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Fathers 4 Justice take their fight for rights across the Atlantic
By Roya Nikkhah and Louise Hancock in New York
(Filed: 08/05/2005)

They have already sent Batman over the wall of Buckingham Palace, pelted Tony Blair with purple flour and scaled the heights of Tower Bridge.

Now Fathers 4 Justice, the pressure group notorious for its daredevil stunts, is to export its unorthodox approach to lobbying across the Atlantic.

The activists believe their stunts will go down well in the US

Prominent members of the movement, which campaigns for greater fathers' rights in Britain's family courts, are to advise their United States counterparts on attention-grabbing tactics.

They claim that on a recent reconnoitre of landmarks in New York, where they intend to stage a protest, they were followed by the FBI.

Matt O'Connor, the founder of Fathers 4 Justice, flew to Minnesota last night and will officially launch the American branch of the group next week. The group estimates that 25 million American fathers face access problems.

"We are planning a massive stunt in New York which will catch everyone by surprise," said Mr O'Connor, 38. "It will be more spectacular than anything we've done in the UK so far and if all goes well we will hopefully be catapulted into infamy."

Mr O'Connor, a father of two from Suffolk, said that New York's bridges and tall buildings were among their targets for a potential stunt. The group has apparently considered using the Hollywood sign in Los Angeles as a platform for future campaigns.

Jolly Stanesby and Jason Hatch, two members of the group, said that they were tailed by up to eight FBI agents during a recent trip to New York.

"Every time we turned a corner, there was another shifty looking man pretending not to notice us," said Mr Stanesby, 39. "At one stage it was so obvious what was going on that one of the agents came up and introduced himself.

"He told us that we were considered the biggest security threat in New York at the moment - as if we were terrorists."

The leader of the American campaign said the militant tactics used so effectively in Britain would have to be toned down in the US. Jamil Jabra, 48, who teaches information technology at the University of Minnesota, said: "The attitude towards security in the US is very different, particularly after September 11.

"We will try to maintain the audacity of the stunts but they will have to be tailored to a certain degree to avoid people getting hurt. I admire British members scaling the walls of Buckingham Palace but if anyone tried that at the White House, they would be shot."

Since its inception in 2002, Fathers 4 Justice, which counts Sir Bob Geldof as a staunch supporter, has campaigned for an overhaul of Britain's family law system, which it believes unfairly favours mothers in custody issues.

The group, which has 12,000 British members, has lobbied the Government for equal access rights for fathers separated from their children. It has demanded new legislation that would give a child the legal right to see both parents if a relationship breaks down.

Mr O'Connor believes that its use of characters such as Batman and Spiderman would chime with the American public. "The superhero campaign should work well in the States as it is the original home of these characters," he said.

"The American legal system is different to ours and we will be tailoring the American Fathers 4 Justice to reflect that, but the underlying principle of equal rights for fathers is a global issue."

US law varies from state to state, but most family courts across America favour awarding sole custody to one parent. Standard visitation rights for the parent without custody are four days a month.

In 84 per cent of cases in America, according to the Census Bureau, sole custody of any children is awarded to the mother. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, however, children growing up without a father are five times more likely to commit suicide, nine times more likely to drop out of school and 32 times more likely to run away from home.

Mr Jabra, who pays #650 a month in child support for his four-year-old son, wants American family law changed to offer a more equal balance.

"At the moment, the standard seems to be that mothers get custody of children and fathers end up seeing their kids every other weekend," he said.

"That is simply not satisfactory. We will be pushing the Government for equal rights for fathers and more cases where joint custody is awarded."

Mr Jabra plans to approach Bruce Willis, the actor, as a possible figurehead for the campaign. He and his ex-wife, Demi Moore, have shared joint custody of their three daughters since they divorced five years ago.

"Bruce is ideal for us as someone who is very involved in his daughters' lives," Mr Jabra said. "They seem to have worked out an idyllic situation where both parents have an equal say."


Gregory Romeo
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