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Merrimack dad continues crusade for custody rights

During his three-year struggle to gain equal access to his daughter, Marc Snider has become a self-taught expert on family law. BROADCASTER/JOHN COLLINS


CONCORD-- Frustrated with a family-court system that awards disputed custody of children to mothers 80 percent of the time, a growing number of divorced New Hampshire dads, with Merrimack's Marc Snider at the forefront, are pushing hard for passage of House Bill 529, "The Presumption of Shared Parental Rights and Responsibilities Act." , But this spring Snider and other fathers' rights proponents ran into staunch opponents of the bill, led by lobbyists for the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, who persuaded lawmakers to shelve the legislation.
-- sponsored by Rep. David Bickford of New Durham -- indefinitely.

"HB 529 would require the New Hampshire courts to presume that when entering a divorce or legal separation, both parents are entitled to equal parenting rights and responsibilities," said Snider, who may qualify as a self-taught Ph.D. on state custody law, having invested thousands of hours in researching the subject since losing custody of his now 8-year-old daughter -- and his $500,000 mortgage-free Nashua home -- to his ex-wife and her third husband three years ago. "Further, the bill states that if there is clear and convincing evidence that equal parenting is not in the child's best interest, then the judge or marital master is required by law to write down the specific reasons why."

Despite impassioned pleas from Snider and other divorced dads during a packed, two-day public hearing before the House Child and Family Law Committee in March, a majority of committee members, led by Chairman Ed Moran and Vice Chairman Karen McRae, opted to "retain" HB529 for more study, rather than propel it into the full House.

Although HB529 is apparently in legislative limbo, Rep. McRae of Goffstown, who counts herself among just a handful of committee members willing to openly support the bill as is, insists the legislation isn't dead.

"I really feel for the fathers out there," said McRae. "It's incredible what the courts have put them through. We have to come out with something in November to go before the full House in January. Hopefully, it gives us time during the summer to really talk with our members and get them off top dead center so we can push (HB)529 along."

Although McRae's words may thrill reform-minded dads who claim they have been unjustly excluded from their children's lives, Snider recognizes the great difficulty his group faces in trying to remove the existing prejudice that favors mothers in most "winner-take-all" custody disputes.

"We believe children need both a caring mom and dad in their lives," said Snider, who has posted reams of child-development studies to back up this belief on his Web site -- www.nhcustody.org Too often, Snider said, divorce lawyers advise mothers to take full advantage of the entrenched gender bias by making divorce and custody hearings as acrimonious as possible.

After bearing witness to what divorced dads refer to as "manufactured acrimony," Snider claims judges and marital masters usually determine that this former couple "simply cannot get along," and the outcome of these bitter domestic court squabbles -- regardless of who started the fight -- is a more restrictive custodial agreement that routinely "punishes" fathers by depriving them access.

A majority of Child and Family Law Committee members, who voted to retain HB529 a day after the public hearings ended, were not convinced of the bill's appeal.

"I just think the bill needs to be studied more before we give blanket 50-50 custody in all cases," said Rep. Julie Brown of Rochester, who has been on the committee for 17 years. "I do think many men deserve more access to their children and the courts should be taken to task for not doing a better job. But I believe by working on the bill all summer in subcommittee we can turn out a really great bill. We just need to go over it line by line, make sure everything is correct."

Such apparent legislative footdragging infuriates Snider.

"The most amazing thing to me is that legislators refuse to do the right thing," said Snider, who said he has incurred an estimated $30,000 in court costs to win "about 35 percent" shared visitation rights with his daughter. "Back in the days of slavery and when women couldn't vote, the status quo was strong then, too, and you know what? The status quo was wrong. A reform victory for fathers here in New Hampshire will mean more publicity and momentum for the reform efforts coming in other states. Children need both a caring mom and dad in their lives."