about posting payors’ identifying information on a public website: “Canada does not usually allow public humiliation of its citizens. I worry about that.”

In a press release dated June 17, 2004, Ontario Ombudsman Clare Lewis reported that after years of neglect, positive changes are coming to Ontario’s Family Responsibility Office: “positive movement has finally been made towards acquiring new technology that will better serve clients...we are finally on the right track.” Families dealing with the combined pressures of financial distress and the loss of the family unit do not need more technology; they need intervention, mediation and affordable legal action.

There is no question that if a payor is in a financial position to pay, but trying to avoid the responsibility, then enforcement action is necessary. But the assumption that payors who get into arrears do so willfully falls into the same line of thinking as guilty until proved innocent. Penalizing payors who are struggling financially and threatening their livelihood by taking away their driver’s license, putting them in prison, or destroying their reputation will not help the children who are at stake in a divorce. The FRO was originally set up to solve the problem of deadbeat dads. It was politically charged and thus untouchable, but at what point do we say: stop? At what point will its power have gone too far?

Monday, May 9, 2005

Federal incentives exist to make children fatherless

Phyllis Schlafly May 9, 2005 Why has Congress appropriated taxpayer money to give perverse incentives that break up families and deprive children of their fathers? The built-in financial incentives in the current child-support system have expanded the tragedy of fatherless children from the welfare class to millions of non-welfare divorced couples. Americans have finally realized that providing generous welfare through Aid to Families with Dependent Children was counterproductive because the father had to disappear in order for the mother to receive taxpayer-paid benefits. Fathers left home, illegitimacy rose in alarming numbers and children were worse off. AFDC provided a taxpayer-paid financial incentive to reward girls with their own monthly check, food stamps, health care and housing if they had illegitimate babies. "She doesn't need me, she's got welfare" became the mantra. Congress tried to reform the out-of-control welfare system by a series of child-support laws passed in 1975, 1984, 1988, 1996 (the famous Republican welfare reform), and 1999. Unfortunately, these laws morphed the welfare system into a massive middle-class child-support system that deprives millions of children of fathers who never abandoned them. As former President Ronald Reagan often said, "The most terrifying words in the English language are: "I'm from the government and I'm here to help you." People think that child-support enforcement benefits children, but it doesn't. When welfare agencies collect child support, the money actually goes to the government to reimburse it for welfare payments already given to mothers, supposedly to reduce the federal budget (which, of course, is never reduced). In 1984, Congress passed the Child Support Enforcement Amendment. It required states to adopt voluntary guidelines for child-support payments. In 1988, Congress passed the Family Support Act, which made the guidelines mandatory - along with criminal enforcement - and gave states less than one year to comply. The majority of states quickly adopted the model guidelines conveniently already written by a Department of Health and Human Services consultant who was president of what was shortly to become one of the nation's largest private collection companies, which makes its profits on the onerous guidelines that create arrearages. The 1988 law extended the guidelines to ALL child-support orders, even though the big majority of those families never had to interact with government in order to pay or receive child support. This massive expansion of federal control over private lives uses a Federal Case Registry to exercise surveillance over 19 million citizens whether or not they are behind in child-support payments. The states collect the child-support money and deposit it in a state fund, but the federal government pays most of the administrative costs and, therefore, dictates the way the system operates through mandates and financial incentives. The federal government pays 66 percent of the states' administrative overhead costs, 80 percent of computer and technology-enhancement costs, and 90 percent of DNA testing for paternity. In addition, the states share in a nearly $500 million incentive reward pool based on whatever the state collects. The states can get a waiver to spend this bonus money anyway they choose. However, most of the child support owed by welfare-class fathers is uncollectable. Most of them are either unemployed or have annual incomes less than $10,000. So, in order to cash in on federal bonus money, build their bureaucracies and brag about successful child-support enforcement, the states began bringing into the government system middle-class fathers with jobs who were never (and probably would never be) on welfare. These non-welfare families have grown to represent 83 percent of child-support cases and 92 percent of the money collected, creating a windfall of federal money flowing to the states. The federal incentives drive the system. The more divorces, and the higher the child-support guidelines are set and enforced (no matter how unreasonable), the more money state bureaucracies collect from the federal government. Follow the money. The less time that noncustodial parents (usually fathers) are permitted to be with their children, the more child support they are required pay into the state fund, and the higher the federal bonus to the states for collecting the money. States have powerful incentives to separate fathers from their children, to give near-total custody to mothers, to maintain the fathers' high-level support obligations even if their income is drastically reduced and to hang onto the father's payments as long as possible before paying them out to the mothers. The General Accounting Office reported that in 2002 that states were holding $657 million in undistributed child support. Fatherless boys are 63 percent more likely to run away and 37 percent more likely to abuse drugs. Fatherless girls are twice as likely to get pregnant and 53 percent more likely to commit suicide. Fatherless boys and girls are twice as likely to drop out of high school and twice as likely to end up in jail. We can no longer ignore how taxpayer money is providing incentive for divorce and creating fatherless children. Nor can we ignore the government's complicity in the predictable social costs that result from more than 17 million children growing up without fathers. ©2005 Copley News Service townhall.com

Sunday, May 8, 2005

The Fathers' Crusade

May 8, 2005

"After tomorrow, I'll have done everything there is to do," Jason Hatch said one night in February, staring wistfully into a near-finished glass of beer at a bar in Shrewsbury, England. Just a few hours earlier, he and some friends were enjoying a raucous, boisterous evening, all but driving out the other diners at a decorous French restaurant. Now, after several drinks at the bar, the lateness of the hour and the increasing proximity of Hatch's plans for the next day seemed to be catching up with him, and his mood took a turn toward the tense. By the following afternoon, Hatch, a 33-year-old former house painter and contractor, intended to scale a government office building near the prime minister's residence at 10 Downing Street. His friends, many of them co-conspirators, had gone home, the revelry had died down and he was clearly trying to regain some focus. Was he getting nervous? ''The police say Jason doesn't have fear like other people,'' he said, speaking of himself in the third person, perhaps hoping they were right.

If, earlier in the evening, others at the restaurant looked over to Hatch's table (and given the noise emanating from it, they surely did), they would have seen that Hatch wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the purple logo of Fathers 4 Justice, a political group that is well known in Britain for staging high-profile stunts to raise awareness about the custody rights of divorced and separated fathers. (In one memorable incident, a member pelted Prime Minister Tony Blair with a condom filled with purple flour.) Some might even have recognized Hatch and made a note to mention their brush with semi-celebrity to their friends: this was the man who scaled Buckingham Palace last year dressed as Batman, unfurling a banner in support of fathers' rights and spending more than five hours perched on a ledge near the palace balcony as security officers tried to talk him down. The event, which made news around the world, saturated the British media for nearly two days.

Hatch was arrested, but he was promptly released and never charged with a crime. ''I even got me ladder back,'' he likes to mention. Nonetheless, the police keep a close eye on him, even outside his own country. Several months after his Buckingham Palace stunt, Hatch, hoping to broaden his group's support in the United States, flew to New York, where a team of police tailed him and his colleagues for the duration of the five-day visit. (The cops finally announced themselves, befriended Hatch and his fellow would-be protesters and ended up escorting them to various downtown nightclubs, passing them off as royalty -- anything, apparently, to keep them from putting on capes and scaling the Brooklyn Bridge.)

At the bar in Shrewsbury, as Hatch fretted about the details of his next major stunt -- could he get a lighter ladder by tomorrow? -- he seemed overtaken by melancholy. He hadn't been sleeping, he said; his head ached. Three and a half years ago, Hatch's second wife left him, taking their two children with her. When he finally caught up with them, a family court granted him visitation rights. He later claimed in court that his wife regularly ignored the ruling, refusing to let him see the kids, but, he told me, the court did little to satisfy him. ''It really takes it out of me,'' he said. It had been so long since he'd seen his kids -- Charlie, who's 5, and Olivia, who is a year younger -- that their mother now claims they didn't want to see him, he said. They had started calling their grandfather Dad. (His wife has declined to speak to the press, other than to say that Hatch's activism has disturbed the children.)

Hatch first contacted Fathers 4 Justice a year and a half ago, after reading about their protests in the newspaper. The group's founder, Matt O'Connor, a 38-year-old divorced dad with a gift for public relations, visited Hatch at his home in Cheltenham to gauge his commitment -- and, as it turned out, to scope out some possible locations for protests. Two weeks later, Hatch found himself with three other fathers, standing atop a 250-foot-high suspension bridge in Bristol, dressed like a superhero, hanging a Fathers 4 Justice banner. For the 28 hours that Hatch and his colleagues remained on the bridge, the police rerouted commuters, as reporters and curious pedestrians gathered below. After years of ineffectual legal struggle, Hatch could finally see results: traffic had literally stopped on account of his cause. He went on to scale a series of other targets, including several court buildings, York Minster Cathedral and, finally, Buckingham Palace. The grandiose, symbolic gesture had become more satisfying than the niggling, humiliating legal maneuverings that never seemed to pan out.

Hatch's sense of despair about his estrangement from Charlie and Olivia has apparently swept away any concern he might have had about the most basic requirement of parenthood: his continuing good health. When he scaled the ladder at Buckingham Palace, the guards cocked their rifles, a sound captured chillingly on a videotape of the event. ''I'm not afraid to die, but I don't want to,'' Hatch, who now has a 14-month-old daughter with his current girlfriend, Gemma Polson, told me. ''I feel sorry for Amelia, obviously -- Amelia being me little daughter. If anything happens, she's going to lose out, but I still have to do it. I still have to go out there and get the law changed, and when the law's changed, you won't see me again.''

Now a full-time salaried havoc-wreaker for Fathers 4 Justice (the group raises money through membership fees), Hatch has a martyr's self-righteousness but also an adman's instinct to feed the media beast ever bigger morsels of a story. ''If I got shot, but survived,'' he said just before heading to bed for the night, ''that would be brilliant.''

Although some of the issues raised by Fathers 4 Justice concern quirks of the British custody system, most of them overlap with demands of divorced-fathers' groups in other countries: stronger enforcement of visitation rights, more shared-custody arrangements, a better public and legal acknowledgment of a father's importance in his child's life. In the United States, the influence and visibility of those groups have waxed and waned since the mid-70's, but they appear to be agitating now as never before. In the past year, class-action suits have been filed in more than 40 states, claiming that a father's constitutional right to be a parent guarantees him nothing less than 50 percent of the time with his children. And on the legislative front, last spring Iowa passed some of the strongest legislation to date in favor of joint physical custody -- the division of the child's time between the two parents as close to equal as possible. The policy, which resembles some legislation that Maine passed in 2001, encourages judges to grant joint physical custody if one parent requests it, unless the judge can give specifics to justify why that arrangement is not in the best interest of the child.

There are dozens of fathers' rights groups in the States, including the American Coalition for Fathers and Children, Dads Against Discrimination and the Alliance for Noncustodial Parents Rights. They may not have the name recognition that Fathers 4 Justice has on its own turf, but they work quietly behind the scenes, pushing for custody laws like the ones Iowa and Maine have passed, lobbying Congress and generally doing what they can to improve not just the rights but also the image of divorced fathers. In this last task, oddly enough, these groups have benefited from federal initiatives designed to motivate divorced or never-wed fathers who care all too little about their kids, as publicly financed ad campaigns remind the public how indispensible fathers are. (''Fathers Matter,'' shouted ads on New York City buses last year.)

Fathers' groups also benefit from a more general recognition that fathers, at least in some socioeconomic circles, are now much more involved in their children's lives. Some of that involvement is born of necessity, given how many mothers work, but necessity also seems to have effected a cultural shift, ushering in the era of the newly devoted dad. The traditional custody arrangement, with Mom as sole custodian and Dad demoted to weekend visitor, may have been painful, but practical, in a family with a 50's-style division of labor; but to the father who knows every Wiggle by name, the pediatrician's number by heart and how to make a bump-free ponytail, such an arrangement could be perceived as an outrage, regardless of what might be more convenient or who is the primary caretaker.

On the other hand, divorced dads still face some serious image problems, a function of well-known statistics that are hard to spin. In the United States, in the period following divorce, one study has found, close to half of all children lose contact with their fathers, with that figure rising to more than two-thirds after 10 years. Although child-support payments have crept up in recent years, in 2001 only 52 percent of divorced mothers received their full child-support payments; among women who had children out of wedlock, the number was around 32 percent. Fathers' rights groups have a tall order explaining those statistics, convincing judges -- and the country at large -- that if fathers skip town, or refuse payment, it's a function of how unfairly family courts treat them rather than the very reason that the courts treat fathers the way they do. Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, told me that fathers' rights groups are ''focused only on the rights of fathers, and not on the rights of children, and particularly, not on the obligations of fathers that should go with those rights.''

Some fathers' rights advocates in the United States fear that the Fathers 4 Justice approach to image overhaul will slow the movement's bid for respectability, but others are ready to try some kind of major action. To date, none of the fathers' groups in the States have managed to spark a sympathetic national dialogue in the way Fathers 4 Justice has done in England -- striving to recast divorced dads, en masse, as needy and lovable rather than as distant and neglectful. Without that sea change, fathers' groups here in America acknowledge, there's only so far they can go in changing the way judges rule, no matter what the laws can be made to say.

In January, Ned Holstein, president of Fathers and Families, a Massachusetts organization committed to improving fathers' access to their children, decided to devote one of the group's bimonthly meetings to a debate about the merits of Fathers 4 Justice-style tactics. To date, Holstein's organization has pursued its goals through traditional nonprofit pathways: hiring a lobbyist, an intern, a program coordinator, all financed by member-donated dollars. The group reached a milestone last fall, when it managed to put a nonbinding question about shared custody on the ballot for the November elections; 86 percent of those who voted on the issue supported a presumption of joint physical and legal custody. Despite the results his approach has yielded so far, Holstein told me before the Fathers and Families meeting, he was curious to see how his constituency would respond to the idea of following Fathers 4 Justice's lead, opting for what he calls ''the flamboyant route.''

Holstein, now 61, resolved his own divorce amicably about 10 years ago, arranging for shared physical custody of his kids. But the court consistently treated him, he says, like a crank, and he started to collect stories from fathers who fared far worse. Before long he had a cause. A doctor who frequently testifies in trials, Holstein has an easy way with statistics and studies and evidently enjoys his public role. As he drove me to the group's meeting at a private school in Braintree, Mass., he made an eloquent case for increasing fathers' access to their kids. He has no problem with the existing ''best interests of the child'' guideline that judges follow in reaching custody decisions, he explained. He simply contends that, as a matter of practice, judges underestimate how important a father's active involvement is to the best interest of the child -- and weekend visits twice a month don't constitute active involvement, in his view. ''At that point,'' Holstein said, ''visitations become painful, because they remind parent and child of what they don't have, which is intimacy.''

Holstein arrived at the school to find 40 or 50 men and a handful of women (mostly girlfriends and second wives) already there -- a fairly typical turnout, he said. After a short, rousing speech to start, Holstein turned the subject of the meeting to Fathers 4 Justice. Matt O'Connor, the British group's founder, had declared purple the color of the international father's movement, and Holstein said he was hoping the men in the audience would consider wearing a purple ribbon. ''I hope you will join me, and won't decide it's too . . . whatever,'' he said with a nervous laugh. ''Now I need someone to go around with the scissors, so we can cut up and pass around some ribbons.''

This apparently sounded suspiciously like sewing; there was an awkward silence. Finally, a woman in the third row raised her hand, but Holstein balked. ''We can't let a woman do this!'' he said.

''She wants it done right!'' someone chimed in, getting a big laugh. Soon enough, a middle-aged man in a mock turtleneck and khakis rose to the challenge, and the ribbons started circulating.

Choosing purple was one of Fathers 4 Justice's more savvy branding decisions. The color works for the group for the same reason Holstein worried his fathers might feel too ''whatever'' wearing it -- it's sort of a silly color, a kid's color and definitely not macho. Given the particular American constructs of masculinity, it's not clear how other elements of the Fathers 4 Justice aesthetic would play in the States: could a man running around in public in tights and a cape, mocking the law and defying security, ever be an emissary on behalf of American fatherhood? For some time now, O'Connor has considered starting a march of fathers in drag (''It's a drag being a dad,'' the signs would read), which suggests the size of the gap between his sensibility and that of the average American.

Humor has clearly been a key to the success of the British campaign, distancing Fathers 4 Justice from overtly misogynist groups like the Blackshirts in Australia, masked men in paramilitary uniforms who stalk the homes of women they feel have taken unfair advantage of the custody system. O'Connor realized early on that men marching in the street and shouting look like a public menace rather than like nurturing caretakers deserving of more time with their children. In England, the group has managed to offset that threat with goofy playfulness while holding on to enough dignity to maintain respectability. That balance might be even harder to strike in the States.

In the auditorium, Holstein's fathers sat for half an hour and watched video footage of Fathers 4 Justice, much of it set to a stirring soundtrack of U2 songs. ''Would everyone who's willing to be arrested please get on the bus?'' Matt O'Connor called out during one protest. There were scenes of a father and his daughter playing with their pet sheep, which the father had dyed purple; scenes of dozens of men dressed as Father Christmas staging a sit-in at the children's-affairs office of a government building; and scenes from two of the group's largest protests: the Men in Black march (which featured about a thousand fathers, as well as supportive mothers and grandmothers, dressed in sunglasses and black suits, to symbolize their grief), and the Rising, a march through London that drew more than 2,000 protesters.

Afterward, Robert Chase, a 39-year-old clean-cut Dartmouth graduate who met with Jason Hatch and his colleague when they came to New York, led the group in brainstorming protest ideas of their own. Men started offering suggestions: they could protest from one of Boston's duck boats; they could march to the harbor for a Boston Tea Party, only throwing their divorce decrees, not tea, into the water; they could dress up like Barney; they could dress up in burkas! The group seemed receptive to costumes, but there wasn't much enthusiasm for storming court buildings.

''I'm not in the mood to get arrested,'' one man called out. ''I got arrested enough during my divorce.'' This got a laugh.

''I like the idea of a parade, but it needs to be funny,'' another man said.

''Humor!'' Holstein exclaimed. ''Humor works better than anger!''

For most of American legal history, the laws required judges to consider sex the most significant factor when making custody decisions, although which sex had the advantage changed over time. Until the mid-1800's, under common law, a father's right to custody in the event of a divorce was so strong that it practically functioned as a property right. Toward the end of that century, this principle was reversed by the ''tender years'' doctrine -- the presumption that young children need to be with their mothers -- which lasted in a handful of jurisdictions into the early 80's. For the most part, however, by the late 70's, the ''tender years'' doctrine had given way to the less prejudiced, but also less clear, directive that judges base their decisions on the so-called best interest of the child. Today many fathers' rights advocates -- particularly those who filed the 40-some class-action lawsuits demanding a 50-50 split of custody -- would like to usher in a new paradigm: one that values parental rights as highly as the child's best interest.

Michael Newdow is one of the fathers who have been trying to make that case. He is best known as the California emergency-room doctor who represented himself last year in a case before the Supreme Court, arguing that the words ''under God'' in the Pledge of Allegiance violated the establishment clause of the United States Constitution. Newdow, an atheist, brought the suit on the grounds that the pledge forced the government's spiritual views onto his daughter, impeding her freedom of religious choice. The Supreme Court ruled that Newdow, given the particulars of his case and his custody issues, didn't have the standing to bring the suit. For five years leading up to his appearance before the Supreme Court, Newdow had two driving passions in his life: fighting for more custody of his daughter and fighting to eliminate ''under God'' from the pledge. When the court dismissed his case, the two passions collided and combusted, the destruction of one cause taking the other down with it.

Though he still practices emergency-room medicine, Newdow finds time to tour the country, speaking at conferences and law schools about the separation of church and state. Last winter, I met up with him at the University of Michigan Law School just after he finished giving a talk to some students. He was carrying a guitar and looked a little flustered, two details that turned out to be related: during his talks, he likes to sing a song he wrote about the establishment clause, only this time he flubbed the lyrics.

Fast-talking and faster-thinking, Newdow, 51, is a tall, thin man who manages to look crisply dressed in even informal clothing. Conversationally, he toggles between two modes, aggrieved and outraged, and he has an expressive face that seems well designed to reflect those emotions. That evening, sitting in the lobby of the Michigan Union, he talked for close to two hours about his troubles -- the custody battles he endured with his daughter's mother (whom he never married); the impassioned exchanges that alienated the family-court judge; the injustices he feels he suffered at the hands of foolish mediators; the court appearances over all manner of arcane disputes, including whether he could take his daughter out hunting for frogs one night (no) and whether he could take her to hear him argue before the Supreme Court (again, no). Although the courts deprived him of final decision-making power over his daughter, who is now 10, he does spend about 30 percent of the time with her, a relatively generous arrangement. Nonetheless, Newdow, who has spent half a million dollars on legal fees, the lion's share of those incurred by his child's mother, claims that the family-court system has ruined his life. He's a second-class parent, he said; he can't do the things he'd like to do with his daughter. The system allows his daughter's mother to stifle his freedom to care for his child the way he'd like. ''It's as bad as slavery,'' he said.

As a spokesman on behalf of fathers' rights -- or rather, as he makes a point of stressing, all parents' and children's rights -- Newdow is a brilliant, confident speaker, but sometimes he lacks a light touch. Hyperrational, occasionally tone-deaf, he'll admit that he knows enough to know that his logic often offends people, sane as it seems to him. Early on in our conversation, when he started to digress about the imbalance in reproductive rights -- women can choose to end a pregnancy but men can't -- he cut himself off. ''That's another issue, and it alienates people, and I don't want to alienate you,'' he said. ''Although I will eventually.'' It wasn't a threat, or a joke, or a regret -- it was just, to him, by now, a probability.

The following day, Newdow delivered a second talk at Michigan, this time on the subject of family law, to 50 or 60 students who filled a classroom. (Newdow himself attended Michigan Law School before becoming a doctor.) While the students listened, tossing back free pizza that a student group had provided, Newdow began discussing Troxel v. Granville, a 2000 Supreme Court ruling that has been warmly embraced by fathers' rights advocates. In that decision, the court held that a grandparent's visitation rights could not be granted without a parent's consent, even if a grandparent's visits were in the best interest of the child. In Troxel, Newdow noted, the court stated that parental rights are ''perhaps the oldest of fundamental liberty interests recognized by this court.'' If to be a parent is a fundamental constitutional right, he asked, how can the government violate that right without a showing a compelling state interest?

A hand went up. ''Isn't the best interest of the child a compelling state interest?''

This is one of Newdow's favorite questions. ''How do you prove what's best for the child?'' he asked. ''Somebody tell me what's best for the child. Let's take lunch. McDonald's or make tuna fish at home -- what's best? O.K., lunch at home, you don't risk a car accident, maybe the food's healthier. McDonald's, on the other hand, maybe it's more fun, maybe the kid sees something new, gets the confidence to go down the slide for the first time. When you're talking about two fit parents, who's to say what's best?''

But what also worried Newdow, he continued, was not the problem of how to determine what's ''best'' for the child, but rather the assumption that you can deprive someone of his or her fundamental parental right simply in order to make a child's life more pleasant. Of course, he conceded, society has an obligation to protect those, like children, who cannot protect themselves. But there is a world of difference between protecting someone from harm and improving his life more generally. ''We've gone from protection to suddenly 'make their lives better,''' he said. ''And that's a violation of equal protection -- because you're taking one person's life and ruining it to make another person's better. If you can show real harm to the child, the kind of harm that the state would protect any child in an intact family from -- abuse, neglect -- sure, of course, protect it. But when it's just what someone thinks might be better for the child, you have to weigh that compared to the harm suffered by the parent.''

In short, forget for a moment about tending to a child's optimal well-being: what about what's fair? If a child's parents are still married, courts don't worry about whether it's in the best interest of the child to go frogging late at night -- so why should they have the power to weigh that issue the instant two parents separate? Split the custody 50-50, Newdow proposes, and let each parent make independent decisions during his or her time with that child.

A young woman with long dark hair raised her hand. ''So you want to just split the kid 50-50, like Solomon?'' she asked. All around her, students looked either amused or incensed by the argument Newdow was making.

''Why is 70-30 so much better?'' he countered. ''And if 50-50 is so terrible, why do courts have no problem with parents who mutually agree to 50-50 arrangements?''

A quiet girl in the front row had a trickier question. ''What about when one parent wants to do something that permanently prohibits the other parent's freedom to exercise their own constitutional right to parent the way they see fit?'' she asked, searching for an example. ''Say, getting her daughter's ear pierced. You can do that on your own time, but it's permanent.''

For that kind of thing, Newdow conceded, you go to court. Here his logic seemed to be leading him to strange places: a father could take his teenage son to a strip club, but over an ear-piercing, he'd have to go to court?

The young woman's question illustrated the particular thorniness of parental rights. By exercising his or her own right, a parent may end up negating the other's. An accuser's right to hire an attorney doesn't complicate the right of the accused to legal defense; my right to free speech doesn't inhibit your right to the same. But if two parents are at odds, parental rights become a kind of zero-sum game of constitutional freedom.

David Meyer, a University of Illinois law professor who specializes in the intersection of family and constitutional laws, agrees with Newdow that the courts have recognized a fundamental parental right. The problem, Meyer says, is that so-called strict scrutiny -- the process by which the court determines whether there's a state interest so compelling that it should override a fundamental right -- is complicated when multiple people in a single family are asserting their fundamental constitutional rights. In Troxel, he notes, ''the court was forced into a mushy kind of balancing test, balancing the interests of the children and the parents and all kinds of facts.'' In his opinion in Troxel, Justice Clarence Thomas raised the question of why strict scrutiny wasn't being applied. ''None of the other justices answered him,'' Meyer told me. ''But implicitly the answer is: it just doesn't work here.''

Although Newdow rarely loses his temper, his complicated rationales for simple solutions can exasperate those who engage him in any conversation about the subject of custody. Joining Newdow at an informal law-school dinner the night before he spoke, Christina Whitman, a former professor of Newdow's, lost little time on congratulations before challenging him. ''Your [constitutional] right guarantees you equality in making your case before the judge,'' she pointed out, ''but it doesn't guarantee you equal custody. You have the right to an answer, not an answer you'd like.'' Only if the court's decision was arbitrary, she pointed out, would it be a violation of his constitutional right.

Newdow replied that the judges' rulings are, in fact, arbitrary, often depending on the expert opinion of psychologists to whom he grants zero scientific credibility. He cited textbook cases of judges making absurd decisions based on their own value judgments about what kind of parent would be the better custodian.

''But just because unfair decisions happen doesn't mean 50-50 is the answer,'' she said. ''That's a child's approach to equality.''

The two went round and round until Whitman took a breather to ask how old Newdow's daughter was. ''Ten,'' he told her. Whitman laughed. ''Just wait two years,'' she said, clearly speaking from experience. ''You won't want her anymore.''

Standing on the plaza outside Boston City Hall, an observer had to take a close look, amid the sea of Red Sox caps, to see the signs of romance on Valentine's Day. A teenager walked across the plaza with a handful of red and white carnations; a minute or two later, a man in a business suit passed by briskly, a Mylar balloon trailing behind him. As another man in a suit helped a young mother get her stroller down the plaza stairs, a deep chanting from the street below made its way to the plaza -- the echoing, slightly eerie sound of shouted slogans magnified by a bullhorn: ''It's Valentine's Day, and we can't see our kids!'' And then: ''What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!''

Robert Chase, the Dartmouth grad from the Fathers and Family meeting, didn't have much luck persuading those fathers to take to the streets, but he had managed to round up 30 or so protesters, a few from New Hampshire, his home state, to march under the banner ''Fathers 4 Justice US.'' (Similar protests were organized in 11 other cities across the country that day.) An entrepreneur who runs his own consulting business, Chase has custody of his two sons every other weekend. Several years ago, he lost the right to a third weekend per month when a judge determined that it was logistically onerous for the kids, which is what their mother argued in court. It was the last in a series of outcomes over the years that disappointed him. Chase, who speaks in considered, wholesome-sounding phrases, says that he has made peace with the arrangement now, especially since his children are teenagers with lives of their own. But he mourns the opportunities lost.

''We can't reclaim the together-time we lost while they were growing up,'' he told me. ''When you're spending only two or four days a month with your kids, you can't really teach them values, the difference between right and wrong. All you can do is love them, provide a positive example and hope they're getting what they need when they're outside your influence.''

In the years after the breakup of his marriage, Chase initially sought the help of various fathers' groups, but he told me he felt that most of them ''didn't do anything but sit around and complain.'' Like Jason Hatch, he got interested in Fathers 4 Justice after reading about the group in the news. A father for the first time at 22, Chase, now 39, said it suddenly occurred to him that his older son, now 17, could be a father himself in five or six years. He decided he should take whatever action was possible to make sure his sons and any future grandsons wouldn't encounter the same custody system he faced, should they ever suffer an unhappy divorce.

Outside City Hall, Chase and his team, mostly men but including a few women, started shuffling their way down Congress Street, some of them blowing whistles and horns. One man wore a devil's mask, with horns atop his head, and a judge's robe; another man in a judge's robe looked even scarier, with a mask of blue eyeballs, no nose, missing teeth, a misshapen skull and several well-placed boils. Other men, including Chase, were dressed in sunglasses and white decontamination suits that had purple hand prints (a Fathers 4 Justice symbol) smeared on them. Something about the mix of white and the flowing robes lent the men a vaguely Klannish aesthetic. As they whistled and bellowed their way down the street, they seemed to have lost sight of Ned Holstein's exhortation to try humor, not anger. A mother with her child approaching them on the street crossed over to the other side.

After a half-hour or so of chanting and marching, the group arrived at the main family-court building in Boston. At the plaza of the courthouse, one protester started beating a drum. A compact man with a neatly trimmed beard, a green tie and a houndstooth cap left the courthouse and passed the protesters. ''It could happen to you!'' the protesters chanted.

''It did happen to me,'' the man said. ''She went nuclear on me.'' In the fathers' rights community, the real weapons of mass destruction are false allegations of abuse. Fathers' rights advocates claim it's all too easy for women to use that strategy; feminists counter that too many family-court judges dismiss women's valid concerns about domestic violence. ''Two years and three-quarters of a million dollars later,'' the man continued, ''I got full custody of my kids, and was fully exonerated. But I've been living this for two years.'' Now the man, who declined to give his name, watched as some of the protesters performed some street theater: a monster in a judge's robe tearing up a kid's photo, one of the fathers punching him to the ground, a man in a decontamination suit with a broom pushing at the heap of a human on the street. ''I don't know about this,'' he said, gesturing at the protesters' garish pantomime. ''But the system does need fixing.''

While they were marching, members of Chase's group passed out fliers promoting fathers-4-justice.org and detailing all the harms that children without fathers are more likely to suffer -- drug problems, depression, less education. Unlike Michael Newdow, Chase pays little attention to legal rights, arguing exclusively that the interests of the father are aligned with those of the child, given all the social-science research that suggests that fatherless children fare poorly.

But some scholars argue that this reasoning mistakenly assumes that children's welfare works roughly on a sliding scale -- that if children with no fathers at all suffer various emotional and social setbacks, then children who see their fathers only, say, every other week might suffer roughly half those setbacks. Margaret Brinig, a professor of family law at the University of Iowa, has examined a longitudinal study of a national sample of more than 20,000 junior-high and high-school children, close to 3,000 of whom had divorced parents and lived with their mothers. Studying that select sample, she found that there was only one sort of custody arrangement that noticeably harmed children: having the child visit the father for sleepover visits only several times a year. Children in such arrangements, Brinig found, were significantly more likely to suffer from depression and fear of dying young. But whether a child had a sleepover with his father a few times a month or a few times a week didn't seem to influence that child's well-being in any measurable way. (Kids who had sleepovers with their fathers several times a month were less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol than kids who didn't, but Brinig posits that result as an exception to her overall conclusion.)

Fathers' advocates like Ned Holstein argue that Brinig's study might have found more positive results if more of the fathers in it had 50-50 custody, creating more intimate relationships, rather than measuring the difference between, say, one night a month and two nights a month. ''It's like prescribing one aspirin for cancer or two aspirin,'' he said. But Brinig remains wary of a presumption of joint physical custody. ''There's quite a bit of evidence to suggest that joint physical custody is definitely not good for kids when there's a high-conflict situation between the parents,'' she told me. The more shared the custody, the argument goes, the more the parents have to interact and the more the children are exposed to nasty exchanges and power plays. Fathers' rights advocates, by contrast, contend that it's the current winner-take-all system that creates conflict by forcing fearful parents into vitriolic attacks.

Since the early 90's, scores of studies on the subject of joint custody have been fired back and forth between the competing camps -- studies suggesting that joint physical or even joint legal custody, which gives each parent some decision-making power, fuels conflict; studies claiming that sons fare worse with a mother's sole custody; studies suggesting that children crave stability; studies suggesting that joint physical custody improves child-support payments; and so on. Some of the studies, accurate though they may be, can lead to difficult, even distasteful conclusions. Should policy really be based on studies that basically conclude it doesn't matter how often a father sees his kid, so long as it's more than a few times a year? On the other hand, it's almost impossible to measure how a presumption of joint physical custody affects the motivations of parents on both sides, how that extra bargaining chip might be abused. In one particularly influential study, researchers at Harvard and Stanford found that even in cases in which joint physical custody was granted, the arrangement often devolved into a primary-custodian situation, with the mother taking more responsibility -- but perhaps receiving less child support under the equal arrangement.

Robert Mnookin, director of the Harvard Negotiation Research Project and a professor at Harvard Law School, is the rare expert who concedes that each side has legitimate concerns. A presumption of joint physical custody would have ''some nice symbolic attributes,'' he told me; but he worries about how it would play out in practice. He notes that the parents whose custody negotiations end up going all the way to court tend to be the parents who fight the most. In those cases, he argues, forcing judges to implement joint physical custody is a bad idea for the kids, since it only perpetuates their exposure to the conflict. He contends, however, that if divorced parents know that a judge is disinclined to award joint physical custody in circumstances with a high degree of conflict, it creates an incentive for a parent who wants sole custody to create conflict. Mnookin says he doesn't favor the presumption of joint physical custody, although he concedes that without one, the system gives mothers an advantage. ''In times of cultural transition like this,'' he said, ''the law struggles.''

As Chase's group was marching through Boston, men all over the city paused to nod grimly and unload stories of how they felt they'd been abused by the custody system, or of how a friend had been. They weren't offering broad theories about constitutional rights or citing chapter and verse from social-science studies. Their complaints were mostly about the logistics of the system, its (to them) arbitrary rule over their finances, its judgments about their life choices, the punishments it doles out, its power to splinter into useless small pieces whatever relationship they'd struggled to build with their children -- all complaints that probably would have been echoed by as many women, had it been women marching down the street protesting about mothers' rights to custody.

One man in a blue oxford shirt ran down from his third-story office to get some contact information from Chase's group -- his brother-in-law, he said, was about to be arrested because he could no longer keep up with the child-support payments the court demanded. Another man said he had lost custody because he was home with the kids. ''And a man who's home with the kids isn't a homemaker; he's just unemployed,'' he said. Another passer-by had lost custody of his kids, he said, because he wasn't the primary caretaker; the child-support payments were killing him, he said (in Massachusetts, they can run up to 30 percent or more of gross income) and even still, he didn't have nearly as much time with his kids as he would have liked. The court held his wife in contempt for blocking his visitation, ''but she didn't care,'' he said. ''It's a slap on the wrist.'' A man with a Scandinavian accent, wearing a black zip-down sweater, said that he was supposed to see his kids every third weekend but that his wife moved out of state and uses every legal loophole she can to stop him from seeing them.

Boston that morning felt like a city of walking wounded -- men who stopped on their way to or from their workplaces to compare notes with one another about their losses; men who seemed eager to get someone to pay attention to what they saw as the tragic absurdities of their lives. Their stories came out fragmented, no doubt one-sided, but moving nonetheless. They were short chapters in much longer novels that could be written, that have all but been written, in fact, by those who have best captured modern-day male alienation -- Andre Dubus, Robert Stone, Richard Ford, David Gates -- with their stories of imperfect men and frustrated women and misunderstandings and low expectations all around. The city blocks that Chase's protesters walked must have contained thousands of divided families, and every one of the fathers in those families has hundreds of stories, every one of which he would happily tell to a family court, if only the judge had the time to really listen.

The morning Jason Hatch was scheduled to scale the building on Downing Street, Matt O'Connor, the Fathers 4 Justice founder, was sitting nervously at the coffee shop of the Thistle Hotel in London, a few blocks from Downing, waiting for a phone call. Leaders of social movements may have once hailed from the ranks of unions, sweatshops and churches, but it seems inevitable that in today's culture, O'Connor, one of England's most successful activists, had a career as a brand designer for hip restaurants. Sitting with his girlfriend at the time, Giselle, a yoga instructor, O'Connor left his cellphone out on the table, waiting for it to sound its customary ring: the theme song from ''Mission: Impossible.'' In the days before, whenever he spoke to me about Hatch's plan, he would take the battery out of his phone to thwart the government agents he was convinced could otherwise listen in. The police, he suspected, had been given advance warning of a few recent Fathers 4 Justice stunts they had managed to disrupt. As he waited for the phone call, he rehearsed for me some of his sound bites: ''Our government is turning a nation of fathers into a nation of McDads'' was one; ''We have a government of dysfunctional misfits who are trying to create a generation of dysfunctional kids'' was another.

O'Connor wasn't sure he'd have the chance to use his one-liners. Fathers 4 Justice had had a string of bad luck lately, and the security at Downing Street was thick. He was in the process of describing to me how Hatch had cased the building when his phone rang. It was a colleague on the scene at Downing Street calling from his cellphone. ''He's up!'' he yelled. O'Connor, in his camel's-hair coat and snakeskin boots, and his girlfriend, chic in oversize sunglasses and a broad hat, ran out the door of the coffee shop and hailed a cab. Heading for the site a few blocks away, catching their breath in the taxi, they could hear the sirens of police cars heading in the same direction.

When we arrived at Downing Street, the area surrounding the building had been cordoned off. High up enough that he looked quite small, Hatch, dressed as Batman, was standing on a ledge, along with two other men, both Fathers 4 Justice members, one dressed like Robin, the other dressed like Captain America. The three men had driven a truck up to the side of building and onto the pavement, mounted a ladder and, without a hitch, climbed up. They had made their way across the balcony to the corner of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office building, where they stood on what looked like a fairly narrow perch. They hung a large banner, reading ''Access Denied.'' The police apparently didn't notice anything until the men were already up and a crowd of onlookers had started cheering.

A cluster of boys in their school blazers waved wildly up to the men. Hatch put on his mask and twirled his cape. Six or seven teenage girls, also waving wildly, started screaming, Beatles-fan style, and blowing Hatch kisses. He blew a few back. Some more tourists and locals joined the crowd, and several large men in sunglasses and street clothes seemed to be keeping a particularly keen eye on the crowd. ''How are you, darling?'' Giselle said into O'Connor's cellphone, looking up nervously at Hatch, who had his own phone pressed to his ear.

Reporters lined up to get their sound bites from O'Connor. The press turnout was solid but perhaps a bit perfunctory. The media in England had already addressed the security angle in previous coverage, and after Buckingham Palace, every possible angle on paternity in Britain had been thoroughly worked. ''Right, we don't need to hear their message again, do we?'' I overheard a BBC reporter say into his cellphone to his producer. The press had also already exhausted its love affair with Hatch as Hero Dad. It had become public knowledge that Hatch had been convicted of threatening his second wife and that he had another child, with his first wife. After he scaled Buckingham Palace, his girlfriend told the press that she had dumped him because he was devoting too much time to Fathers 4 Justice and not enough to their baby. (The two have since reconciled -- ''I was very post-partum'' at the time, she told me -- but that story hasn't received as much play.)

As the afternoon wore on, the already gray day turned a little grayer, and a cold, wet wind picked up. The reporters down below, in scarves and boots, complained about their chilled feet. Several hundred feet up, on the ledge, it could only have been colder and windier, with superhero tights providing little protection. The three men had brought a knapsack filled with chocolates and Red Bull, but eventually the cold and the fatigue got to Captain America, who came down around 5 p.m. An hour or two later, Robin capitulated, too. By then, the crowd of bystanders had pretty much dissipated, but Hatch stayed put, his cape wrapped around him for warmth. Long after everyone else had gone home to dinner and kids and, finally, bed, he was still on the ledge, an outraged father, determined, cold and alone.

Susan Dominus is a contributing writer for the magazine. Her most recent cover article was about adult children of gay parents.