24.7.11

The use of violence by fathers’ rights activists: A compilation of news reports

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Amplify’d from www.xyonline.net
Note: The following is a compilation of examples of bomb threats, other forms of abuse or harassment, actual bombings, and other criminal behaviour (such as planned kidnapping) committed largely in the UK but also in Australia, by fathers’ right activists. It also includes some cases where fathers’ rights activists have convictions for domestic violence, although it concentrates on the use of bomb threats and other forms of public violence.
I compiled this collection of news reports using the media database “Factiva”. I searched for relevant items over the period from March 2006 back to mid-2003, and I looked only in newspaper reports (rather than also in radio, television, and other sources). I have copied below the news items I could find about the use of violence by fathers’ rights activists. I have omitted news reports of fathers’ rights actions involving non-violent direct action, such as those by Fathers4Justice in the UK (such as throwing a flour-filled condom at Prime Minister Tony Blair in the British Parliament, scaling Westminster Abbey in April 2006, and so on).
These news reports demonstrate that fathers’ rights groups have used tactics of intimidation and violence, such incidents are well documented, they are being used now rather than only in the past, and at times they have resulted in injuries or deaths.
In the “short version” of this compilation below, I have deleted text from each report that does not pertain directly to the use of violence. In the “long version” below this, I have included the full text for each item. However, I have made no changes to the actual text of these news items.
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SHORT VERSION

Howard’s family friendly court pick

Katherine Towers

25 June 2004

Australian Financial Review

[…] In 1980, Family Court Justice David Opas was shot dead in his Sydney home. Four years later, Justice Richard Gee was admitted to hospital after a bomb destroyed his Sydney home.

In July 1984, Pearl Watson, wife of Family Court judge Justice Ray Watson, was murdered when a bomb exploded on the doorstep of their home.

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Family Court security ‘at risk’.

By Benjamin Haslem.

15 July 2003

The Australian

[…] Mr Rowley said there was now “a much higher chance of security being compromised” in the Family Court, which has lost two judges to assassination and has been involved in numerous stabbings, shootings and assaults.

[…] In 1980, Family Court judge David Opas was assassinated outside his Sydney home in front of his young family.

Four years later Justice Richard Gee was killed when a bomb exploded at his Sydney home.

A month later a bomb exploded at the Family Court in Parramatta, three months before the wife of Justice Raymond Watson, Pearl, was killed by a bomb at the couple’s Sydney home.

CORRECTIONS - IN an article headlined “Family Court security ‘at risk’’’ on Page 3 yesterday it was reported that the then Family Court judge Richard Gee was killed when a bomb exploded at his Sydney home in 1984. Justice Gee was injured, not killed, and is still alive. The Australian sincerely apologises to Justice Gee, his family and friends for any distress caused by the error. (AUSTLN, 16/7/2003)

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Family courts under fire from angry parents and protesters

Jon Robins

11 January 2005

The Times

Jon Robins reports on how Cafcass is coping with some hostile campaigners

THE publicity stunts pulled off by campaiging fathers might make us smile, but the extremes to which some of the more militant protesters go are no joke to the staff of the Child and Family Courts Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass).

More than 100 hoax bomb warnings were sent to Cafcass offices in one year. The scale of the campaign against the troubled children’s court service was revealed recently in a dossier prepared by the National Association of Probation Officers (Napo).

[…] Over the past few months the campaign against Cafcass has increased. A package containing fish heads, rotting meat and maggots was delivered to the Portsmouth office in September. It was reported in the local press that one protester had said: “We have names and addresses” of Cafcass officers. In October, the following message was left on the answerphone at the Kingston office: “Your days of abusing children and families are numbered - the day of reckoning is at hand.” […]

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Law frustrates mothers” desire to tell the other side of story

Maxine Frith

15 September 2004

The Independent

THEY ARE portrayed as scorned women who take out their bitterness over a failed relationship on the innocent fathers of their children.

But for the former partners of men in the Fathers 4 Justice movement, the high-profile protests are a source of frustration and intimidation which leave them no right to reply.

[…] But the women whose former partners have joined F4J are often plunged into an impossible position by the stunts. They are frustrated by what they say is one-sided reporting of their ex-partners” conduct..

If they speak out, they risk breaching court injunctions over naming their children in public - many of the men, including the Batman protester Jason Hatch, circumvent these rules by changing their names.

When details do emerge, it becomes obvious that in many cases, the circumstances are not as clear cut as F4J often portrays them. Mr O”Connor”s former wife Sophie has said - and he has since admitted - that he had affairs, drank heavily and failed to keep to the initial arrangements for access to their children. Another F4J member, Conrad Campbell, told how he was jailed last year for texting his son on his birthday. But he had been sent on an anger management programme for attacking his former partner, and was under a court injunction.

Lawyers who act for the women also tend to refuse media requests for interviews.

Some outspoken solicitors have experienced the more intimidating tactics of the pressure group. The buildings of the Parker Bird law firm in Huddersfield were stormed this year by more than 15 members of F4J, who graffitied the walls. They presented Karen Woodhead, the head of family law, with a golden petrol can, which they claimed represented her firm “pouring petrol on the flames in divorce and childcare cases”.

Last summer, David Burrows, who was head of the Solicitors Family Law Association (SFLA), was ambushed by a protest outside his home. Kim Beatson, who chairs the SFLA, said: “They claim they are non-violent but they are becoming increasingly militant.” […]

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Poor, poor daddy. Nasty old mummy: The tactics now used by estranged fathers can only harm children

Madeleine Bunting:

6 February 2004

The Guardian

The tactics are those of the playground bully. Clever, attention grabbing, even witty: Batman, Robin, Superman and Spider-Man instigated traffic chaos this week in Bristol when they climbed Clifton suspension bridge to protest at the alleged systematic discrimination against fathers wanting contact with their children after divorce. Spider-Man pulled off a similar feat on London’s Tower Bridge last November when he sat in a crane for six days.

But it’s not just macho stunts. Fathers 4 Justice’s tactics are getting more personal and much nastier. A few days ago, they targeted the home of a third female family court judge. Judge Marilyn Mornington was away, so her two sons, 17 and 20, were left to face the demonstrators’ chanted threats. Last summer, there was a wave of 60 hoax bomb attacks on family courts across Britain. […]

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Mail bomb hoax alert.

15 August 2003

The Express

UP to 60 packages made to look like letter bombs and chemical or biological booby traps were posted to courts and family law centres yesterday.

At least half were sent to Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service offices.

Many were postmarked locally, suggesting a campaign rather than a lone protester. The packages proved harmless, but Scotland Yard’s anti-terrorist branch is investigating.

[…]

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“I HIT MY OWN WIFE”

231 words

5 January 2005

South Wales Echo

Prominent fathers” rights campaigner Matthew Mudge has a conviction for assaulting his former wife, it emerged today. Mr Mudge, 41, is chairman of the Cardiff branch of Fathers Need Families and a member of the controversial Fathers 4 Justice campaign.

[…] In 1998, Cardiff magistrates were told Mr Mudge denied hitting his wife in their then home in Whitchurch.

Today, he told the Echo he has never made a secret of his conviction, and that all the groups with whom he is involved - including Match: Mothers Apart from Their Children - know of his past.

“I have nothing to be ashamed of because, as I said at my trial, I did nothing wrong,” he said.

“I had never been in trouble with the police before, and I have not been in trouble since. All my friends know that I simply would not have behaved in that way.”

In court, Ilone Mudge, a doctor, accused her husband of punching her after breaking in to their bathroom when she locked herself inside. […]

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Welsh Fathers4Justice activist assaulted wife

By MARTIN SHIPTON Western Mail

5 January 2005

The Western Mail

The most prominent campaigner for fathers” rights in Wales has two convictions for assaulting his former wife.

During one of the assaults, which took place seven years ago, Matthew Mudge is alleged to have knocked his then wife unconscious.

Our disclosure comes after a network TV programme claimed several unnamed prominent members of Fathers4Justice had convictions involving domestic violence against their former partners. […]

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Protesting fathers are accused of dirty tricks

31 December 2004

Western Daily Press

A West courtroom worker has been branded a “Nazi war criminal” while colleagues face a stream of intimidation from fathers’ rights protesters, it was claimed yesterday.

Probation officers’ union Napo sent Children’s Minister Margaret Hodge a dossier about incidents of verbal abuse and physical threats.

They included more than 100 bomb hoaxes sent to offices of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass). It also claimed the names of family court staff had been published on websites, and their offices daubed with graffiti, locks glued, windows broken and banners unfurled on buildings calling them “child abusers”.

In one incident, a large, rotten fish was posted at a Cafcass office and another received a message saying:

“Your days of abusing children and families are numbered - the day of reckoning is at hand.” […]

A Cafcass spokeswoman claimed that Fathers4Justice was among the groups responsible for the intimidation.

She said: “We cannot go ahead like this. All our staff have the right to get on with their jobs without fear of intimidation.

“In the past, intimidating behaviour has been proven to have originated from Fathers4Justice.

“We have had the names of workers in Bristol and Taunton posted on websites.

“Following people down the street calling them child abusers, or saying ‘We know where you live’ is not acceptable.”

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Dads’ rights campaigners suspended

8 December 2004

Portsmouth News

TWO Fathers 4 Justice campaigners have been suspended after a News investigation exposed racism, sexism and violence at the heart of the Hampshire branch of the group.

Hampshire co-ordinator Phil Osgood and his right-hand man Paul Robinson could now be thrown out of the fathers’ rights group after our undercover investigation.

Yesterday, after our reporter infiltrated the group for three months, we revealed how Mr Osgood of Beryton Road, Gosport, bragged about threatening his ex-lover’s new boyfriend with a baseball bat and how some members got drunk while on camping trips with their children and called for ‘Pakis’ to be sent back home.

We also revealed how Mr Robinson of Eastern Avenue, Milton, Portsmouth, condoned violence on a woman who stopped a father seeing his child.

Mr Osgood defended his words and actions but Mr Robinson denied making the comments.

But now Fathers 4 Justice’s co-founder, Matt O’Connor, has suspended the pair and launched an inquiry into their behaviour.

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FATHERS 4 TERROR.

BY BECKY SHEAVES

25 November 2004

Daily Mail

HOW THINGS change. Just a few weeks ago I wrote an article in which I explained why, as a wife and mother, I passionately supported Fathers 4 Justice. […] But recent heavy-handed, intimidating and downright violent incidents by angry fathers’ rights activists have given me -- and many others -- cause for great concern.

It seems that the so-called ‘fathers’ move-ment’ has adopted similarly distasteful tactics to those used by animal rights protesters.

In doing so, the pressure group is in danger of alienating any moderate supporters it once had. In one of the worst incidents, an angry father poured petrol over a female solicitor’s car engine. If she had started the car, it could have exploded and caused enormous damage and injury.

In August, there was the occupation of Gloucester’s Cafcass (Children And Family Court Advisory And Support Service) office, when superhero- clad Fathers 4 Justice campaigners called the staff there ‘child abusers’ through a megaphone, identifying them by name.

The same office also came under attack when rotting meat and fish were pushed through its letterbox. Fathers 4 Justice has admitted it may have been involved. A senior member of Cafcass staff said: ‘The whole place was stinking for a week, the smell was revolting. And to be called child abusers is deeply insulting for my staff.’

In another unpleasant incident in the Midlands, Fathers 4 Justice activists invaded a Cafcass office and tied up an employee who suffered from a heart condition. Judges, too, have been targeted. Andrew Don, a district judge from Reading, gave a radio interview last month in which he said the law was not biased in favour of the mother, but aimed to serve the best interests of the child.

‘Almost immediately I received all kinds of aggressive e-mails with threats,’ he said. Days later, his office was invaded by ten men from Fathers 4 Justice in decontamination suits. So much for freedom of speech.

CAFCASS court reporters are members of Napo, the National Association of Probation Officers, and the organisation has been so appalled by the threats meted out to its members by militant fathers that it has compiled a dossier of incidents of intimidation. The union is due to present its claims to Government ministers this month.

And so it seems that what began as an earnest and heartfelt campaign is, sadly, now attracting the sort of men who are angry, aggressive and violent. The very men I would hope the courts do keep away from children.

Jason Hatch, the Batman who occupied the Buckingham Palace balcony for six hours in September, has four children by three women, all in relationships which have since foundered.

In January 2002, Hatch appeared at Gloucester Crown Court accused of threatening to kill his then wife Victoria Jones, mother of two of his children. It was ordered that the charges were to lie on file.

Despite this, Fathers 4 Justice refuses to condemn him and he remains one of the campaign’s leading lights.

‘What he said to Victoria was uttered in the heat of the moment during a time when he was very upset and distressed at not seeing his children,’ says the campaign’s leader, Matt O’Connor. Be that as it may, Hatch has subsequently not helped his cause by boasting to an undercover journalist that he has bedded more than 100 women in his life and revealing a worryingly misogynistic streak.

‘I just love ******* women,’ he told the reporter. ‘I’ve had more than 100 one-night stands in the past five years. They are all bitches.’

Matt O’Connor points out that a high number of lovers does not necessarily make a man a bad father. True, but in a battle for the hearts and minds of the British public, such information is hardly likely to boost the Fathers 4 Justice campaign.

The pressure group does have one man convicted of violence among its most high-profile activists. He is deputy leader Eddie Gorecki, 46, who recently scaled the Royal Courts of Justice dressed as Batman. He married his ex-wife, Kelly, in 1988. They have four children together, but it was a relationship marred by violence, so much so that Kelly several times took out injunctions against Gorecki.

In 1995, according to Kelly, he beat her so badly that she suffered two skull fractures and spent five days in intensive care. He later attacked her cousin at a barbecue during a heated family row.

KELLY has said: ‘I ended up dropping the charges. He then beat up my cousin, Shelly. He is a thug and he shouldn’t represent decent fathers.’ Shelly Johnson, Kelly’s cousin, suffered a broken nose and black eyes and didn’t shy away from pressing charges against Gorecki. He was jailed for nine months for affray and assault in June 2001. You would imagine that Fathers 4 Justice would want to distance itself from these violent, dangerous men. But Matt O’Connor refuses to do so.

‘I believe in rehabilitation and righting wrongs,’ he told me yesterday. ‘If a man has done his time and taken his punishment, he should be given another chance. These men can still be loving, devoted fathers. The violence issue is really peripheral to our campaign.’ […]

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Fathers ‘terrorise’ lawyers

John Elliott and Abul Taher

21 November 2004

The Sunday Times

Campaigners accused of threats

MEMBERS of Fathers 4 Justice have been accused of inspiring a campaign of violent threats and intimidation against court staff and family lawyers.

A dossier compiled by the union representing family court staff shows its members have been sent fake letter bombs and hate mail, had rotting meat put through an office letter box and been subjected to verbal abuse.

In one of the worst incidents -for which nobody has claimed responsibility -a solicitor found her car engine and headlights doused in petrol, which could have exploded when she started the engine.

Fathers 4 Justice, which seeks to improve fathers’ access to children following marriage break-ups, denies involvement in this incident but admits staging attacks on the offices of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass).

It denies its members have carried out attacks on individuals. However, the union, Napo, accuses it of leading the campaign against Cafcass staff.

The union, which will present its evidence to ministers this month, claims Fathers 4 Justice and other fathers’ rights groups have in the past year adopted similar tactics to animal rights militants where staff have been “named and shamed” on websites. This is staunchly denied by Fathers 4 Justice.

[…] In one of the most serious attacks, 60 fake bombs were sent to Cafcass offices last year causing buildings to be evacuated and anti-terrorist police brought in to investigate. […]

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Workplace Staff targeted in hate campaign.

Shirley Kumar

28 October 2004

Community Care

A small number of fathers’ rights “campaigners” are mounting a hate campaign against the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Services.

In the past five months, rotting fish, decomposing meat and live maggots have been posted through the letterboxes of 20 regional offices in England and Wales.

Children and family court reporters have been followed home, received abusive phone calls and had personal property vandalised. Last year, around 100 suspect parcels were posted to regional offices. […]

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Police launch investigation as MP targeted in handbills

By BESSIE ROBINSON

384 words

15 October 2004

The Northern Echo

05

English

(c) 2004 North of England Newspapers.

HUNDREDS of handbills attacking one of the region’s most senior MPs were delivered to homes and businesses across her constituency in a co-ordinated night-time operation.

Police are investigating Tuesday’s leaflet drop, which was branded the work of cowards and bullies by their target, Government Chief Whip and North-West Durham MP Hilary Armstrong.

Over a few hours, residents in an area covering Crook, Wolsingham, Frosterley, Castleside, Lanchester and Langley Park, in County Durham, reported seeing young men in dark suits handing out the unsigned photocopies.

In Wolsingham, they were seen working in pairs in the Market Place at about 8.30pm before a group of six met up and moved to another part of the village.

The literature claimed to be “not from a political party, but from a mother whose family has been destroyed”, and criticised her stance on such issues as homosexuality, drug misuse, domestic violence, foxhunting, rural crime and fathers’ rights. […]

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Who’s afraid of the big bad dad? His idea of protest is to harass women and children, dressed in the black shirt of historical oppression. Meet the leader of the extreme wing of the father’s movement. By Julie-Anne Davies.

By Julie-Anne Davies

1,131 words

12 October 2004

The Bulletin

Volume 122; Number 41

[…] Abbott is the charismatic leader of the “Black Shirts”, a disparate group of middle-aged (mainly) men whose demands include repeal of divorce laws and the abolition of the Family Court. Their vigilante tactics - staging demonstrations outside women’s homes dressed in their heavily symbolic black uniforms and masks, and addressing the neighbourhood with megaphones - were last week described by a Victorian County Court judge as grotesque.

The judge’s comments came after Abbott was found guilty of stalking a Melbourne woman who was formerly married to an associate of his. During the trial, the court heard that Abbott and three or four of his masked cohorts staged two protests outside the woman’s home. The group also letterboxed the woman’s neighbours with leaflets that said, among other things, that she was involved in a child-access dispute and described her as a “so-called mother”. None of this impressed Judge Leslie Ross, who, in sentencing Abbott to four months’ jail (suspended for 18 months), equated the Black Shirts’ intimidating attire with European fascist oppression.

[…]

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Blackshirt gets suspended jail term

Chee Chee Leung

30 September 2004

The Age

The leader of the Blackshirts fathers’ group walked free from court yesterday after receiving a suspended jail term for stalking a divorced mother.

A County Court judge described John Abbott’s conduct as grotesque and frightening, before imposing a four-month prison sentence, suspended for 18 months.

The 58-year-old was found guilty on Tuesday of stalking the woman in September 2001 by holding two protests outside her eastern suburbs home.

Abbott and three or four other men wore black uniforms and masked their faces with scarves in what the judge described as “quite grotesque” behaviour.

Judge Leslie Ross said the Blackshirts’ intimidating attire was synonymous with European oppression, and led to a “most harrowing and frightening” situation.

He said it was unacceptable and unpardonable that the group used a loudspeaker and named the woman, who was formerly married to an associate of Abbott. The men also distributed leaflets to the woman’s neighbours that said she was in a child-access dispute and described her as a “so-called mother”. […]

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Abbott to put shirt on political push

Peter Ellingsen

592 words

3 October 2004

Sunday Age

Last week the law caught up with John Abbott. The leader of the Blackshirts fathers’ group was found guilty in the County Court of stalking, and given a four-month suspended jail sentence. It came two years after Abbott, 58, shocked the city by leading posses of masked men to protest outside the homes of often terrified women. […]

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Fathers 4 Justice to disband in wake of kidnapping plot

Jan Melrose

493 words

19 January 2006

THE fathers’ rights campaigner who carried out a flour bomb attack on Tony Blair has condemned a plot to kidnap the Prime Minister’s son.

Ron Davis, from Findon near Worthing, spoke yesterday before Fathers 4 Justice announced it was to disband in the wake of the furore over the alleged plot.

Mr Davis hit the headlines in 2004 when he and Guy Harrison, from Steyning, threw three condoms filled with purple flour over Mr Blair in the House of Commons.

The stunt was to raise awareness of the group’s view that fathers are unfairly treated by family courts.

But the kidnap plan, reported by The Sun newspaper yesterday to have been planned by a group of extremists on the periphery of Fathers 4 Justice, provoked widespread condemnation.

Mr Davis, who has not seen his 15-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son in seven years, said the plot to abduct five-year-old Leo was “horrendous”.

Later last night, the group’s leader Matt O’Connor told Channel 4 News the group could not continue in light of such negative publicity. He said: “I regret to say that three years after starting the organisation, we’re going to cease and bring it to a close.”

However, Terence Bates, of splinter group Real Fathers 4 Justice, insisted they would continue to campaign. He said Mr O’Connor should have wound up his arm of the group a year ago when it split.

[…] Special branch officers uncovered the plot as they investigated ex-members of Fathers 4 Justice expelled from the organisation for extremist behaviour. […]

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Family courts under fire from angry parents and protesters

Jon Robins

965 words

11 January 2005

The Times

Jon Robins reports on how Cafcass is coping with some hostile campaigners

THE publicity stunts pulled off by campaiging fathers might make us smile, but the extremes to which some of the more militant protesters go are no joke to the staff of the Child and Family Courts Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass).

More than 100 hoax bomb warnings were sent to Cafcass offices in one year. The scale of the campaign against the troubled children’s court service was revealed recently in a dossier prepared by the National Association of Probation Officers (Napo). Surely such sustained intimidation must take a toll on its staff? Anthony Douglas, Cafcass chief executive, insists that it has not affected their work. He has been in the job since September and since then has visited 112 of Cafcass’s 140 offices and met about 1,400 staff. He has been impressed by the “total commitment and love of their work”.

But he says: “Many staff, particularly in the private law work, feel a cumulative bombardment and attrition from angry parents and, in particular, from the pressure groups.”

It is hardly surprising. Over the past few months the campaign against Cafcass has increased. A package containing fish heads, rotting meat and maggots was delivered to the Portsmouth office in September. It was reported in the local press that one protester had said: “We have names and addresses” of Cafcass officers. In October, the following message was left on the answerphone at the Kingston office: “Your days of abusing children and families are numbered - the day of reckoning is at hand.” […]

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Breakaway groups no threat, despite kidnapping rumour;Fathers 4 Justice

Stewart Tendler and Lewis Smith

354 words

21 January 2006

The Times

35

English

(c) 2006 Times Newspapers Limited. All rights reserved

REAL Fathers 4 Justice and other breakaway groups are being monitored by police but are not thought to present a significant threat of extremist action.

Despite the reported plot to kidnap Tony Blair’s youngest son, security services regard fathers’ rights campaigners as likely to be a nuisance rather than a danger.

The National Extremism Tactical Co-ordination Unit, set up by chief constables, is still concentrating on animal rights groups and will start looking at fathers’ rights campaigners only if they become more of a threat.

Monitoring of known activists is being carried out by individual forces, senior police officers said yesterday, and Special Branch officers are briefed to watch for more extreme tendencies. […]

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End of the road for league of irate dads

James Button Herald Correspondent in London

783 words

21 January 2006

The Sydney Morning Herald

Blair kidnap plot is final straw

IT WAS 10 days before Christmas, not the best time in the lives of men separated from their children. The group of men had been to a demonstration in Londonof the fathers’ rights group Fathers4Justice.

Dressed in the Santa Claus costumes they wore to the rally, they were having a pint and talking tactics in Ye Olde London Pub, near St Paul’s Cathedral.

One of the men suggested: “What about kidnapping the Prime Minister’s son?”

Whether it was a serious plan or just the beer talking, word of it reached police. While The Sun, which broke the story this week, talked breathlessly of police “smashing” the plot in a series of raids, men who had been present said police had in fact visited their homes for a talk.

But police did reportedly tell them they would be shot dead if they tried to carry out the kidnap attempt on Leo Blair, 5.

So ended what was probably the world’s best-known fathers’ rights group. A day after the plot was revealed, the despairing leader of Fathers4Justice, Matt O’Connor, said he was disbanding the organisation he founded in 2002.

[…] Although the organisation pelted Blair in the House of Commons with condoms full of purple flour - prompting The Times to describe it as “the most prominent guerilla pressure group in Britain” - Mr O’Connor said he was non-violent and his heroes included Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

Under his leadership the organisation grew to claim 12,000 members. It opened branches in Australia, Canada, the Netherlands and the US. In January last year GQ named Mr O’Connor the 92nd most powerful man in Britain.

But the group had a harsher side, what Mr O’Connor this week called a “dark underbelly”. Solicitors who took briefs for mothers in family court cases were bombarded with abusive emails; unpopular judges were visited at home.

In August 2003 anti-terrorist police investigated the posting of 60 hoax bombs to court offices. Former wives and girlfriends of some of the fathers told The Times of break-ups involving domestic violence and terrifying scenes of aggression in front of children.

A splinter faction, which resented Mr O’Connor for what they saw as his domineering approach, last year formed Real Fathers4Justice. This group is blamed for the kidnap plan but its director, Jeff Skinner, told The Guardian the idea that the plot was serious was ridiculous.

“Somebody said, ‘Why don’t we kidnap the Prime Minister’s son’. Everyone told him, ‘Don’t be stupid’.”

A police investigator agreed, telling The Times: “This bird was never going to fly.”

But the formation of the breakaway radical wing - along with fears that some militant fathers in Liverpool are planning violent direct action - prompted police to increase surveillance of the group. […]

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Plot to kidnap Blair’s son surfaces: Extremists in group advocating fathers’ rights suspected

Sarah Womack and George Jones

The Daily Telegraph; with files from Agence France-Presse and Reuters

904 words

19 January 2006

National Post

National

LONDON - Fathers 4 Justice, an advocacy group for men involved in child custody battles, was abruptly disbanded yesterday after allegations extremist members were plotting to kidnap the five- […]

The kidnap plan, apparently in its early stages, was revealed by The Sun newspaper yesterday and confirmed by police sources to the BBC.

Britain’s biggest-selling daily said “vigilante dads” aimed to kidnap Leo Blair and hold him hostage for a short period to “highlight the plight of fathers denied access to their kids.”

[…] The group has staged lighthearted stunts such as crane-top protesters dressed as comic-book heroes and climbing public buildings.

Campaigners have become highly confrontational: Lawyers have been bombarded with abusive e-mails, court offices stormed and judges visited at home.

These activities led to accusations from lawyers and former wives that the organization had created an atmosphere of intimidation and fear.

Some former wives and girlfriends of the group’s members described the breakups of their relationships as involving violence and told of being forced to live in refuges and incidents in which their children witnessed frightening aggression by their fathers.

Two years ago, anti-terrorist police were called in to investigate the sending of 60 hoax bombs to family court offices around the country by extremists -- denounced by Fathers 4 Justice -- demanding more rights for fathers.

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Fathers 4 Violence

Rachel Richardson

322 words

6 November 2005

The News of the World

Dads’ army thugs shock

THE caring dads’ army image of the Fathers4Justice group is set to be blown apart as extremist members are exposed as VIOLENT BULLIES.

The group-who dress as superheroes to campaign for more fathers’ rights contains yobs who will stop at nothing to further their cause, a shocking TV documentary will reveal.

Prominent member Eddie “Goldtooth” Gorecki-who scaled London’s Royal Courts of Justice wearing a Batman outfit (right)-allegedly threatened to KILL his ex-partner Kelly to force her to allow him access to his four kids.

Beating

One activist boasted about planning a “HIT” on another member’s ex-missus, the ITV1 Tonight With Trevor McDonald show, will reveal.

And he crowed to an undercover reporter about how he “FLATTENED” his ex-wife’s nose.

While another member suggested plotting a SECURITY SCARE on the Tube -just a week after the July 7 terror bombs. Gor- ecki, 46, a well-respected deputy leader, is also filmed making sick racist and sexist remarks, and bragging about vandalising courts and children’s charity offices.

The hardliner-who has convictions for armed robbery and assault-allegedly beat his ex Kelly so badly she suffered a fractured skull and spent five days in intensive care.

Fanatics from the group-which once powder- bombed Premier Tony Blair-were the subject of a year-long secret investigation.

A TV insider said: “Many of the activists are happy to bully ex-lovers and threaten anyone in their way.”

[…] Dads’ Army: Inside Fathers For Justice, is on ITV1 tomorrow and Friday at 8pm.

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LONG VERSION

Family courts under fire from angry parents and protesters

Jon Robins

965 words

11 January 2005


Law 3

English

(c) 2005 Times Newspapers Limited. All rights reserved

Jon Robins reports on how Cafcass is coping with some hostile campaigners

THE publicity stunts pulled off by campaiging fathers might make us smile, but the extremes to which some of the more militant protesters go are no joke to the staff of the Child and Family Courts Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass).

More than 100 hoax bomb warnings were sent to Cafcass offices in one year. The scale of the campaign against the troubled children’s court service was revealed recently in a dossier prepared by the National Association of Probation Officers (Napo). Surely such sustained intimidation must take a toll on its staff? Anthony Douglas, Cafcass chief executive, insists that it has not affected their work. He has been in the job since September and since then has visited 112 of Cafcass’s 140 offices and met about 1,400 staff. He has been impressed by the “total commitment and love of their work”.

But he says: “Many staff, particularly in the private law work, feel a cumulative bombardment and attrition from angry parents and, in particular, from the pressure groups.”

It is hardly surprising. Over the past few months the campaign against Cafcass has increased. A package containing fish heads, rotting meat and maggots was delivered to the Portsmouth office in September. It was reported in the local press that one protester had said: “We have names and addresses” of Cafcass officers. In October, the following message was left on the answerphone at the Kingston office: “Your days of abusing children and families are numbered - the day of reckoning is at hand.”

It is a surprise then that Cafcass has now decided to speak to some of the militant protesters. Douglas admits that some of his colleagues view this as a form of appeasement. But he believes that he owes a duty of care to his workers and wants to prevent an increase in harassment.

“The fathers’ groups raise, quite rightly, the situation of non-resident fathers who disappear from kids’ lives and we know that’s not in kids’ interests,” he says. “But I don’t think we are part of the problem. I genuinely believe our practitioners are trying to facilitate contact for both mothers and fathers in situations of implacable hostility.”

Each year Cafcass deals with about 30,000 cases where separating parents cannot agree on what is best for their children. As for there being an anti-father bias, Douglas has reviewed 600 cases personally and denies it. “Where decisions go against fathers I have seen the reasons for it - usually to do with family violence and the pure fear that mothers have about particular fathers.”

The Napo report shows that only a tiny fraction of fathers involved in family court proceedings, 0.8 per cent, were given no contact. Whereas 42 per cent of fathers no longer had contact with their children at the start of proceedings, by the end of proceedings the proportion had dropped to 6 per cent.

Matt O’Connor, the founder of Fathers4Justice, is not impressed by the statistics.

“They assume that the contact orders are actually worth the paper they’re written on,” he says. “A lot of these guys only get to send a birthday card or Christmas card once a year and that’s not contact. That’s not a relationship with your child.

“Fathers4Justice deny responsibility for intimidating Cafcass staff. A trademark of our campaign is humour, hopefully.” But he adds:. “All you need is one angry father to go off at a tangent but all I can do is make sure our house is in order.”

He argues that the culture that prevails in Cafcass is “fundamentally discriminatory against fathers”. “What we need is a proper support service where there is mandatory mediation and early intervention from properly trained professionals and not from people who are still displaying the old myths and stereotypes about fathers.”

For many family law practitioners, Cafcass is an organisation that has yet to find its feet and, in particular, recover from the damning select committee inquiry just over a year ago that led to the sacking of its board. “It still needs time to get over the really bad start,” says Yvonne Brown, a national committee member of Resolution (formerly the Solicitors Family Law Association). “The problems have now been ongoing for several years and they are about insufficient numbers of quality staff and delays in allocation of case reports.”

Against this troubled background, the Green Paper Parental Separation: Children’s Needs and Parental Responsibilities reveals ministerial plans for a new and improved service. It proposes that officers write fewer reports and adopt a more “active problem-solving” role such as in-court conciliation. Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the Lord Chancellor,has made clear that there will be no more money available for Cafcass.

Cafcass is comfortable with the Green Paper’s shift in focus. But it is going to be a struggle to turn around the fortunes of an underfunded organisation without extra resources. Douglas plans to cut bureaucracy to free money for more frontline staff and to work with the judiciary on eliminating unnecessary report writing.

Although critics would like to see Cafcass scrapped, Douglas is convinced of its vital role. One of the reasons for this is that he was adopted. “When you grow up with multiple relationships and more than one parent, life is complicated and not many people ask what you think and what you want,” he says. “We are there for the children who don’t have a voice. The more noise that comes from adult groups makes me more concerned that the voices of children aren’t drowned out.”

(c) Times Newspapers Ltd, 2005

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Law frustrates mothers” desire to tell the other side of story

Maxine Frith

574 words

15 September 2004


6

English

(c) 2004 Independent Newspapers (UK) Limited . All rights reserved. This material may not be published, distributed or exploited in any way.

THEY ARE portrayed as scorned women who take out their bitterness over a failed relationship on the innocent fathers of their children.

But for the former partners of men in the Fathers 4 Justice movement, the high-profile protests are a source of frustration and intimidation which leave them no right to reply.

Fathers 4 Justice (F4J) was set up in 2002 by Matt O”Connor, a marketing consultant, when he became frustrated with the lack of access to his children after the breakdown of his marriage. He and a handful of men banded together after meeting through support groups and becoming disillusioned with their failure to change what they claim are fundamental inequalities in the family court system.

Using the idea that fathers are superheroes to their children, they dressed as cartoon characters and staged protests for maximum publicity. Membership has grown to an estimated 7,000, and protests such as the flour-bomb attack in the House of Commons in May, and the Buckingham Palace stunt made headlines worldwide. But the women whose former partners have joined F4J are often plunged into an impossible position by the stunts. They are frustrated by what they say is one-sided reporting of their ex-partners” conduct..

If they speak out, they risk breaching court injunctions over naming their children in public - many of the men, including the Batman protester Jason Hatch, circumvent these rules by changing their names.

When details do emerge, it becomes obvious that in many cases, the circumstances are not as clear cut as F4J often portrays them. Mr O”Connor”s former wife Sophie has said - and he has since admitted - that he had affairs, drank heavily and failed to keep to the initial arrangements for access to their children. Another F4J member, Conrad Campbell, told how he was jailed last year for texting his son on his birthday. But he had been sent on an anger management programme for attacking his former partner, and was under a court injunction.

Lawyers who act for the women also tend to refuse media requests for interviews.

Some outspoken solicitors have experienced the more intimidating tactics of the pressure group. The buildings of the Parker Bird law firm in Huddersfield were stormed this year by more than 15 members of F4J, who graffitied the walls. They presented Karen Woodhead, the head of family law, with a golden petrol can, which they claimed represented her firm “pouring petrol on the flames in divorce and childcare cases”.

Last summer, David Burrows, who was head of the Solicitors Family Law Association (SFLA), was ambushed by a protest outside his home. Kim Beatson, who chairs the SFLA, said: “They claim they are non-violent but they are becoming increasingly militant.”

Other groups formed to support men, such as Fathers Direct and Families Need Fathers, have distanced themselves from F4J. But the group”s campaign has also attracted an increasingly extreme element.

After the Commons attack in May, F4J and other groups were hoping that the Government would bow to their demands of automatic presumptions of 50-50 custody in all child access cases. But this was rejected in July, causing Mr O”Connor to warn: “This will just inflame the issue for our members.”

He has vowed F4J will continue with rooftop protests and security breaches until the law undergoes fundamental reform.

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Howard’s family friendly court pick

Katherine Towers

516 words

25 June 2004


Second

3

English

© 2004 Copyright John Fairfax Holdings Limited. www.afr.com Not available for re-distribution.

Top federal magistrate Diana Bryant has been appointed Chief Justice of the Family Court in a move likely to reduce tensions with the Howard government at a time when family issues and refugee policies loom as election issues.

Ms Bryant will replace retiring Chief Justice Alastair Nicholson who, during his 16-year tenure, clashed with the government on the mandatory detention of refugees, legal aid and homosexuality.

A highly regarded QC, Ms Bryant is understood to have developed a strong working relationship with government ministers.

As Chief Justice from July 5, she is expected to come under political pressure before the election, with Prime Minister John Howard being heavily lobbied by fathers’ groups and openly questioning the laws surrounding the custody of children.

Mr Howard has also launched an investigation into the possible establishment of a lawyer-free families tribunal to run alongside the jurisdiction of the Family Court.

The push evokes the establishment of the Federal Magistrates Court in 2000, which some said was designed to try to kneecap Mr Nicholson.

The new head of the Federal Magistrates Court will be John Pascoe, chairman of Centrelink and a member of the boards of Aristocrat Leisure and George Weston Foods. Mr Pascoe is also the managing director of the insurance and risk management division of Phillips Fox Lawyers and deputy chancellor of the University of NSW. His appointment has surprised the legal profession.

Ms Bryant was also a partner of Phillips Fox before joining the bar, as was Justice John Faulks, who was named yesterday as deputy Chief Justice of the Family Court.

In making the appointments, Attorney-General Philip Ruddock has dramatically altered the leadership and direction of two of the four federal courts in one day.

The legal profession welcomed Ms Bryant’s appointment as safe and necessary to improve morale and unite the deeply divided court.

But colleagues said that while Ms Bryant would offer a different style of leadership than Mr Nicholson, she would not kowtow to the federal government.

As chief of the Federal Magistrates Court, Ms Bryant earned a reputation for lobbying strongly and persistently for greater resources.

The president of the Law Institute of Victoria, Chris Dane, said Ms Bryant would make her own mark but also be an important advocate for the court.

The head of the Family Law Committee of the Law Council of Australia, Michael Foster, said Ms Bryant had the experience and personal skills to navigate the sometimes tricky position.

Neither Ms Bryant nor Mr Pascoe were available for comment yesterday.

The highly political position of Chief Justice of the Family Court is considered a poisoned chalice and a potentially dangerous job.

In 1980, Family Court Justice David Opas was shot dead in his Sydney home. Four years later, Justice Richard Gee was admitted to hospital after a bomb destroyed his Sydney home.

In July 1984, Pearl Watson, wife of Family Court judge Justice Ray Watson, was murdered when a bomb exploded on the doorstep of their home.

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Poor, poor daddy. Nasty old mummy: The tactics now used by estranged fathers can only harm children

Madeleine Bunting:

872 words

6 February 2004


28

English

© Copyright 2004. The Guardian. All rights reserved.

The tactics are those of the playground bully. Clever, attention grabbing, even witty: Batman, Robin, Superman and Spider-Man instigated traffic chaos this week in Bristol when they climbed Clifton suspension bridge to protest at the alleged systematic discrimination against fathers wanting contact with their children after divorce. Spider-Man pulled off a similar feat on London’s Tower Bridge last November when he sat in a crane for six days.

But it’s not just macho stunts. Fathers 4 Justice’s tactics are getting more personal and much nastier. A few days ago, they targeted the home of a third female family court judge. Judge Marilyn Mornington was away, so her two sons, 17 and 20, were left to face the demonstrators’ chanted threats. Last summer, there was a wave of 60 hoax bomb attacks on family courts across Britain.

The wind is in their sails. Fathers 4 Justice skilfully play the media with their claims of large membership and threats of more demonstrations. They have benefitted from Bob Geldof’s advocacy of the issue; last summer he published an essay raging against the family law courts.

Most damaging of all, they find a receptive audience among the rightwing press, which devotes pages and pages to the horrors of the “vindictive”, “manipulative” mothers who stand between fathers and their beloved children. Throw in a few statistics on the appalling rate of fathers who maintain contact after divorce (67% of fathers see their kids less than once a fortnight) plus a diatribe against the family law court’s institutional bias towards women, and the story looks shockingly convincing. Poor, poor daddy; terrible, nasty mummy.

This is, of course, a grossly misleading presentation of the facts. Let’s put in a bit of context: the vast majority of custody/access cases are worked out by the parents themselves, and simply rubber-stamped by the courts. In a tiny minority of cases, fathers are refused contact: in 2001 it was 713 cases out of 55,000 in the family courts. There are a few truly dreadful cases where one or other parent, or both, fight all the way and use their children’s welfare to destroy their ex-partners’ lives. But it is not simply mothers who do this; fathers use the courts just as often to harass ex-partners.

The horribly tricky task for the judges in such situations is to avoid the court being used as a weapon in a revenge mission. All the more reason why it is unacceptable to target the judges society has tasked with this judgment of Solomon; their job is difficult enough, given the viciousness of some relationship breakdowns.

What Fathers 4 Justice wants is a change in the law to give fathers a right to see their children and a presumption of 50/50 split of custody. But this would mean putting parents’ rights before those of the children. As they say, a few hard cases make bad law. The difficult dilemma the courts occasionally face is whether the acknowledged advantage of the child maintaining contact with the father is greater than the disadvantage triggered by contact in that particular case. At what point does the parental conflict over arranging contact (the rows, distress, anxiety) outweigh the benefit of seeing the parent? It can be a very close call.

What Fathers 4 Justice and its media allies (who tip quickly into outright misogynists) choose to ignore is that a significant number of these hard cases include domestic violence and sexual abuse. One study found that after separation, 38% of parents with custody reported violence or the threat of violence from their ex-partners. Mothers complain of family law courts which rule that contact must be maintained even when there has been physical or sexual abuse of the child. No gender is the winner or loser in this battle.

The most misleading argument is to conflate a few of the awful cases with the huge proportion of fathers who lose contact (estimates vary from one third to half). The vast majority do not do so because of obstruction by the mothers. Research shows that fathers are less likely to keep in touch if they have subsequently had more children, if they never lived with the mother in the first place, if they don’t live nearby and so on. There are dozens of reasons, not a law system that discriminates against dads.

The moral of this tale is that mothers terrified out of their wits by violent ex-partners are unlikely to scale cranes or send hoax bombs. Law made by bully-boy tactics will serve no one’s interests, least of all the children to whom Batman and his mates profess such commitment. Unfortunately, we now divorce/split up frequently - and often very badly. In such circumstances, parental self-absorption makes victims of their children. Couples should be handed a formal government notice on the registration of their newborn babies: “Handle with care. In the event of relationship breakdown, this child is not live ammo.”

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Mail bomb hoax alert.

89 words

15 August 2003


6

English

(c) 2003 Express Newspapers

UP to 60 packages made to look like letter bombs and chemical or biological booby traps were posted to courts and family law centres yesterday.

At least half were sent to Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service offices.

Many were postmarked locally, suggesting a campaign rather than a lone protester. The packages proved harmless, but Scotland Yard’s anti-terrorist branch is investigating.

Harry Fletcher of Napo, the union representing Cafcass workers, said it was likely “a grudge attack by an aggrieved parent”.

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Family Court security ‘at risk’. [CORRECTED]

By Benjamin Haslem.

457 words

15 July 2003


3

English

(c) 2003 Nationwide News Proprietary Ltd

THE marshal of the Family Court, responsible for its nationwide security and with nearly 40 years’ experience in the field, has quit, accusing the court’s management of jeopardising safety.

Colin Rowley resigned on June 4, citing concerns over attempts by the court’s administrative arm to place responsibility for security in the hands of court building managers.

“It’s fundamentally stupid,” Mr Rowley said yesterday when contacted by The Australian.

However, Family Court officials dismissed Mr Rowley’s concerns.

Mr Rowley said there was now “a much higher chance of security being compromised” in the Family Court, which has lost two judges to assassination and has been involved in numerous stabbings, shootings and assaults.

“In the US, because of September 11, they have created positions called chief security officers and they have done precisely what the Family Court always had: nominated someone specifically in charge of security,” he said.

“The Family Court is going away from that model.”

The role of the Family Court marshal, which is enshrined in the Family Law Act, includes liaising with state and federal police.

Mr Rowley said the court’s building managers already had a difficult job, and when security was “lumped in with other areas of responsibility, obviously it becomes a less important issue”.

Mr Rowley was deputy marshal for 2 1/2 years before becoming marshal three years ago.

But the court’s chief executive officer, Richard Foster, dismissed his concerns. “The people who work there (the Family Court) are satisfied the proper processes are in place. I think it’s improved,” Mr Foster said.

The court was broadening its approach to security, giving more responsibility to registry managers, making the marshal’s role more of an advisory one, he said.

The court’s new marshal is a former federal police agent who previously worked as a bodyguard for several federal MPs.

In 1980, Family Court judge David Opas was assassinated outside his Sydney home in front of his young family.

Four years later Justice Richard Gee was killed when a bomb exploded at his Sydney home.

A month later a bomb exploded at the Family Court in Parramatta, three months before the wife of Justice Raymond Watson, Pearl, was killed by a bomb at the couple’s Sydney home. CORRECTIONS - IN an article headlined “Family Court security ‘at risk’’’ on Page 3 yesterday it was reported that the then Family Court judge Richard Gee was killed when a bomb exploded at his Sydney home in 1984. Justice Gee was injured, not killed, and is still alive. The Australian sincerely apologises to Justice Gee, his family and friends for any distress caused by the error. (AUSTLN, 16/7/2003)

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Cops question husband after wife found beaten to death in River Forest ; Woman had filed order of protection against him in Dec.

RUMMANA HUSSAIN

543 words

18 March 2005


14

English

Copyright (c) 2005 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

River Forest police were questioning a 53-year-old Harwood Heights man late Thursday in the fatal beating of his estranged wife, who had filed an order of protection against him three months ago.

Therese Pender was beaten to death with a 151/2-inch cross peen hammer Wednesday night at Lake Street and Park Avenue in the near west suburb, Police Chief Nicholas Weiss said.

Pender, 41, was a legal secretary for prominent fathers’ rights attorney Jeffery Leving. She died from blunt head trauma and cranial cerebral injuries, according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office.

‘The entire marriage was torture’

Pender’s husband was arrested Wednesday night after police found him on railroad tracks behind a row of houses a block from his wife’s home. Pender moved there two months ago to escape the abusive relationship, according to authorities and Leving.

“She told me the entire marriage was torture,” Leving said. “She thought if she didn’t get away from him, he’d kill her.”

The man had been stalking Pender since a judge granted her an order of protection in December, the same month she filed for divorce, Leving said.

A warrant for the husband’s arrest was issued Jan. 21 for violating the court order, but authorities said they had a difficult time tracking him down because he had been living in his white Chevrolet Corsica for the last several months.

‘I will kill you’

Weiss said Pender had asked police for an extra watch during the Jan. 13 weekend, when she moved into the River Forest home. She had no other contact with police, he said.

Pender tried to leave her husband just two months after the couple married in Las Vegas in 2002, but was too frightened to take any action. “. . . He said if you ever get one of those protection orders against me, I will kill you. He has repeated this to me throughout our marriage,” Therese Pender said in recent court documents.

“. . . I am especially scared because he is not expecting this and has threatened me in the past (as I stated in paragraph above) with bodily harm ‘or worse’ to myself and anyone connected with me if I ever take an action like this.”

Another order of protection had been filed against him in 1996, and he was convicted of battery that year, but court officials said it was unclear whether Pender was the person who sought the order.

The jobless man spent most of his days playing online card games and often told Pender she gave him “bad mojo,” court documents said. When she got a book on spousal abuse, the husband said, “Abuse, I’ll show you abuse,” and punched her in the mouth. He also forbade her to take the medication prescribed to her by a psychiatrist.

Leving said the man took Pender’s money to buy his own meals and would not let her eat.

A counselor and minister consoled 50 staff members at Leving’s LaSalle Street office Thursday.

“There’s so much crying here,” Leving said. “I’m just emotionally drained.”

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“I HIT MY OWN WIFE”

231 words

5 January 2005


13

English

(c) Western Mail and Echo Ltd, 2005.

Prominent fathers” rights campaigner Matthew Mudge has a conviction for assaulting his former wife, it emerged today. Mr Mudge, 41, is chairman of the Cardiff branch of Fathers Need Families and a member of the controversial Fathers 4 Justice campaign.

He recently used a megaphone to address passers-by while protesters dressed as Batman and Robin scaled Cardiff Crown Court.

In 1998, Cardiff magistrates were told Mr Mudge denied hitting his wife in their then home in Whitchurch.

Today, he told the Echo he has never made a secret of his conviction, and that all the groups with whom he is involved - including Match: Mothers Apart from Their Children - know of his past.

“I have nothing to be ashamed of because, as I said at my trial, I did nothing wrong,” he said.

“I had never been in trouble with the police before, and I have not been in trouble since. All my friends know that I simply would not have behaved in that way.”

In court, Ilone Mudge, a doctor, accused her husband of punching her after breaking in to their bathroom when she locked herself inside.

Fathers 4 Justice have distanced themselves from Mr Mudge. “Matthew is a member of the group but is more active as chairman of Fathers Need Families,” said Jim Gibson, chair of the South Wales branch of F4J.

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Welsh Fathers4Justice activist assaulted wife

By MARTIN SHIPTON Western Mail

410 words

5 January 2005


1

English

(c) 2005 Western Mail and Echo Ltd

The most prominent campaigner for fathers” rights in Wales has two convictions for assaulting his former wife.

During one of the assaults, which took place seven years ago, Matthew Mudge is alleged to have knocked his then wife unconscious.

Our disclosure comes after a network TV programme claimed several unnamed prominent members of Fathers4Justice had convictions involving domestic violence against their former partners.

Last night Mr Mudge said he had never sought to hide his convictions from the organisations he was involved with, and saw no reason to step down from the groups.

But Plaid Cymru”s equal opportunities spokeswoman, Helen Mary Jones, said news of Mr Mudge”s convictions reinforced her scepticism about Fathers4Justice.

Mr Mudge, 41, has acquired a high profile as a spokesman for several groups including Fathers4Justice, the direct action organisation whose stunts have included throwing flour at Tony Blair in the House of Commons and getting a member dressed as Batman to hold police at bay for several hours while standing on a window ledge at Buckingham Palace.

Last May, when Fathers4Justice members dressed as Batman and Robin staged a day-long protest on a third-floor ledge at Cardiff Civil Justice Centre, Mr Mudge used a megaphone to address passers-by.

Two months later Mr Mudge, who chairs the Cardiff branch of another fathers” rights group, Families Need Fathers, told a Conservative Party summit how he had run up a legal aid bill of more than £150,000 during 84 court hearings involving access to his children.

When the criminal case against Mr Mudge was dealt with by Cardiff magistrates in June 1998, he was described as a 14-stone Territorial Army captain. His then wife, Hungarian-born Ilone, a qualified dentist, was said to be petite.

Mr Mudge, who admitted hitting her but denied that she passed out, told the court he had acted in self-defence.

The assault took place hours after a party to celebrate his being given command of a machine gun platoon.

Mr Mudge told Cardiff magistrates, “She was hitting me. I had no choice.

“It was self-defence. She may be petite but in her job she has to be extremely strong.”

He pleaded not guilty to two charges of assault but was convicted and sentenced to 200 hours of community service.

The assaults took place at the couple”s home in the Whitchurch district of Cardiff.

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Protesting fathers are accused of dirty tricks

363 words

31 December 2004


default

15

English

Copyright (c) 2004 Western Daily Press. All Rights Reserved.

A West courtroom worker has been branded a “Nazi war criminal” while colleagues face a stream of intimidation from fathers’ rights protesters, it was claimed yesterday.

Probation officers’ union Napo sent Children’s Minister Margaret Hodge a dossier about incidents of verbal abuse and physical threats.

They included more than 100 bomb hoaxes sent to offices of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass). It also claimed the names of family court staff had been published on websites, and their offices daubed with graffiti, locks glued, windows broken and banners unfurled on buildings calling them “child abusers”.

In one incident, a large, rotten fish was posted at a Cafcass office and another received a message saying:

“Your days of abusing children and families are numbered - the day of reckoning is at hand.” But last night Jeff Skinner, the South West co-ordinator of pressure group Fathers4Justice, denied the organisation was responsible.

The group shot to infamy this year when its high-profile publicity stunts breached tight security at Parliament and at Buckingham Palace.

Mr Skinner said: “Individuals will not be targeted. Fathers4Justice does not even target mothers who consistently flout court orders.

“We target organisations, but you cannot stop people doing things then claiming it is under the Fathers4Justice banner.”

Harry Fletcher, Assistant General Secretary of Napo, said: “Staff need protecting, and the civil and criminal law must be used to contain this behaviour.

“There is no evidence of any systematic bias against fathers. Indeed the reverse is the case. However, the escalation in intimidation against family court staff has caused stress and is bound to lead to absenteeism.”

A Cafcass spokeswoman claimed that Fathers4Justice was among the groups responsible for the intimidation.

She said: “We cannot go ahead like this. All our staff have the right to get on with their jobs without fear of intimidation.

“In the past, intimidating behaviour has been proven to have originated from Fathers4Justice.

“We have had the names of workers in Bristol and Taunton posted on websites.

“Following people down the street calling them child abusers, or saying ‘We know where you live’ is not acceptable.”

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Dads’ rights campaigners suspended

170 words

8 December 2004


English

© Johnston Publishing Limited

TWO Fathers 4 Justice campaigners have been suspended after a News investigation exposed racism, sexism and violence at the heart of the Hampshire branch of the group.

Hampshire co-ordinator Phil Osgood and his right-hand man Paul Robinson could now be thrown out of the fathers’ rights group after our undercover investigation.

Yesterday, after our reporter infiltrated the group for three months, we revealed how Mr Osgood of Beryton Road, Gosport, bragged about threatening his ex-lover’s new boyfriend with a baseball bat and how some members got drunk while on camping trips with their children and called for ‘Pakis’ to be sent back home.

We also revealed how Mr Robinson of Eastern Avenue, Milton, Portsmouth, condoned violence on a woman who stopped a father seeing his child.

Mr Osgood defended his words and actions but Mr Robinson denied making the comments.

But now Fathers 4 Justice’s co-founder, Matt O’Connor, has suspended the pair and launched an inquiry into their behaviour.

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FATHERS 4 TERROR.

BY BECKY SHEAVES

1,981 words

25 November 2004


English

(c) 2004 Associated Newspapers. All rights reserved

HOW THINGS change. Just a few weeks ago I wrote an article in which I explained why, as a wife and mother, I passionately supported Fathers 4 Justice. Indeed, I argued at the time, what right-thinking person could disagree with the assertion that a child needs to know and be loved by his or her father? And that, after a divorce or break-up, children should see their fathers as much as humanly possible?

Today, with a heavy heart, I find myself reviewing my opinions. It is not that I have changed my views on the principle at stake -- far from it.

But recent heavy-handed, intimidating and downright violent incidents by angry fathers’ rights activists have given me -- and many others -- cause for great concern.

It seems that the so-called ‘fathers’ move-ment’ has adopted similarly distasteful tactics to those used by animal rights protesters.

In doing so, the pressure group is in danger of alienating any moderate supporters it once had. In one of the worst incidents, an angry father poured petrol over a female solicitor’s car engine. If she had started the car, it could have exploded and caused enormous damage and injury.

In August, there was the occupation of Gloucester’s Cafcass (Children And Family Court Advisory And Support Service) office, when superhero- clad Fathers 4 Justice campaigners called the staff there ‘child abusers’ through a megaphone, identifying them by name.

The same office also came under attack when rotting meat and fish were pushed through its letterbox. Fathers 4 Justice has admitted it may have been involved. A senior member of Cafcass staff said: ‘The whole place was stinking for a week, the smell was revolting. And to be called child abusers is deeply insulting for my staff.’

In another unpleasant incident in the Midlands, Fathers 4 Justice activists invaded a Cafcass office and tied up an employee who suffered from a heart condition. Judges, too, have been targeted. Andrew Don, a district judge from Reading, gave a radio interview last month in which he said the law was not biased in favour of the mother, but aimed to serve the best interests of the child.

‘Almost immediately I received all kinds of aggressive e-mails with threats,’ he said. Days later, his office was invaded by ten men from Fathers 4 Justice in decontamination suits. So much for freedom of speech.

CAFCASS court reporters are members of Napo, the National Association of Probation Officers, and the organisation has been so appalled by the threats meted out to its members by militant fathers that it has compiled a dossier of incidents of intimidation. The union is due to present its claims to Government ministers this month.

And so it seems that what began as an earnest and heartfelt campaign is, sadly, now attracting the sort of men who are angry, aggressive and violent. The very men I would hope the courts do keep away from children.

Jason Hatch, the Batman who occupied the Buckingham Palace balcony for six hours in September, has four children by three women, all in relationships which have since foundered.

In January 2002, Hatch appeared at Gloucester Crown Court accused of threatening to kill his then wife Victoria Jones, mother of two of his children. It was ordered that the charges were to lie on file.

Despite this, Fathers 4 Justice refuses to condemn him and he remains one of the campaign’s leading lights.

‘What he said to Victoria was uttered in the heat of the moment during a time when he was very upset and distressed at not seeing his children,’ says the campaign’s leader, Matt O’Connor. Be that as it may, Hatch has subsequently not helped his cause by boasting to an undercover journalist that he has bedded more than 100 women in his life and revealing a worryingly misogynistic streak.

‘I just love ******* women,’ he told the reporter. ‘I’ve had more than 100 one-night stands in the past five years. They are all bitches.’

Matt O’Connor points out that a high number of lovers does not necessarily make a man a bad father. True, but in a battle for the hearts and minds of the British public, such information is hardly likely to boost the Fathers 4 Justice campaign.

The pressure group does have one man convicted of violence among its most high-profile activists. He is deputy leader Eddie Gorecki, 46, who recently scaled the Royal Courts of Justice dressed as Batman. He married his ex-wife, Kelly, in 1988. They have four children together, but it was a relationship marred by violence, so much so that Kelly several times took out injunctions against Gorecki.

In 1995, according to Kelly, he beat her so badly that she suffered two skull fractures and spent five days in intensive care. He later attacked her cousin at a barbecue during a heated family row.

KELLY has said: ‘I ended up dropping the charges. He then beat up my cousin, Shelly. He is a thug and he shouldn’t represent decent fathers.’ Shelly Johnson, Kelly’s cousin, suffered a broken nose and black eyes and didn’t shy away from pressing charges against Gorecki. He was jailed for nine months for affray and assault in June 2001. You would imagine that Fathers 4 Justice would want to distance itself from these violent, dangerous men. But Matt O’Connor refuses to do so.

‘I believe in rehabilitation and righting wrongs,’ he told me yesterday. ‘If a man has done his time and taken his punishment, he should be given another chance. These men can still be loving, devoted fathers. The violence issue is really peripheral to our campaign.’

One woman who would dis-agree with that stance is Fiona Bruce, the BBC TV presenter, who has become the latest target of Fathers 4 Justice in a furious row over a documentary on custody battles screened earlier this week.

The programme featured several women who had been subjected to domestic violence. They told of their fears for their children’s safety during access visits to their fathers. But Fathers 4 Justice accused Fiona Bruce of having an ‘axe to grind’ against it because of her support for the campaign against domestic violence.

Matt O’Connor has said that the group would expel anyone who brought it into disrepute, but says: ‘We are a cross-section of society. We probably have the good, the bad and the ugly. We can’t do criminal record checks.’

To me, that simply is not good enough. For it is around the issue of children’s safety and well-being that the family courts have to perform their unenviably complex and delicate task -- a task which would take the wisdom of Solomon to get right every time.

Judges have to decide if a father who is accused of violence or abuse is genuinely unfit to see his children. Who would envy them such a decision? I still support men who wish to see their children. After all, over the years I have interviewed dozens of divorced fathers who I have found to be decent, devoted and despairing. They had spent thousands of pounds on fighting through the courts for access to their children.

Time and again they had been treated like criminals and denied access to the children they loved.

THOUGH it is true that only two per cent of applications for access are actually refused by courts, latest figures show that 50 per cent of court orders for access are flouted or ignored by the children’s mothers. And very little is done legally to enforce them.

There was the man who was allowed to send his three daughters only six letters a year. He had to put up with this for a whole year before being allowed to see them for two hours every two months while being supervised by a social worker.

Eventually, his children were so exasperated by this treat-ment that they ran away from home and turned up on his doorstep. And they still live with him today.

I also spoke to a father who, after giving his ex-wife the family home to live in and hundreds of pounds a month in child support was living, practically penniless, with his parents.

This summer, when he tried to take his eight-year-old son away on a week-long trip to Italy with the cathedral choir of which he is a proud member, his ex-wife simply would not allow the little boy to go to the airport. The father spent his holiday heartbroken, thinking of what should have been.

And then there was the man who worked as a teacher -- and a good one, too -- in a Buckinghamshire comprehensive.

He had been charged with harassment for making a 30-second phone call to his 12-year-old daughter on Christmas Day. It was hard to find the words to comfort him when he told me he had not been allowed to see her for four years.

Until recently, such cases had been represented by a gentle but persistent support group called Families Need Fathers. It offered legal advice to frustrated fathers and wrote the odd letter to MPs about the unfairness of their situation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, little was done in reply.

So yes, I was encouraged when, two years ago, a new, more radical group appeared. Fathers 4 Justice did more than just write polite letters. It invaded a service for senior churchmen at York Minster and insisted on addressing the Archbishop of Canterbury from the pulpit.

It painted the doors of Cafcass offices purple, the international colour of justice. It occupied the lobbies of family courts.

Often, its protests were tinged with humour. I liked the idea of 200 men dressed as Father Christmas in an open-topped bus regaling the shoppers of Oxford Street in London with their slogans about what makes a genuine family Christmas.

And infuriating though it must have been for the thousands of motorists caught in gridlock, there was something very moving about the idea of the protesters who scaled and occupied the Clifton Suspension Bridge dressed as Spiderman, Batman and Robin, ‘because every dad is a superhero to his children’.

I’m ashamed to say I wasn’t even that sorry to see Tony Blair hit with an exploding condom filled with purple flour.

Like many who watched the incident on television, I have to admit my first reaction was: ‘Good shot!’

BUT AS the Fathers 4 Justice campaign has received an increasingly high profile, the truth about the personalities involved has, inevitably, emerged. And too often recently, the reality behind the jokey Father Christmas outfits and the Batman masks has turned out to be unsavoury, if not downright disturbing.

Why are Jason Hatch and Eddie Gorecki still allowed to be members of Fathers 4 Justice? Meanwhile, Matt O’Connor is unrepentant. ‘We’ve got 12,000 members in the UK and we’re about to launch in America. It’s a global issue and we’re not about to go away. This bad publicity is just a backlash, but we see it as an inevitable part of our growing campaign.

‘We’ve got the Establishment, the women’s groups and the police really worried now and they are all trying to conspire against us. That’s a sign that we’re making progress. And we will continue to do so.’

Fighting talk, indeed. But I can only hope that, in working so hard for its cause, Fathers 4 Justice does not lose sight of the people at the heart of this campaign.

And by that I do not mean the belligerent, sometimes violent, men whose voices are being heard at top volume through the megaphones. I mean their children.

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Fathers ‘terrorise’ lawyers

John Elliott and Abul Taher

770 words

21 November 2004


News 12

English

(c) 2004 Times Newspapers Limited. All rights reserved

Campaigners accused of threats

MEMBERS of Fathers 4 Justice have been accused of inspiring a campaign of violent threats and intimidation against court staff and family lawyers.

A dossier compiled by the union representing family court staff shows its members have been sent fake letter bombs and hate mail, had rotting meat put through an office letter box and been subjected to verbal abuse.

In one of the worst incidents -for which nobody has claimed responsibility -a solicitor found her car engine and headlights doused in petrol, which could have exploded when she started the engine.

Fathers 4 Justice, which seeks to improve fathers’ access to children following marriage break-ups, denies involvement in this incident but admits staging attacks on the offices of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass).

It denies its members have carried out attacks on individuals. However, the union, Napo, accuses it of leading the campaign against Cafcass staff.

The union, which will present its evidence to ministers this month, claims Fathers 4 Justice and other fathers’ rights groups have in the past year adopted similar tactics to animal rights militants where staff have been “named and shamed” on websites. This is staunchly denied by Fathers 4 Justice.

It is an approach that belies the apparently harmless stunts by fathers dressed in superhero costumes, such as the campaigner dressed as Batman who climbed on to a ledge at Buckingham Palace. Last Friday, a Fathers 4 Justice protester handcuffed himself to Margaret Hodge, the children’s minister, as she was about to deliver a speech to a conference.

Harry Fletcher, a spokesman for Napo, said Cafcass staff were becoming increasingly alarmed by the tactics, which were being countered through measures such as CCTV.

In one of the most serious attacks, 60 fake bombs were sent to Cafcass offices last year causing buildings to be evacuated and anti-terrorist police brought in to investigate. So far nobody has claimed responsibility and Fathers 4 Justice denies it was behind the incident.

Cafcass’s Gloucester office, which deals with up to a 1,000 children a year, has been one of the worst hit by Fathers 4 Justice. The office has been twice subjected to day-long protests, with protesters scaling the building dressed as Batman. Other protesters chanted that Cafcass workers were “child abusers” through a megaphone, identifying staff by name.

One weekend rotten meat and fish were posted through the letter box, an incident in which Fathers 4 Justice says some of its members may have been involved. A senior member of staff said: “The whole place was stinking for a week, the smell was revolting. To be called child abusers is deeply insulting for my staff.”

In the Midlands, Fathers 4 Justice protesters invaded a Cafcass office and tied up an employee who suffered from a heart condition.

Judges have also been targeted. Andrew Don, a district judge from Reading, gave a radio interview in September in which he said the law was not biased in favour of the mother but aimed to serve the best interests of the child.

“Almost immediately, I received all sorts of aggressive e-mails with all sorts of threats. They said it was a disgrace, and they were interested in ‘meeting me’,” Don said. His office was invaded by 10 protesters in decontamination suits.

There is growing support for reform of family courts to give greater consideration to fathers’ rights. However, legal experts say Fathers 4 Justice is undermining its own case.

Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, president of the family division of the High Court, has refused to meet the group. She told MPs: “As long as they throw condoms with purple powder and send a double-decker bus outside my house in the West Country there is no point. They are not going to talk, they are going to tell me.”

Fathers 4 Justice admitted its members have daubed purple paint on Cafcass doors and applied glue to their locks, but said it never launched any campaigns of intimidation against staff or individuals.

Matt O’Connor, co-founder of Fathers 4 Justice, said: “We are committed to a campaign of peaceful, non-violent direct action. Any of our members caught intimidating individuals will be expelled immediately.”

The group is also planning to complain to the BBC about a programme on domestic violence to be aired tomorrow, presented by Fiona Bruce. Fathers 4 Justice claims she is not impartial because of her connections with women’s groups critical of fathers’ rights campaigners.

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Daddy will stop at nothing to see you: fronted by Batman and purveyors of “flour-power”, the fathers’ rights movement has struck Britons as benign--but its methods reveal a more sinister side.(features)

Cohen, Nick

1,755 words

15 November 2004


31

ISSN: 1364-7431; Volume 133; Issue 4714

English

Copyright 2004 Gale Group Inc. All rights reserved.

The British “fathers’ rights” movement is a desperate, grassroots campaign undertaken by bitter men on the fringes of society. As you stare at their hatred and despair, however, you at least have an intimation of how American-style “backlash” politics could work here.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Fathers 4 Justice is the campaign’s public face, and, more often than not, that face seems benign. In May, Ron Davis, one of its leaders, managed to hit Tony Blair with a condom filled with flour that he hurled across the Commons from the Strangers’ Gallery. The shot was more of a jape than an assassination attempt, and was rightly treated as a laugh by the press and by the Prime Minister, who carried on as if nothing had happened. Ferdinand Mount noted in the Sunday Times that Davis must have a fine arm; his long throw was “the equivalent of hitting a single stump from deep square leg”. In September, Jason Hatch dressed in a Batman outfit and scaled the facade of Buckingham Palace. He didn’t cause any damage and police marksmen didn’t shoot him dead, as they would have done in most countries. It was all very English, as we like to say--a bit of silliness with no harm done.

Yet away from Westminster, fathers are running a campaign of intimidation against the court staff and family lawyers who deal with divorce cases that is neither charming nor funny. If it is quintessentially English, it appeals to the side of the English character that likes to post dog dirt through letter boxes.

Napo, the union that represents family court workers, is keeping a logbook of what its members are facing. No one has been hurt yet, but that’s not for want of trying. In the south-west, a man warned his ex-partner’s solicitor that he knew where she lived and that there would be trouble if she didn’t drop the case. No one knows who was responsible, but a few days later the solicitor’s car exploded outside her home. Petrol had been poured with evident care over its engine and into its headlights, which suggests that the assailant hoped the car would explode when she got in and turned the headlights on. (Fortunately, she was unharmed.)

In Portsmouth, Fathers 4 Justice members hinted that they could turn violent in their struggle against the court workers whom they blame for preventing them from seeing their children. To date, their tactics have been peaceful, if unpleasant. Fish heads and rotting meat were posted through the letter box of the city’s Cafcass office one Saturday. (Cafcass is the court agency that deals with divorce cases.) By the time staff returned to work on Monday, the building stank and was crawling with maggots. Phil Osgood, a Portsmouth campaigner, warned that Fathers 4 Justice had the names and addresses of Cafcass workers. “How far is our campaign going to have to go before somebody listens?” he asked. “We have been very low-level, like Supergluing locks and other pranks, and I can say that it is gradually being increased.”

And so it is. On 1 April this year, when direct action against court workers began, it consisted of men dressing up in decontamination suits and throwing buckets of soapy water over Cafcass offices in the middle of the night. Calling it “direct action” is a bit strong. The action was so indirect that most of the court staff didn’t realise it had taken place.

Today the chatrooms and message boards of the fathers’ rights websites are filled with naming and shaming announcements that portend far more sinister action. I will quote one in full to give an example of the wild fury.

It gives the name of a local Cafcass officer (I don’t think it wise for me to follow suit), and begins by saying that she “didn’t listen to my son’s wishes to spend an equal amount of nights at his dad’s as well as mum’s. I believe [the officer] is a gender-biased, untrained, back-stabbing nutcase who, for a reason my son or I still don’t know, wanted my son to spend only five nights instead of seven out of 14 with his dad. I brought the proceedings after being asked to pay money to my ex in order for my son to stay with me. My son in his ‘secret’ interview with [the officer] asked for an equal amount of nights with Dad and Mum. She ignored his wishes. Has she been given a bribe? How corrupt is she? Why does she want me to pay for my son to see me?

“[Officer’s name] shame on you for playing with my son’s life like you have. You are an obscene waste of public money. Get a life!! Don’t take your personal frustration and low self-esteem out on children. You’re a first-class b@stard and I hope you rot in hell!!! ... The truth will prevail and you are already guilty.”

This is typical of dozens of messages on the noticeboards, and suggests an anger far removed from the sub-Pythonesque urge to dress up in silly costumes and climb into Buckingham Palace. Note the pervading sense of justice denied; the just solution is for the boy to divide his time equally between his mother and father. Why has justice not been done? Has the officer been bribed? Is she mad, vindictive or stupid? Or does she have a gender bias against fathers?

These people see it as a given that an extreme feminist bias pervades the system. Glen Poole, a spokesman for Fathers 4 Justice, described Cafcass as being “stuffed from head to toe with ideological dinosaurs who believe that fathers are dispensable”.

In response to this, the government and Harry Fletcher, a spokesman for Napo, point out that in only 1 per cent of cases are fathers prohibited from seeing their children--and then it is nearly always because they are violent. Fletcher describes Fathers 4 Justice as a misogynistic movement, whose members see women and children as their property to do with as they please, and cannot accept that the patriarchal world has gone.

I am sure there is plenty of truth in this argument, but it doesn’t begin to cover the ground. For a start, some of the most heart-rending stories come from men who aren’t at all violent, who are perfectly entitled to see their children yet have all but ruined themselves in the effort to uphold their rights. The letters pages of the newspapers are a better guide to what is happening than the attention-seeking stunts covered in the news pages. Fathers speak of spending tens of thousands in legal battles. Even when they win many women refuse to obey contact orders, and judges do nothing because they say, perfectly reasonably, that the only good that jailing the mother would do is persuade the child to hate the father.

Beyond the specific cause of fathers’ rights lies the wider failure of permissive society, which Fathers 4 Justice is rather cannily exploiting. No one tries to pretend any more that children brought up by one parent do not, on average, suffer as a result; no one tries to pretend that, on average again, step-parents look after stepchildren as well as their natural parents; no one tries to deny that, for most people who aren’t blase to the point of being sociopaths (as many men and quite a few women are), break-ups are a crippling shock, both for the parent who is forced out of the child’s life and for the child itself.

There is fertile political ground here. However, the attempts by the British right to emulate the US Republicans by turning the collapse of the traditional family into an election-winning issue have so far been disasters. After the media had finished with John Major’s “back to basics” campaign, the moral lesson the public had learned was that a Tory MP was a man who would pick your pocket and steal your wife (or husband, in more exotic cases). William Hague’s decision to run in 2001 on a manifesto made up of Daily Mail cuttings was the worst of his many blunders. After this sorry record, everyone says that Britain isn’t like the United States; it doesn’t have its religious certainties and traditions of politicised evangelism. But just because the right has failed in the past doesn’t mean it will fail in the future. The best that can be said for Britain’s moral conservatives is that they face up to one of the great issues of the day. Their programme for reform is ludicrous--do they really think that twiddling with the tax system and giving subsidies to married couples can reverse a huge social change?--but it is a programme none the less.

The danger for the liberal left is that it has nothing to say, because it is stuck with an extreme individualist ideology that mirrors the pure capitalist economics of the right. What shoppers do in the free market in sex is their business; regulation would be an unwarranted restriction on the rights of the sovereign consumer of relationships. It would not only be wrong in principle but disastrous in practice, because regulation would prevent the invisible hand of competition between an ever-shifting cast of potential mates from creating ideal family structures.

Where Fathers 4 Justice makes its mistake is in assuming that the courts are infected with feminist bias. They are not, as anyone who has met a judge could tell the group’s campaigners. Rather, the law has a tendency to ignore fathers because it simply cannot cope with the great wave of human anger and misery that the free market in sex has produced. Giving in to the mother is the easiest way of coping with a mountain of work that would otherwise be overwhelming. The opportunity for the right and the danger for the left is that at least conservatives acknowledge the anger and misery, and don’t pretend that they don’t matter or don’t exist.

COPYRIGHT 2004 New Statesman, Ltd.

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workplaceStaff targeted in hate campaign.

Shirley Kumar

161 words

28 October 2004


13

English

(c) Copyright 2004. Reed Business Information Limited. All rights reserved.

Asmall number of fathers’ rights “campaigners” are mounting a hate campaign against the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Services.

In the past five months, rotting fish, decomposing meat and live maggots have been posted through the letterboxes of 20 regional offices in England and Wales.

Children and family court reporters have been followed home, received abusive phone calls and had personal property vandalised. Last year, around 100 suspect parcels were posted to regional offices.

Cafcass chief executive Anthony Douglas said: “We support the view that fathers keep in touch with their children where it is safe to do so. But bullying and intimidation of staff is as unacceptable as it is of mothers and children. I won’t stand for it.”

Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, which represents staff suffering abuse, said it would be meeting with Cafcass to discuss what could be done.

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Police launch investigation as MP targeted in handbills

By BESSIE ROBINSON

384 words

15 October 2004


05

English

(c) 2004 North of England Newspapers.

HUNDREDS of handbills attacking one of the region’s most senior MPs were delivered to homes and businesses across her constituency in a co-ordinated night-time operation.

Police are investigating Tuesday’s leaflet drop, which was branded the work of cowards and bullies by their target, Government Chief Whip and North-West Durham MP Hilary Armstrong.

Over a few hours, residents in an area covering Crook, Wolsingham, Frosterley, Castleside, Lanchester and Langley Park, in County Durham, reported seeing young men in dark suits handing out the unsigned photocopies.

In Wolsingham, they were seen working in pairs in the Market Place at about 8.30pm before a group of six met up and moved to another part of the village.

The literature claimed to be “not from a political party, but from a mother whose family has been destroyed”, and criticised her stance on such issues as homosexuality, drug misuse, domestic violence, foxhunting, rural crime and fathers’ rights.

Ms Armstrong’s office in Crook was bombarded with calls and messages of support yesterday.

She said: “It is easy to make allegations that are totally untrue when it is anonymous.

This is an act of cowardice.

“People like this see an election coming and try to frighten and intimidate people. It is the usual tactics of bullies.

“It was a co-ordinated operation that upset a lot of people, especially as it was conducted at night.

“It was upsetting, but you have to accept anything that is thrown at you if you care about democracy and you care about people.”

A Wolsingham resident said: “Two men tried to shove a handful of leaflets into the hand of a man going into the club. They covered the whole village. It was carefully planned “They weren’t polite. They were in their 20s and seemed like angry young men. If they wanted people to support them, they didn’t go about it the right way.

“They upset quite a few people, especially the elderly. The fact that it was dark made it even more sinister.

“Hilary has a lot of friends here and they are appalled that someone should do this.”

Police said they had received several calls from across the constituency and were investigating complaints.

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Fathers 4 Justice to disband in wake of kidnapping plot

Jan Melrose

493 words

19 January 2006


English

© Copyright 2006 Newsquest Digital Media.

THE fathers’ rights campaigner who carried out a flour bomb attack on Tony Blair has condemned a plot to kidnap the Prime Minister’s son.

Ron Davis, from Findon near Worthing, spoke yesterday before Fathers 4 Justice announced it was to disband in the wake of the furore over the alleged plot.

Mr Davis hit the headlines in 2004 when he and Guy Harrison, from Steyning, threw three condoms filled with purple flour over Mr Blair in the House of Commons.

The stunt was to raise awareness of the group’s view that fathers are unfairly treated by family courts.

But the kidnap plan, reported by The Sun newspaper yesterday to have been planned by a group of extremists on the periphery of Fathers 4 Justice, provoked widespread condemnation.

Mr Davis, who has not seen his 15-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son in seven years, said the plot to abduct five-year-old Leo was “horrendous”.

Later last night, the group’s leader Matt O’Connor told Channel 4 News the group could not continue in light of such negative publicity. He said: “I regret to say that three years after starting the organisation, we’re going to cease and bring it to a close.”

However, Terence Bates, of splinter group Real Fathers 4 Justice, insisted they would continue to campaign. He said Mr O’Connor should have wound up his arm of the group a year ago when it split.

Asked whether the campaign had failed because it had not brought about any changes in family law, Mr Bates said: “Mr O’Connor has failed. He failed to move it forward. Many many good people left last year and formed our splinter group.”

Mr Davis, 49, of Vale Avenue, was unavailable to comment on reports the group was to disband. But earlier yesterday he distanced his campaign from the alleged kidnap plot and said: “They are nothing to do with us and we absolutely condemn it.

“We are about reuniting parents. The thought of taking children away and the distress that would cause the children is just unthinkable.”

Special branch officers uncovered the plot as they investigated ex-members of Fathers 4 Justice expelled from the organisation for extremist behaviour.

In the past, demonstrators have dressed as superheroes and scaled St Paul’s Cathedral, the London Eye and Buckingham Palace. Last September, Mr Harrison, 38, spent five hours on top of the Houses of Parliament waving a banner.

Mr Davis denied the flour bombing paved the way for more extremist action.

He said: “There are many things we could have done which would have been worse. We played a schoolboy prank and threw a flour bomb at Tony Blair.”

Mr Davis also suggested like-minded campaigners could “form a different group to get away from the bad publicity”.

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Family courts under fire from angry parents and protesters

Jon Robins

965 words

11 January 2005


Law 3

English

(c) 2005 Times Newspapers Limited. All rights reserved

Jon Robins reports on how Cafcass is coping with some hostile campaigners

THE publicity stunts pulled off by campaiging fathers might make us smile, but the extremes to which some of the more militant protesters go are no joke to the staff of the Child and Family Courts Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass).

More than 100 hoax bomb warnings were sent to Cafcass offices in one year. The scale of the campaign against the troubled children’s court service was revealed recently in a dossier prepared by the National Association of Probation Officers (Napo). Surely such sustained intimidation must take a toll on its staff? Anthony Douglas, Cafcass chief executive, insists that it has not affected their work. He has been in the job since September and since then has visited 112 of Cafcass’s 140 offices and met about 1,400 staff. He has been impressed by the “total commitment and love of their work”.

But he says: “Many staff, particularly in the private law work, feel a cumulative bombardment and attrition from angry parents and, in particular, from the pressure groups.”

It is hardly surprising. Over the past few months the campaign against Cafcass has increased. A package containing fish heads, rotting meat and maggots was delivered to the Portsmouth office in September. It was reported in the local press that one protester had said: “We have names and addresses” of Cafcass officers. In October, the following message was left on the answerphone at the Kingston office: “Your days of abusing children and families are numbered - the day of reckoning is at hand.”

It is a surprise then that Cafcass has now decided to speak to some of the militant protesters. Douglas admits that some of his colleagues view this as a form of appeasement. But he believes that he owes a duty of care to his workers and wants to prevent an increase in harassment.

“The fathers’ groups raise, quite rightly, the situation of non-resident fathers who disappear from kids’ lives and we know that’s not in kids’ interests,” he says. “But I don’t think we are part of the problem. I genuinely believe our practitioners are trying to facilitate contact for both mothers and fathers in situations of implacable hostility.”

Each year Cafcass deals with about 30,000 cases where separating parents cannot agree on what is best for their children. As for there being an anti-father bias, Douglas has reviewed 600 cases personally and denies it. “Where decisions go against fathers I have seen the reasons for it - usually to do with family violence and the pure fear that mothers have about particular fathers.”

The Napo report shows that only a tiny fraction of fathers involved in family court proceedings, 0.8 per cent, were given no contact. Whereas 42 per cent of fathers no longer had contact with their children at the start of proceedings, by the end of proceedings the proportion had dropped to 6 per cent.

Matt O’Connor, the founder of Fathers4Justice, is not impressed by the statistics.

“They assume that the contact orders are actually worth the paper they’re written on,” he says. “A lot of these guys only get to send a birthday card or Christmas card once a year and that’s not contact. That’s not a relationship with your child.

“Fathers4Justice deny responsibility for intimidating Cafcass staff. A trademark of our campaign is humour, hopefully.” But he adds:. “All you need is one angry father to go off at a tangent but all I can do is make sure our house is in order.”

He argues that the culture that prevails in Cafcass is “fundamentally discriminatory against fathers”. “What we need is a proper support service where there is mandatory mediation and early intervention from properly trained professionals and not from people who are still displaying the old myths and stereotypes about fathers.”

For many family law practitioners, Cafcass is an organisation that has yet to find its feet and, in particular, recover from the damning select committee inquiry just over a year ago that led to the sacking of its board. “It still needs time to get over the really bad start,” says Yvonne Brown, a national committee member of Resolution (formerly the Solicitors Family Law Association). “The problems have now been ongoing for several years and they are about insufficient numbers of quality staff and delays in allocation of case reports.”

Against this troubled background, the Green Paper Parental Separation: Children’s Needs and Parental Responsibilities reveals ministerial plans for a new and improved service. It proposes that officers write fewer reports and adopt a more “active problem-solving” role such as in-court conciliation. Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the Lord Chancellor,has made clear that there will be no more money available for Cafcass.

Cafcass is comfortable with the Green Paper’s shift in focus. But it is going to be a struggle to turn around the fortunes of an underfunded organisation without extra resources. Douglas plans to cut bureaucracy to free money for more frontline staff and to work with the judiciary on eliminating unnecessary report writing.

Although critics would like to see Cafcass scrapped, Douglas is convinced of its vital role. One of the reasons for this is that he was adopted. “When you grow up with multiple relationships and more than one parent, life is complicated and not many people ask what you think and what you want,” he says. “We are there for the children who don’t have a voice. The more noise that comes from adult groups makes me more concerned that the voices of children aren’t drowned out.”

(c) Times Newspapers Ltd, 2005

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Breakaway groups no threat, despite kidnapping rumour;Fathers 4 Justice

Stewart Tendler and Lewis Smith

354 words

21 January 2006


35

English

(c) 2006 Times Newspapers Limited. All rights reserved

REAL Fathers 4 Justice and other breakaway groups are being monitored by police but are not thought to present a significant threat of extremist action.

Despite the reported plot to kidnap Tony Blair’s youngest son, security services regard fathers’ rights campaigners as likely to be a nuisance rather than a danger.

The National Extremism Tactical Co-ordination Unit, set up by chief constables, is still concentrating on animal rights groups and will start looking at fathers’ rights campaigners only if they become more of a threat.

Monitoring of known activists is being carried out by individual forces, senior police officers said yesterday, and Special Branch officers are briefed to watch for more extreme tendencies.

Jeff Skinner, one of seven regional directors of Real Fathers 4 Justice, promised a resumption of stunts in the coming months.

He promised, however, that the fledgeling organisation’s direct action campaign would be peaceful and humorous and that no one would get hurt.

The organisation was born out of frustration that the original group had run out of steam and was failing to make an impact on the public consciousness. In particular, there was frustration at a lack of protest during the general election campaign.

The aims of Real Fathers 4 Justice, he said, are the same as Fathers 4 Justice, in that members want to campaign using direct action for fathers’ rights to see their children.

Mr Skinner said: “It is imperative that everything we do is peaceful. But there will be direct action. There is no other way to make this Government listen.

“We don’t want to cause pain, we don’t want criminal damage, we don’t want violence and we don’t want bad language. But what we do will be high-profile and it will be done with humour. They will be stunts.”

Spokesmen for both organisations have denied knowledge of any kidnap plot involving the Prime Minister’s son, saying that it was made up to discredit their cause.

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End of the road for league of irate dads

James Button Herald Correspondent in London

783 words

21 January 2006


First

23

English

© 2006 Copyright John Fairfax Holdings Limited. www.smh.com.au Not available for re-distribution.

Blair kidnap plot is final straw

IT WAS 10 days before Christmas, not the best time in the lives of men separated from their children. The group of men had been to a demonstration in Londonof the fathers’ rights group Fathers4Justice.

Dressed in the Santa Claus costumes they wore to the rally, they were having a pint and talking tactics in Ye Olde London Pub, near St Paul’s Cathedral.

One of the men suggested: “What about kidnapping the Prime Minister’s son?”

Whether it was a serious plan or just the beer talking, word of it reached police. While The Sun, which broke the story this week, talked breathlessly of police “smashing” the plot in a series of raids, men who had been present said police had in fact visited their homes for a talk.

But police did reportedly tell them they would be shot dead if they tried to carry out the kidnap attempt on Leo Blair, 5.

So ended what was probably the world’s best-known fathers’ rights group. A day after the plot was revealed, the despairing leader of Fathers4Justice, Matt O’Connor, said he was disbanding the organisation he founded in 2002.

“After peacefully campaigning for three years to ensure children get to see their fathers, we condemn any individual who planned this appalling outrage,” he said. “We’re in the business of reuniting fathers with their children, not separating them.”

The 39-year-old public relations consultant always knew the value of a good line.

From the start Mr O’Connor wanted to take the group away from the fringe. He thought the only way to achieve its aim of getting a child’s right to equal contact with both parents written into law was to work in the mainstream.

With his knack for getting publicity, he popularised the term McDonald’s Dads, to describe men forced to snatch time in fast food outlets with children who no longer know them.

He helped stage the stunts that made the group famous: men scaling government buildings and Buckingham Palace dressed as Captain America, Batman and Robin. He reportedly came up with the idea of cartoon characters because he thought the men’s children might see them on TV and think, “My dad’s a super-hero”.

Although the organisation pelted Blair in the House of Commons with condoms full of purple flour - prompting The Times to describe it as “the most prominent guerilla pressure group in Britain” - Mr O’Connor said he was non-violent and his heroes included Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

Under his leadership the organisation grew to claim 12,000 members. It opened branches in Australia, Canada, the Netherlands and the US. In January last year GQ named Mr O’Connor the 92nd most powerful man in Britain.

But the group had a harsher side, what Mr O’Connor this week called a “dark underbelly”. Solicitors who took briefs for mothers in family court cases were bombarded with abusive emails; unpopular judges were visited at home.

In August 2003 anti-terrorist police investigated the posting of 60 hoax bombs to court offices. Former wives and girlfriends of some of the fathers told The Times of break-ups involving domestic violence and terrifying scenes of aggression in front of children.

A splinter faction, which resented Mr O’Connor for what they saw as his domineering approach, last year formed Real Fathers4Justice. This group is blamed for the kidnap plan but its director, Jeff Skinner, told The Guardian the idea that the plot was serious was ridiculous.

“Somebody said, ‘Why don’t we kidnap the Prime Minister’s son’. Everyone told him, ‘Don’t be stupid’.”

A police investigator agreed, telling The Times: “This bird was never going to fly.”

But the formation of the breakaway radical wing - along with fears that some militant fathers in Liverpool are planning violent direct action - prompted police to increase surveillance of the group.

Mr O’Connor has had enough. He may also have personal reasons for quitting. After a bitter court battle with his former wife Sophie their relationship has improved.

Now he has plenty of contact with his two sons and a new baby with his partner. “I’m proud of the work we [Fathers4Justice] have done but if we’re going down this road with extremist elements then it’s come to an end,” he said. “I don’t want to be associated with an organisation getting headlines like this. I want to get a good night’s sleep.”

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Plot to kidnap Blair’s son surfaces: Extremists in group advocating fathers’ rights suspected

Sarah Womack and George Jones

The Daily Telegraph; with files from Agence France-Presse and Reuters

904 words

19 January 2006


National

A3

English

(c) 2006 National Post . All Rights Reserved.

LONDON - Fathers 4 Justice, an advocacy group for men involved in child custody battles, was abruptly disbanded yesterday after allegations extremist members were plotting to kidnap the five-year-old son of British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Matt O’Connor, the group’s founder, said that after endless feuding and dangerous activities by those on its fringes he had concluded mothers were simply more mature than fathers.

“There may be a repeat of these sorts of antics and it would do serious damage to the debate and what we have achieved,” he said.

“My view is that fathers are not ready for the changes we want to see in this country. They are part of the problem, not the solution, and they are perverting the cause.

“This organization has come to its natural conclusion,” he added.

“I am almost past caring and want a good night’s sleep. I have a newborn baby.”

The kidnap plan, apparently in its early stages, was revealed by The Sun newspaper yesterday and confirmed by police sources to the BBC.

Britain’s biggest-selling daily said “vigilante dads” aimed to kidnap Leo Blair and hold him hostage for a short period to “highlight the plight of fathers denied access to their kids.”

Both London’s Metropolitan Police and Mr. Blair’s Downing Street office refused to confirm or deny the story.

“We’re not commenting on this at all,” said a spokesman at Scotland Yard. “We don’t discuss matters of security. We’re not prepared to discuss this in any way, shape or form.”

Mr. Blair’s office confirmed the government, police and security services were concerned about the militant tactics adopted by extreme fringe groups. But it denied a report on Sky News suggesting it had leaked the story to distract attention from a scandal engulfing Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, over sex offenders employed in British schools.

The BBC’s source said police were not convinced those involved in the plot had the ability to carry it out.

But Graham Dudman, The Sun’s managing editor, said the police were taking the plot seriously “because, of course, Fathers 4 Justice have been involved in some pretty spectacular stunts recently -- breaching security at Buckingham Palace, at Downing Street and also the throwing of the flour bomb at the Prime Minister in the House of Commons.”

The Sun cited an unnamed security source as the basis for its report. Mr. Blair and his wife, Cherie, were said to have been told and were “concerned.”

Protection for the Blairs and their four children -- Euan, who turns 22 today, Nicholas, 21, Kathryn, 17, and Leo -- was said to have been reviewed after the alleged plot was uncovered just before Christmas.

The rarely seen Leo George Blair has always been a focus of media attention, being the first baby born to a serving British prime minister in more than 150 years.

As with their other children, the Blairs have sought to keep Leo out of the media spotlight. Just weeks after the birth, they issued the first of several calls for privacy after pictures of a sleeping Leo taken by a group of schoolchildren were published.

Detectives from the Metropolitan Police Special Branch -- whose functions include investigating extremism and terrorism -- have been monitoring the “lunatic fringe” of Fathers 4 Justice, The Sun said.

Mr. O’Connor, 38, who is divorced with two sons by his former wife and a three-week-old son by a new partner, said he had expelled about 30 members last year for talking about carrying out extreme stunts. Police had told him anti-terrorism officers had visited former members of the group over Christmas.

“Anyone who considers kidnapping a five-year-old boy needs their head testing,” he said.

Channel Four News said members of the group claimed they had been infiltrated by a police informer and that he had proposed the idea of the kidnapping.

In the three years since Fathers 4 Justice was formed, the issue of fathers’ rights has been forced up the government’s list of priorities.

The group has staged lighthearted stunts such as crane-top protesters dressed as comic-book heroes and climbing public buildings.

Campaigners have become highly confrontational: Lawyers have been bombarded with abusive e-mails, court offices stormed and judges visited at home.

These activities led to accusations from lawyers and former wives that the organization had created an atmosphere of intimidation and fear.

Some former wives and girlfriends of the group’s members described the breakups of their relationships as involving violence and told of being forced to live in refuges and incidents in which their children witnessed frightening aggression by their fathers.

Two years ago, anti-terrorist police were called in to investigate the sending of 60 hoax bombs to family court offices around the country by extremists -- denounced by Fathers 4 Justice -- demanding more rights for fathers.

Colour Photo: Russell Boyce, Reuters / British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his son Leo are at the centre of an alleged plot to kidnap the five-year-old to draw attention to the plight of fathers in custody battles. The Sun newspaper reported that a fringe element of Fathers 4 Justice was behind the plan.

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Fathers 4 Violence

Rachel Richardson

322 words

6 November 2005


Dads’ army thugs shock

THE caring dads’ army image of the Fathers4Justice group is set to be blown apart as extremist members are exposed as VIOLENT BULLIES.

The group-who dress as superheroes to campaign for more fathers’ rights contains yobs who will stop at nothing to further their cause, a shocking TV documentary will reveal.

Prominent member Eddie “Goldtooth” Gorecki-who scaled London’s Royal Courts of Justice wearing a Batman outfit (right)-allegedly threatened to KILL his ex-partner Kelly to force her to allow him access to his four kids.

Beating

One activist boasted about planning a “HIT” on another member’s ex-missus, the ITV1 Tonight With Trevor McDonald show, will reveal.

And he crowed to an undercover reporter about how he “FLATTENED” his ex-wife’s nose.

While another member suggested plotting a SECURITY SCARE on the Tube -just a week after the July 7 terror bombs. Gor- ecki, 46, a well-respected deputy leader, is also filmed making sick racist and sexist remarks, and bragging about vandalising courts and children’s charity offices.

The hardliner-who has convictions for armed robbery and assault-allegedly beat his ex Kelly so badly she suffered a fractured skull and spent five days in intensive care.

Fanatics from the group-which once powder- bombed Premier Tony Blair-were the subject of a year-long secret investigation.

A TV insider said: “Many of the activists are happy to bully ex-lovers and threaten anyone in their way.”

The Fathers 4Justice website blasted the sting as “a cynical exercise in manipulation”.

Founder Matt O’Connor added: “We haven’t seen the documentary, so can’t comment on the allegations. If members have behaved in a sexist, racist or violent way then they will be expelled.”

Dads’ Army: Inside Fathers For Justice, is on ITV1 tomorrow and Friday at 8pm.

(C) News of the World, 2005

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Blackshirts (Australia)

Blackshirt gets suspended jail term

Chee Chee Leung

30 September 2004


The leader of the Blackshirts fathers’ group walked free from court yesterday after receiving a suspended jail term for stalking a divorced mother.

A County Court judge described John Abbott’s conduct as grotesque and frightening, before imposing a four-month prison sentence, suspended for 18 months.

The 58-year-old was found guilty on Tuesday of stalking the woman in September 2001 by holding two protests outside her eastern suburbs home.

Abbott and three or four other men wore black uniforms and masked their faces with scarves in what the judge described as “quite grotesque” behaviour.

Judge Leslie Ross said the Blackshirts’ intimidating attire was synonymous with European oppression, and led to a “most harrowing and frightening” situation.

He said it was unacceptable and unpardonable that the group used a loudspeaker and named the woman, who was formerly married to an associate of Abbott. The men also distributed leaflets to the woman’s neighbours that said she was in a child-access dispute and described her as a “so-called mother”.

“An individual was targeted and it was humbug for Mr Abbott to argue that this was an exercise in democratic rights,” Judge Ross said.

He told Abbott he had no right to intervene on behalf of those involved in Family Court disputes, and said the offences had psychological consequences for his victim.

The woman, who was in court for yesterday’s hearing, said she was pleased Abbott had been found guilty, but declined to comment further.

In pre-sentence submissions, Abbott, of Upper Coomera, Queensland, said he never intended to intimidate or harass. “I don’t have a guilty mind because I didn’t mean any harm.”

He pleaded not guilty to the charge, and was acquitted of a second stalking charge relating to allegations made by another woman who was also involved in a child-access dispute.

Abbott called two character witnesses, including federal election candidate Gary Schorel-Hlavka of the Aged and Disability Pensioners Party.

Mr Schorel-Hlavka, who is running in the seat held by Labor deputy leader Jenny Macklin, said Abbott was genuine in his beliefs but “goes off the track”.

Judge Ross said that, in mitigation, police were advised of the protests, which were short and lacked physical aggression. He noted that Abbott had not targeted the woman since.

“I am well aware and I accept that Mr Abbott was driven by a personal zeal. What transpired here is he stepped over the line.”

Abbott later vowed that his group would continue protesting - but would no longer name those women they were demonstrating against.

A trial for three other Blackshirts was adjourned until January next year.

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Abbott to put shirt on political push

Peter Ellingsen

592 words

3 October 2004


Last week the law caught up with John Abbott. The leader of the Blackshirts fathers’ group was found guilty in the County Court of stalking, and given a four-month suspended jail sentence. It came two years after Abbott, 58, shocked the city by leading posses of masked men to protest outside the homes of often terrified women.

Smiling as he walked from the court, the most extreme figure in the men’s movement vowed to continue his vigilante action, and to launch a new political party. Despite looming prison time if he breaks the law in the next 18 months, Abbott said: “I’m not deterred in the least. It only strengthens my resolve.”

The new party, Southern Cross, will, he says, champion men’s rights and stand candidates at future federal elections. As for the demonstrations, they will go on. Abbott still has the rack of black shirts he used to evoke fear, and will employ them to shame the women he blames for marriage break-ups.

As owner of the Dane Centre, a recording studio in Brunswick, he has the money to fund his campaigns. He says he has spent $100,000 fighting what he sees as Family Court bias towards women and will spend more. “The fight has only just begun,” he insists.

It is perhaps not what State Attorney-General Rob Hulls had in mind when he branded the Blackshirts “gutless”. Mr Hulls said the Government would ensure women were protected from the violence of hate campaigns. Abbott, however, is not chastened. For him, men parading in fascist costume outside selected women’s homes amounts to a “crusade” to protect marriage, family and children.

Judge Leslie Ross warned him that the suspended sentence meant he was “walking on eggshells”. As the judge left the courtroom, Abbott embraced his backers and said: “There, they can’t have my body.” He said he was not intimidated by the court process. “This isn’t the end of the Blackshirts. Hell, no.”

Abbott was found guilty of stalking a woman involved in a custody dispute with her ex-husband. He pleaded not guilty and argued that he had a democratic right to protest. The prosecution said he had harassed the woman with a leaflet referring to her by name and describing her as a “so-called mother”. The judge said he accepted that Mr Abbott was driven by “genuine zeal”, and had “overstepped the line”. He said the garb and insignia worn by the Blackshirts was synonymous with oppression, violence and aggression, and could be a “frightening sight”.

Abbott represented himself in court. He did not engage a lawyer because lawyers were reluctant to highlight political points in court, he said. “Barristers won’t put forward the message,” he said.

Abbott claims numerous supporters but, while mainstream men’s organisations know of the Blackshirts, most do not support their methods. Sue Price, from the national Men’s Right Agency, said protesting outside women’s homes was “going too far”.

Abbott’s wife left him 14 years ago and met another man. Abbott has remained single, and says marriage is forever and adultery is akin to murder. He laments the loss of his two children - although he did not contest custody - and believes the family will be reunited in heaven. In court, Judge Ross noted that the insignia of the Blackshirts had religious overtones, and that Abbott was fond of talking of crusades.

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Who’s afraid of the big bad dad? His idea of protest is to harass women and children, dressed in the black shirt of historical oppression. Meet the leader of the extreme wing of the father’s movement. By Julie-Anne Davies.

By Julie-Anne Davies

1,131 words

12 October 2004


Volume 122; Number 41

English

The Bulletin - © 2004 ACP Publishing Pty Ltd. All rights reserved. www.ninemsn.com.au/bulletin

John Abbott just doesn’t look the part. With his all black rock star get-up and his George Hamilton tan, this is a man who looks very much at home in his inner-Melbourne recording studio. How can someone who claims to have hung out with Freddie Mercury and Michael Hutchence also be the radical face of the Australian fathers’ movement?

Abbott is the charismatic leader of the “Black Shirts”, a disparate group of middle-aged (mainly) men whose demands include repeal of divorce laws and the abolition of the Family Court. Their vigilante tactics - staging demonstrations outside women’s homes dressed in their heavily symbolic black uniforms and masks, and addressing the neighbourhood with megaphones - were last week described by a Victorian County Court judge as grotesque.

The judge’s comments came after Abbott was found guilty of stalking a Melbourne woman who was formerly married to an associate of his. During the trial, the court heard that Abbott and three or four of his masked cohorts staged two protests outside the woman’s home. The group also letterboxed the woman’s neighbours with leaflets that said, among other things, that she was involved in a child-access dispute and described her as a “so-called mother”. None of this impressed Judge Leslie Ross, who, in sentencing Abbott to four months’ jail (suspended for 18 months), equated the Black Shirts’ intimidating attire with European fascist oppression.

Abbott is unfazed and unrepentant; in fact, he seems pleased the judge picked up on the link. “The Black Shirts as a name is well known through history, in fascist Italy and in England, and in my experience in the rock industry, the name says it all,” he all but smirks.

Yes, this is a man who lives by the axiom that any publicity is good publicity. “The Black Shirts were born to create ultimate interest, exposure is our goal,” Abbott says. But who is being exposed here? He and his “sympathisers”, as he prefers to call them, have been labelled goons and thugs, whose handpicked up-close and personal protests (he admits to carrying out dozens) have left children cowering in cupboards and women terrified to leave their homes. As the victim in last week’s case told The -Bulletin: “I know intellectually that he probably won’t come back after us but emotionally, even after the guilty verdict, I’m scared that he’ll do something else to us.” (A court order -prohibits identifying the woman.)

Try to imagine, she says, the terror of finding yourself the target of masked men outside your own home: “I didn’t know who they were or what they wanted or, worse, what they were going to do.” Both she and her boy, now 12, have received counselling but, three years on, her child still can’t shake the fear that the masked men are going to return one day.

Try telling Abbott about any of this. He shows no remorse, and scoffs at suggestions he and his offsiders have done any damage to the dozens of women and their children who have been subjected to his one-on-one protests. “We’ve had children come out of their homes to play with the Black Shirts when we’ve been demonstrating. They are attracted to the uniforms.”

What’s more, he claims he doesn’t hate women. “I’m talking to you, aren’t I?”

The vitriol and loathing dates back 14 years, to when Abbott’s own marriage fell apart - “When the betrayal occurred” is his way of describing it - but he refuses to accept the divorce and continues to refer to his ex-partner as his wife. He claims he was done over by the Family Court and has been waging his own vendetta against the institution ever since. He has stood for parliament twice and last year gave away the music business for good to devote his time to politics.

Being in Abbott’s presence is vaguely unsettling, probably deliberately so and not just because of statements such as this: “Paedophilia corrupts children but adultery is worse because it corrupts families.” During this interview, another middle-aged man sits silently alongside, nodding occasionally but never introduced. Other Black Shirt sympathisers drift around the sprawling recording studio, some falsely accused of child sex abuse, according to Abbott, and more than willing to explain themselves. No thanks.

While it is true that the fathers’ rights movement in Australia has gained some -powerful allies and elicited community support in recent times - John Howard has promised reforms to the Family Law Act if re-elected - everyone spoken to for this story is quick to dissociate themselves from the Black Shirts. One prominent men’s rights activist asked that his name not be mentioned in any story about the group. “I’m scared to talk to you now you’ve raised them; please don’t mention us in the same sentence,” he says.

Edward Dabrowski of the Shared Parenting Council of Australia is a little braver. “I understand what is driving their behaviour but I don’t approve of it.”

The Black Shirts organisation is also linked to the UK Fathers4Justice group, which has now set up in Australia. This is the mob that snatched worldwide headlines a month ago when one of its members scaled the walls of Buckingham Palace dressed in a Batman suit. Abbott, who now lives in Queensland, talks of expansion beyond Victoria, where until now most of his activity has been based.

The Black Shirts’ potential is enormous, he says, because there are so many disaffected men who are growing impatient with the appeasement tactics of the mainstream men’s movement. “I have a book full of names who I can ring at a moment’s notice and they’ll be there, ready to demonstrate, no questions asked, at whatever location I choose.”

Does this mean there will be a resumption of the targeted home protests? “Well, we won’t be mentioning names from now on and we won’t stop outside individuals’ homes - we’ll keep moving - but those with something to be ashamed of will get the message.”

Miscellaneous clippings on fathers’ rights activism

How fathers’ fight set off the mother of all battles;Fathers 4 Justice

Ben Macintyre, Alexandra Frean and Lewis Smith

1574 words

21 January 2006


The caped crusaders of Fathers 4 Justice pushed fatherhood to the top of the political agenda, but failed to win any reforms. Ben Macintyre, Alexandra Frean and Lewis Smith report

ONE September afternoon, a painter and decorator from Cheltenham in an ill fitting nylon Batman suit climbed on to the facade of Buckingham Palace, demanding that the courts enforce his rights to see two children he had not seen for five years.

Nine months later, Jason Hatch won regular access to the children. Today he believes that the stunt, which prompted a royal security review and established Fathers 4 Justice as one of the oddest protest movements of modern times, paid off.

“For 4 years I had been getting nowhere at all. When I climbed Buckingham Palace judges were starting to come round to us,” he said. “They are beginning to understand we have feelings too and love the children as much as the mothers do.”

Fathers 4 Justice, which disbanded this week after extremist members reportedly plotted to kidnap Tony Blair’s five-year-old son, were amateurish, angry and extremely annoying. But when historians look back on British society at the start of the third millennium they will accord a small but important chapter to the men in tights: Spiderman climbed Tower Bridge causing gridlock below, Santa Claus closed the Severn crossing, and two men hurled a powder-filled condom at Mr Blair in the Commons.

The caped crusaders succeeded in turning the issue of fathers’ rights from a lost cause into the mother of all battles. Whether this has ultimately benefited divorced and separated fathers is another matter.

Fathers 4 Justice followed the trajectory of many radical, direct-action protest groups. Not for nothing did they call themselves the Suffragents. The cause was not comparable, but like the suffrage campaigners of a century ago, F 4 J used modern shock tactics, provoked widespread public disapproval and suffered bitter internal divisions while drawing attention to genuine injustice.

Superman, Batman and the others were not superheroes. Many were embroiled in ugly custody battles; some of F 4 J’s antics were more aggressive than amusing. Some members had unsavoury pasts and a few had criminal records. Yet to some extent, F 4 J caught the spirit of the times: they reflected the Zeitgeist, and they changed it.

There is widespread recognition that F 4 J has put fatherhood firmly at the top of the media, legislative and political agenda, but it is also clear that they did not achieve the legal reforms they wanted.

The group was founded three years ago and clambered on to the battlements of public awareness at precisely the moment that modern fatherhood was emerging as a big cultural concern. Mr Blair had become the first new dad in Downing Street since Lord John Russell in the 1850s. Not to be outdone, Gordon Brown will raise the stakes by producing a second bairn in office. David Cameron will shortly become a father for the third time.

Then there was the spectacle of David Blunkett, resigning not over an adulterous affair but over his right to care for the child it had produced. This was not merely a population blip with politicians, like other professionals, having children later. Something had shifted. Fathers were already becoming increasingly involved with their children’s lives and demanding that they be listened to, in what will come to be seen as one of the biggest transformations in contemporary society.

Politicians were becoming fathers at an unprecedented rate, but the issue of fatherhood itself lacked a political voice. Into this vacuum stepped F 4 J, ready to take up the cause on the public stage by pulling a series of attention grabbing stunts, ranging from the merely irritating to the reckless. In October 2003, Dave Chick (who was not a member of F 4 J, but was supported by the group) clambered up a crane next to Tower Bridge while dressed as Spiderman to highlight his battle to get court orders enforced granting him access to his daughter. He spent six days 145ft up the crane and was accused of costing the taxpayer Pounds 5 million in snarled traffic and policing. In December 2004 contact with his daughter was resumed after 21 months.

“It has taken me risking my life and limb to get something done,” he said.

But as one might expect of an issue so fraught with emotion and conflict, the F 4 J story offers few simple happy endings. Ron Davis was one of two fathers who pelted the Prime Minister with purple flour bombs during Prime Minister’s Questions in May 2004, sparking a national security outcry. Mr Davis, from Worthing, West Sussex, was charged with a public order offence and fined. He has still not seen his daughter since 1998 and has had two brief meetings with his son in the past five years.

“Fathers 4 Justice may not have achieved all it wanted to but there aren’t many people in the country now who don’t know or haven’t heard of Fathers 4 Justice or what we campaign about,” he said.

The genius of the movement, founded in 2003 by Matt O’Connor, a divorced father, lay partly in its very silliness. The sight of grown men humiliating themselves as cartoon characters for the sake of their children somehow detracted from the blokeish militancy.

The protests were widely derided, but also, more quietly, applauded. That ambivalence perhaps reached as far as Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, the president of the High Court Family Division, who said that she would not meet F 4 J members until they stopped their antics. (At one point, a group of militants reportedly planned to snatch a dog belonging to Dame Elizabeth, because she was regarded as upholding laws biased against men.) Yet she also seemed to concede that the protesters had a point, when she admitted that the present family court system was open to valid criticism.

Jim Parton, of Families Need Fathers, which has campaigned peaceably for fathers’ rights for more than 30 years, conceded that F 4 J had “managed to get people talking about fathers in a way that had not happened before”. “Fathers were always on the back-burner until this group came along. We do not advocate direct action, but it is hard to disapprove of it because it very clearly works,” he said.

F 4 J sank as swiftly as it rose. In an organisation almost entirely peopled by bitter men, clashes led to splits and when the divorce came through it was accompanied by allegations of theft, drunken brawling and sexism. Last June, a breakaway group formed, Real Fathers 4 Justice.

The language of the break-up was reminiscent of every other political protest movement that has split between militants and moderates, from CND and the direct-action Committee of 100 to the Provisional IRA and the Real IRA, after which Real Fathers 4 Justice was plainly (and rather grimly) named.

Mr O’Connor believes that his organisation laid the foundations for radical changes. “We created awareness and stimulated debate about the institutionalised discrimination against fathers in the legal system. But we didn’t get the law changed,” he said. “What we have done is climate change. The debate has started.”

Jack O’Sullivan of Fathers Direct, the fatherhood information charity, points out that the issue of fatherhood presents huge political possibilities. “Now that the extremists have gone, there is a big space again. This is a huge opportunity for someone.”

As Anthony Douglas, the chief executive of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, puts it: “Family relationships are moving on even faster than F 4 J and all of us working with families are trying to catch up. The role of men is also changing fast and chaotically and F 4 J was another small window opening out on that.”

For all the flaws within F 4 J, the issue of fatherhood rights and responsibilities has a currency that would have been unimaginable three years ago.

That is some achievement for a protest movement whose most enduring symbol is a chubby dad in a Batman suit balancing on a window ledge.

Janice Turner, page 24

* PAST CAMPAIGNS

* 1950s Anti-nuclear

The CND was formed in 1958 amid widespread fears in Europe of nuclear conflict

Outcome Britain has not given up its nuclear weapons

* 1960s Anti-apartheid

The British anti-apartheid movement began when South African exiles and their supporters began a campaign to boycott South African goods on June 26, 1959

Outcome Nelson Mandela released from jail after 27 years and became President in 1994

* 1970s Feminism

The first National Women’s Liberation Conference was held in 1971

Outcome Successes include the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act and the 1976 Domestic Violence Act

* 1980s The miners

The National Coal Board announced pit closures in 1984. The miners’ strike ended a year later

Outcome Pit closures in 1992 meant thousands of miners lost their jobs

* 1990s Poll tax and anti-globalisation

The decade began with the poll tax revolt, and ended with a new breed of activists turning their attention to capitalism

Outcome Margaret Thatcher resigned as Prime Minister in November 1990.

Anti-globalisation protests continue

(c) Times Newspapers Ltd, 2006

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The Fathers’ Crusade

By Susan Dominus

8139 words

8 May 2005


Late Edition - Final

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.

Photos: Michael Newdow: For this California doctor, 50-50 are the only custody numbers that add up. Robert Chase: He has made peace with his every-other-weekend custody of his two teenage sons, but says he mourns opportunities lost. (Photographs by Michael Edwards); A Higher Profile: Buckingham Palace in September 2004.; Jason Hatch: His stunts at Buckingham Palace and York Minster Cathedral have made him a public face of fathers’ rights in Britain. (opposite: Associated Press. this page: Jillian Edelstein for The New York Times.)

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

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BATTLE OF THE SEXES

Jenifer Johnson

2,052 words

17 October 2004


1

15

English

(c) 2004 SMG Sunday Newspapers Ltd.

THE REMATCH;The arrival of Bob Geldof as asober champion may have given the men’s movement a new legitimacy after the flour bombing and superhero stunts. But beneath the bids for sympathy a bitter extremism refuses to go away. Jenifer Johnston reports

Twenty years ago next month Bob Geldof launched the crusade against famine in Ethiopia, which galvanised a generation. Today Geldof is still an articulate and passionate campaigner, but his cause is very different.

When Geldof shared his views on marriage and children on Channel 4 last week he became the acceptable face of an emerging movement more used to operating on the fringes.

When the former singer with the Boomtown Rats calmly and rationally dissected the flaws in a legal system that separated men from their children after the breakdown of marriages, he did infinitely more for fathers’ rights than the series of highly publicised stunts which have recently grabbed the headlines. Many women liked what he said. Critics liked what he said. Men were grateful for what he said.

While the purple flour bombs and Batman at Buckingham Palace did little to win the public over to the cause espoused by the Fathers 4 Justice group, Geldof’s quiet anger was much harder to dismiss.

His television broadcast may emerge as the moment when the arguments of the men’s rights movement finally struck a note with the public.

It is a movement that is gaining momentum. Fathers 4 Justice now boasts 16,000 members just two years after it was formed. Since the mid-90s there has been a steady rise in the number of support groups for male victims of domestic abuse, helplines for men caught in inescapable family law problems, and, more recently, political activism from men who want their gender to count for something, and not just on issues towards childcare.

Their list of grievances is growing and partly echoes the central planks of the women’s rights battle of previous decades. The four main areas of concern are education for boys, domestic abuse, fairness over divorce and access to children after a separation.

While access to estranged children has so far dominated the news agenda, education is the main bug bear of campaigners. Steven Fitzgerald of the Mankind Initiative, a charity which lobbies the government on male issues, calls the state of male education in the UK ‘‘awash with double standards’’. He believes the recent success of girls in the system has been at the expense of boys’ education.

In Scotland, 55% of this year’s Higher passes went to girls, a widening gender gap. First Minister Jack McConnell now supports a pilot scheme of boys-only classrooms at secondary level, and under-achievement for boys is now a serious subject of study by the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council, concerned because 57% of university students in 2001/02 were female.

George McAuley, chairman of the UK Men’s Movement (UKMM), a campaigning organisation based in Glasgow, says he was shocked at the length of time it has taken for the education of boys to merit proper discussion. ‘‘We were sneered at 10 years ago when we raised this with politicians. But now they are taking heed.’’ Domestic abuse and the image of men in the media are other issues some men are aiming to highlight. While Women’s Aid points out that over 90% of domestic abuse is carried out by men towards women, a group called It Does Happen claims thousands of men have contacted them after suffering domestic violence, and that already in 2004, 48 men have lost their lives to domestic abuse. Their slogan is ‘‘it’s not a gender issue, it’s a human issue’’ and they urge men to dump any residual macho pride - if they have been hurt they need help.

Many of the emerging men’s groups feel that the problems they face are reflected in the coverage of such issues in the media. Steven Fitzgerald highlights a recent primetime television programme in which a wife is seen slapping her husband. ‘‘Can you imagine if a man was shown slapping a woman there would be an outcry. Men are degraded to a huge extent in the media and nobody complains.’’ George McAuley agrees and claims the very real problem of violence against men and male domestic abuse are victims of a skewed media viewpoint. ‘‘Men get a raw deal in the media. A female prison suicide merits four pages of hand wringing, but a guy found dead in his cell gets about four lines,’’ he says. Writer Neil Lyndon is an unlikely hero of the men’s movement. Ironically, he was thrust into this position after the publication of his 1992 book No More Sex War, which argued that men and women were not, in fact, engaged in perpetual struggle for supremacy.

When Lyndon’s book hit the shelves, his argument was widely interpreted as an attack on feminism and he became the subject of intense media interest. Various columnists suggested he had either lost the plot or hated women. Work dried-up and he later wrote that ‘‘in the whole year of 1993, I earned less money in total than I had earned each month in 1989’’. His house was repossessed. His marriage collapsed, and his relationship with his 10-year-old son was placed in jeopardy. ‘‘It was a kind of carpet bombing. I was silenced. I was shut up. It was the intention that my ideas should be erased,’’ he recalls.

Lyndon is careful not to align himself with the men’s movement but says he’s grateful to Bob Geldof for airing his views on the subject on television. ‘‘I hope it opens the gates for more debate. The struggle for men’s rights to access their children is something that can only be compared to the suffragette movement.’’ The UKMM claims ‘‘a slow, strong groundswell of support for men’s issues, rising up faster and faster’’ - the UKMM lobbies the Scottish parliament on male issues and seek political redress in their perception that society has swung so far towards equality it now favours women over men. The totems that were once held up by the feminist movement as being symbols of oppression - unequal pay, sexism at work, stereotypes of ‘‘a woman’s place’’ - are now, it seems, being claimed by men’s civil rights groups.

It’s hardly surprising that their cause provokes a strong re-action. ‘‘There are a group of very angry men who believe they are the victims of reverse discrimination,’’ says Dr Michael Kimmel, an expert in men and masculinity at Stony Brook University, part of the State University of New York. ‘‘Their feelings of powerlessness, of getting ripped off, are real, but you have to ask if those claims are legitimate. What are they angry at? Are they right to claim those things are real?’’ The facts on gender equality speak for themselves. Women in Scotland earn on average (pounds) 482 less a month than their male counterparts, and 35% of women do not belong to any kind of pension scheme because childcare commitments have intermittently taken them out of the workplace. More than 1000 women a year sue their employers for being sacked after falling pregnant. Education seems to be the only area of society where women excel over men, and that achievement is still not fully rewarded in employment.

The Equal Opportunities Commission is the 21st century result of the suffragette movement - the government agency has responsibility not just for gender issues, but also for equality in issues of race, disability and sexuality.

A spokeswoman for the EOC dismissed the claims that the equality fight had now resulted in discrimination against men. ‘‘The argument that boys’ education has been left to languish while girls have been pushed ahead is just not true. The amount of women in science and engineering is still woefully low, and at school level there is a huge amount being done to encourage boys in foreign languages and English.’’ Dr Kimmel suggests the current wave of men’s civil rights is a generational phenomenon that affects men of a certain age. ‘‘There are four areas these men are campaigning on - education, access to children, divorce and employment. They feel a loss of power in all these areas,’’ he says. ‘‘Younger guys have been brought up with mum at work, sisters at work, wives at work - they have no problem with equality. The problem is more apparent with older guys.’’ Despite the recent television coverage, the growth in membership numbers and an increasing public sympathy for at least some of the points it raises, the emergent men’s movement hasn’t yet managed to shed the extremism which undermines their cause.

Fitzgerald from the Mankind Initiative, which advocates gender equality in education and lobbies the government on real problems of male domestic abuse, effortlessly lurches into polemical sloganeering, claiming men to be ‘‘the new Jews’’. He damns Bridget Jones career women: ‘‘They might as well have ‘‘I want’’ tattooed on their foreheads - where has their maternal instinct gone?’’ McAuley of the UK Mens Movement goes even further. ‘‘It is whining crap that women have ever been oppressed in this country. The FemiNazi has been working to remove the father figure from the family. Single mothers have landed society in a mess because of that. ‘‘We would like to stop the propaganda of Women’s Aid and the political correctness squad over issues like rape, domestic abuse and child abuse, which have been grossly exaggerated by them and their continued denial of any female culpability in it,’’ he says.

It makes the ‘‘movement’’ an easy target. Claire Houghton, a children’s rights expert with Women’s Aid, is appalled by some of the comments espoused by groups seeking more rights for men. ‘‘To say that domestic violence has been exaggerated to elicit sympathy, is dreadful. I wish we were exaggerating the figures. The sad fact is that one in four women in Scotland has been a victim of domestic abuse. Across the UK, two women a week are murdered by their partner or ex-partner. And there is an undeniable gender bias in abuse - between 93% and 97% of abuse is perpetrated by men towards women. ‘‘It is very dangerous to suggest women are somehow playing up levels of abuse. Every person, man, women or child is entitled to help and support if they have been abused and we would absolutely support that.’’ McAuley, however, claims: ‘‘Our society is going to hell in a handbasket unless men start moaning and get politically organised. I recognise there is little electoral benefit to parties in courting a male vote. Women are the joiners and complainers and are politically active, men are stoical by comparison.’’ Making that move into mainstream politics are Father 4 Justice. In just two years of being an official organisation, their membership has swelled to 16,000. Dave Ellison, the international co-ordinatior of F4J says that men’s rights is now a ‘‘world wide phenomenon. I have contacts almost every day from a new part of the world that want to copy our methods and fight for the right to see their children’’.

Those methods still include ridiculous publicity stunts. Just yesterday two members of the group climbed to the top of a rollercoaster in Blackpool dressed as The Hulk and Batman, to attract publicity. But the group is also targetting the political system. Paul Watson, 35, originally from Glasgow, gained 139 votes for Fathers 4 Justice in the Hartlepool by-election (and was arrested after throwing purple powder over the LibDem candidate) in September. He believes F4J’s impact has been considerable. ‘‘There is not a judge or a politician or a senior civil servant in the UK today not aware of this issue - that’s the impact we’ve had. Tony Blair has told me himself that he knows the system is broken,’’ he says. ‘‘Basically guys are getting off their fat arses because of us. We’ve created real debate around a pressing issue and whether or not the public thinks we are nutters or irresponsible, or whatever, at least people are noticing that men are alive for a change.’’

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The daddy of all dilemmas

Stephen Lewis

1520 words

8 October 2004


English

© Copyright 2004 Newsquest Digital Media.

york

“We’re just ordinary dads, desperate dads” - Martin Cottrell

Fathers 4 Justice have made headlines by flour-bombing the PM, climbing the walls of Buckingham Palace and invading York Minster. But who are they? With a Channel 4 documentary due to be screened on Monday, STEPHEN LEWIS tries to find out.

THERE are times when all very young children need a bit of comfort. When they fall over and bump themselves, say. Or when they wake up from a bad dream.

At such times, there is only one thing that Martin Cottrell’s four-year-old son Leon wants.

“He will say ‘I just want mummy and daddy together’,” says Martin. “That tears at you.”

It tears at him because, no matter how much Leon may long for it, Martin knows it is never going to happen.

Like so many marriages - as many as four in ten, according to some figures - Martin’s ended in divorce. It was a bitter, acrimonious divorce that involved lawyers and an emotional tug-of-war over access to Leon.

The emotional scars run deep. Martin’s own anger is such that when he talks about his ex-wife, he refers to her coldly as ‘the mother’.

None of that, however, has stopped Martin being Leon’s dad. His own parents separated before he was born, he says. “And to me, personally, being a good father is one of the most important things in my life.”

Which is why, when he found his role in Leon’s life being marginalised after the divorce, he became desperate.

Leon now lives with his mum in West Yorkshire. Martin, who moved to York from Ireland to be nearer to him, gets to see him every weekend - a full two days one week, a single day the next. But still he is left feeling more like a visitor than a dad, he says.

“I want to be involved in all aspects of his life, such as school, his health, teaching him right from wrong,” he says. “I want to help him with his homework, play football with him after school, do special things with him. But I feel I’m not allowed to be the father that my son deserves.”

What makes him really angry is the way he says the system is biased against him because he is a man. It was his ex-wife who wanted to end the marriage, he says. It was his ex-wife who, following the split, “blew up” every time he tried to discuss the situation. It was his ex-wife who constantly threatened to stop him seeing his son, so that he had to go to court to get a contact order.

And it is his ex-wife with whom their son now lives.

“It does not matter how good a dad you are,” he says bitterly. “The family courts make a presumption against the father. Lawyers will say that mothers provide the care for children, and that the child needs to reside in the matrimonial home. But that’s not true!”

It is this sense of anger and injustice that drove an ordinary man to become an activist. Martin is now the Yorkshire co-ordinator of Fathers 4 Justice, the campaigning group which over the last year has hijacked the headlines thanks to a series of increasingly audacious stunts.

In May, they chucked a flour bomb at Tony Blair during Prime Minister’s Questions, prompting an embarrassing debate about security in the Commons.

In July, a group of protesters dressed as priests stormed a Church of England synod meeting at York Minster, before holding a roof-top sit-in.

And on September 13, a Fathers 4 Justice campaigner dressed as batman evaded the royal police force, shinned up a ladder and edged his way on to Buckingham Palace’s famous balcony. To the embarrassment of the security services, he stayed there all day and the images were beamed around the world.

Martin won’t say whether he was directly involved in any of these but he will be taking action in future, he says.

Fathers 4 Justice has proved devastatingly effective at generating publicity, so much so that on Monday Channel 4 will be devoting a one-hour documentary to them.

But do they have a case?

There is no doubting the strength of their feelings of grievance. Gloucestershire painter and decorator Jason Hatch - aka the Buckingham Palace Batman - describes being unable to see his children regularly as a form of “living bereavement”. It’s a vivid phrase which captures well the desperate anguish of fathers who feel they are denied the right to play a part in their children’s lives.

All Fathers 4 Justice want, Martin insists, is for fathers to be treated the same as mothers after divorce or separation. They want an end to the automatic presumption that children should live with the mother, compulsory mandatory mediation following separation, and tougher action against mothers who arbitrarily deny fathers contact with their children, often in the teeth of court orders.

“Both parents should be treated as equals,” he says. “The starting point should be that the child should be allowed to spend equal time with both parents. From that position both parents should then be able to sit down, with the unbiased support of professionally trained mediators, and work out what is the ideal solution for the child in their particular circumstances.”

Marilyn Stowe, a top family lawyer from Harrogate who is chief assessor of the Law Society’s family law panel, concedes that Fathers 4 Justice do have a point.

She doesn’t condone their methods - some of their activities, she says, are very extreme. “But I genuinely do think there is a problem with the law. I have heard from a lot of fathers not involved with Fathers 4 Justice - civil servants, teachers, ordinary dads - who have had it tough.”

In theory, both parents have equal responsibility and obligations to their children after divorce or separation under the law, she says. But in fact, the parent with whom the child lives - and that is usually the mother - holds all the cards.

In most cases, the parents are able to amicably agree contact arrangements, she says. But in some cases the parent with whom the child does not live (usually the father) has to fight for contact. That’s when emotions can get out of hand, and the child can be caught up in a tug-of-love over access.

So Marilyn, head of family law at Harrogate solicitors Grahame Stowe Bateson, agrees that there needs to be change. She would like to see both parents being given equal time with the children as a starting point following divorce or separation - with the children moving between two homes, for example - and a parent who wanted to have them more of the time being required to argue the case for it.

The most important thing, however, must always be the interests of the child, she says. In the welter of emotion and anger that follows a painful separation or divorce, it is easy for the child’s needs to get sidelined.

“Everybody thinks they are acting in the best interests of the child,” she says. “But are they?”

Martin believes that the activists of Fathers 4 Justice are.

“We believe that the best for children is for them to have both parents,” he says. He dismisses the suggestion that members of Fathers 4 Justice are extremists. Nobody was hurt at Buckingham Palace or York Minster, he points out - and the bomb thrown at Tony Blair contained flour.

“Fathers 4 Justice is a peaceful, non-violent direct action group campaigning for the rights of children,” he says. “We’re just ordinary dads, desperate dads.

“Fathers have been campaigning for their children’s rights for 30 years. They have talked to governments, ministers, clergy, sent petitions to the Queen, set up self-help groups. But they have been ignored. Now it is time for dads to stand up against injustice.”

BATMAN: The Man Behind The Mask

The man who climbed on to Buckingham Palace’s balcony wearing a Batman costume was 32-year-old Cheltenham painter and decorator Jason Hatch.

Speaking to the Evening Press, he claimed that, despite court orders granting him contact, he had been denied access to his three children for three years and three months. It was, he said, a “living bereavement”.

He lived just 75 feet away from the home where his children lived with their mother, he said, and could watch the children walking to school every day, but did not dare approach them for fear of being served with a ‘molestation order’.

“I just feel desperate,” he said. “At least when they see me on TV, they know that’s their dad, and that I’m not giving up fighting.”

Dad’s Army: The Men Who Stormed The Palace is on Channel 4 on Monday, October 11, 2004 at 9pm.
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