By George Rolph
When Fathers4Justice began their campaign to try and find justice for fathers unfairly kept from their children, like many others, I had no idea of the way the system was stacked against them. I thought that the system was indeed biased, but the depth and sheer cruelty involved in that bias has become something far beyond what I thought I knew.
As their protest continued, I read legal documents that contained the facts behind cases that men had published on the Internet in defiance of court instructions to keep those details secret. Each case I read detailed terrible abuses of the system that added up, it seemed to me, to the deliberate destruction of relationships between fathers and their children by the family court system. I concluded -- having read these documents and heard the pleas of fathers who just wanted the right to be allowed to continue their relationships with their own children after the relationship with their mother had failed -- that the system, as it currently worked, posed a danger to both parents and children.
I realised, that as a society we must urgently grapple with these problems and seek to find solutions, before we are forced too because of the breakdown of our social order. It seemed to me, that the basic right of a parent to see his or her children was in both, the best interests of the child and the parents. It also seemed to me that it is wrong to think of any of these fathers and men's groups that have proliferated on the Internet and our streets, in isolation. They are becoming an irresistible force and we must be careful not to become an irresistible object.
of, "the best interests
of the child" while noble
sounding, is in fact selling
children and families short
when it comes to these issues
and the manner in which society
is dealing with them is, predictably,
generating huge passion and
fury among those affected. It
cannot be in the "best
interests of the child"
when the children denied access
to their own parent on the orders
of a court -- often fed a diet
of exaggerations by a vindictive
ex partner, or indeed, on the
whim of that ex partner in defiance
of a court order -- if those
children are then so damaged
they grow up to become suicide,
drug abuse, family abuse, educational
failure and crime statistics.
How is it in our children's best interests to keep them from the love of both parents and half of their extended family? What is more, should one or other bitter ex parent be allowed to condemn a child to become one of those appalling statistics, simply because they want to hurt another person? The national statistics surrounding children brought up in single parent families clearly show that the children in those families are failing in all of these ways. It would seem that a far better and more just mantra would be, "In the best interests of the family." This mantra would not exclude children or their parents and would go some way towards creating a more holistic approach to the problems.
A year ago I spent some time talking with a father who had been denied access to his daughter. He showed me documents from the family court detailing a number of false accusations brought against him by the mother of their child. One of those accusations, proven to be unfounded after investigation, was that he might sexually abuse the child. Another accusation was that he might become violent in the future and the mother was afraid of him. Because the standard of evidence required is so low in the family courts, when accusations of this kind are brought, it becomes trial by opinion and not evidence. However, for the person on the receiving end of such allegations, the effect often amounts to torture.
The father spent three hours with me as we walked together along London's streets. In that time he battled to control his emotions as he described the hell he had been through and the desperation he felt when trying to clear his name. At one point I asked him, "F4J say they want the court secrecy to end. Do you realise that if you got what you want, everyone would read about these accusations made against you in the press. Would that not have made your life even harder?" He stopped and faced me and said, "If the people of this country realised that a simple allegation -- made without proof -- could keep them from their kids, do you think they would tolerate it? Remember, people went nuts when those crazy social workers stole those peoples kids because they said they were involved in witchcraft." He had a point. It was the doctrine of guilt by allegation alone that led to the witch trials that proliferated from the 12th to the 19th century.
While it is true that sometimes the allegations made will have truth behind them, that truth must be discovered by more than just opinion. Without the burden of proof being applied to these allegations, the system is simply wide open to abuse by the bitter and the disturbed often aided by slick, fast talking lawyers. False allegations could be greatly reduced by making the penalty for bringing them very severe.
Judges often come out in the press and offer sticking-plaster solutions when it is obvious that much more than just court procedures and legislation are at fault. What is needed is a complete overhaul of our thinking and our policies towards the family. We seem to have become a nation that makes family breakup an economically viable and desirable proposition. Government spokespersons say that they cannot force people into staying married and that is true. However, government could do a lot more than it does to see that marriage is a much more financially and socially respected institution than is currently the case. It is difficult to understand the government attitude to this demand, when their campaign to stop people smoking clearly demonstrates that government and media working together can have huge effects on peoples attitudes. We should not be suprised if the legal profession make a lot of noise in opposition to these proposed changes. After all, they make a lot of money from the process as it is. However, we cannot tolerate injustice because it helps a few lawyers pay the petrol bill on their Jaguars. No matter what else Fathers4Justice have done, they should be congratulated for making us all think about these issues in more depth.
Whatever we may think of the campaign waged by Fathers4Justice the reasons behind that campaign are undoubtedly just. However, aspects of the way that the group fell apart smell distinctly fishy. Talking with members of F4J it is obvious that there is a growing sense of anger aimed at the former leader, 38 year old Matt O'Connor. In 2004 O'Connor told the press,
"We are a bunch of guys who are going to be making some pretty scary sacrifices."
What is troubling those men and women who have risked everything for Mr O'Connor's campaign is, that they made all of the "scary sacrifices," in terms of risk to life, limb and legal penalties. Meanwhile Mr O'Connor, it is alleged, consumed vast amounts of alcohol, abused females all around him, failed to provide help to people with their fines as promised, has been unable to explain where vast amounts of the money collected by the group has gone, called for extremist actions while demonising others for being extremists and is now busy flitting around the media telling the fathers he said he was representing that they are "too stupid" to be given care over children.
Confusion also reigns within the group about why O'Connor attacked his own former members and the reputation of Fathers4Justice instead of attacking the allegations over the Leo Blair story as a smear campaign, or the actions of a lone extremist. As a skilled public relations man, O'Connor is well aware of what he was doing and the consequences of it for his group. It is this that leads many members of the disbanded group to feel that O'Connor has walked away for other reasons.
Former members of F4J have told me that they feel he was providing the makers of a forthcoming movie about F4J with a perfect ending to their story. The movie deal was brokered between Mirimax films and O'Connor two years ago. O'Connor is also planning a book that will, no doubt, be launched along with the film and he stands to make a fortune from both deals. In the meantime, those he sent up cranes and buildings to shiver in the cold wearing superhero costumes, are left poverty stricken and with the threat of being sent to jail for not paying the fines imposed by the courts. It is little wonder than those men are furious.
ExtremistsExtremist elements within protest groups are nothing new. In 1913 it was women, fighting for the right to vote, that resorted to extreme actions. At the time is was reported like this, "Among other actions, the suffragettes set arson to houses, seared golf courses with acid, burnt down sports pavilions, broke street lamps, stomped on flower beds, painted "Votes for Women" on the seats at Hampstead Heath, plugged up keyholes with lead pellets, slashed the cushions of train seats, staged false fire alarms, threw rocks at the windows of the Parliament building and houses of elected officials, severed telephone wires, blew up fuse boxes, placed bombs near the Bank of England, "hacked thirteen pictures in the Manchester Art Gallery", including the "Rokeby Venus", slashed by well-known suffragette Mary Richardson. These drastic measures culminated on June 4, 1913, when one of the more famous suffragettes, Emily Davison, threw herself under the King's racehorse at Tattenham Center, toppling both the horse and the horse's jockey. A riot ensued, and by the time Davison's body was recovered from the track and taken to a hospital, it was far too late; Davison became the movement's first, and only, true martyr."
Even though these women carried out far more and far worse damage than anything Fathers4Justice managed, I could find no calls in the press at the time to separate them from their children as unsuitable parents and there was little reluctance to jail them for their crimes. This government have also shown no reluctance to jail mothers who do not send their children to school, or to jail pensioners who do not pay their council taxes (with the exception of the deputy prime minister of course). Yet government ministers hesitate to jail mothers who breach clear and legal court orders by refusing to allow the children's father to see his kids. Such inconsistency seems certain to lead to the suspicion that the family court system treats people differently than the rest of our legal system and treats them differently according to their gender.
When we start making public and legal policy based upon gender considerations and a presumption that "mother knows best," we are going to alienate at least half of our population. We should not be surprised when they fight back and, if we fail to listen to their concerns, we should not be surprised if they become angry and resort to extreme behaviour. There have been many precedents that point clearly to these dangers in recent years alone.
Twenty years ago Toxteth exploded into rioting because of heavy handed police tactics that had been warned about for years. In 1981 Brixton also blew up. Again, there were clear warnings that the people had had enough of racial abuse and were getting angry. As far back as 1958 Notting Dale and Notting Hill erupted into race rioting and again, the tension had been growing for a long time before the riots began. The poll tax riots of the 1980's are another example.
In each of these cases and many more, the government and often the press also, only reacted after the event. All of the signs of tension were ignored until the damage was done. The people involved on the other hand, take the view that they elect government to listen and not ignore them. When the government fails to hear their concerns, often for reasons of political ideology and policy, the people have no other choice but to rebel. The government are there, not to suppress the will of the people, but to enact it. Therefore, when Fathers groups complain that they have talked for thirty years to a succession of different governments and their concerns have been ignored, why should we be surprised when extreme voices are raised , along with the temperature of the debate?
The lessons of history are very clear. The government and the media must start to hear more and talk less, to the people (and not just the press) of our land. We cannot sit upon high moral horses and complain about extreme behaviour, while at the same time denying justice and a fair hearing to much of our population. We are supposed to have moved on from the dark days of behaving like lords over the people. If we have not, then it will not be long before more extreme groups rise up and we will not be able to silence them with a dodgy looking story planted in the press. Neither shall we be able to suppress their voices by having a series of judges announce in the press that there is little wrong with a system that everyone else can see is falling apart at the seams.