Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

May 18, 2007

MAWAD: Dads deserve to raise kids, not just write checks

By TAMMIE TOLER

PRINCETON — An estimated 92 percent of West Virginia child support orders are issued against the father during custody negotiations. But, members of Men And Women Against Discrimination (MAWAD) said Saturday that simply securing a father’s paycheck isn’t good enough for their kids.

Instead, they said Family Court judges and officials ought to do more to make sure fathers are substantial parts of their sons’ and daughters’ lives.

“Children need a father more than they need money,” Tim Fittro said Saturday during the first Princeton meeting conducted by the group that strives for the theme “Truth, Justice and Equality in Family Law.”

The grassroots group, formerly Men Against Discrimination, started in the Parkersburg/Vienna area and is stretching across the state in an effort to change the West Virginia Family Court culture and atmosphere members say rob children of half of themselves — their fathers and extended families.

Fittro, the group’s state director, said statistics show women receive primary custody of children 83 percent of the time when couples divorce, and the National Center for Health Statistics estimates that 4 out of every 10 American children wake up each morning without a father in the home.

Married couples enjoy the presumption of law that both partners are caring for their children. When a couple divorces, Fittro said one half of the couple, usually the man, loses that benefit of the doubt.

“By no fault of their own, one parent loses the presumption that they’re taking care of their kids,” he said.

In light of those statistics and the difficult custody battles of some members, MAWAD organized to help men fight for the right to be parents. Since its inception, however, Fittro said second wives, grandmothers, sisters, aunts and more have joined the cause to keep both parents in kids’ lives.

Recently, enough women became part of the effort that the group was compelled to officially change its name to include the women in the fight to make sure both parents have hands in raising today’s children.

“You can’t be a father to your child if you only see that child every other weekend,” Fittro said.

For the last two years, MAWAD has drafted and propelled legislation into the West Virginia Legislature that would require Family Court judges to begin all custody negotiations with 50-50 shared parenting.

Although critics argue the 50-50 standard is unrealistic and aims to fit all families into a single custody mold, Fittro said the 50-50 agreement is only a starting point.

“It’s not a cookie-cutter solution,” he said, explaining that the proposed legislation would only enforce a 50-50 shared parenting agreement if the parents are unable to reach another solution.

Currently, most custody negotiation determines which parent is the primary caregiver and awards primary custody to that person. That’s particularly unfair to men, according to MAWAD leaders, because courts typically see mothers as caregivers, even if the fathers work so the mother may stay at home with the kids.

“We’re creating a situation that makes parents adversaries, and most of the time, they’re fighting over their own children. It’s creating a recipe for more destruction,” he said. “... What incentive does the custodial parent have to work with their spouse to work out a custody agreement if they’re already going to get custody?”

Members said the legislation would even the odds in a system that currently favors mothers heavily.

“If you start with a level playing field, you’re more apt to play fair,” Kevin Summers, MAWAD Region 5 director and a father of two girls, said. “We’re not asking for any preferential treatment at all. We just want everything to be fair.”

Frustration among the organization’s members was evident Saturday.

“No one, no one, will do anything for a man,” an unidentified man who was attending his first MAWAD meeting, said.

He said he had fought for custody for three years and was not giving up.

Another member said Family Court officials “hide behind locked doors and will not talk to you.”

In addition to the 50-50 parenting bill, MAWAD has also dedicated itself to promoting the creation and enforcement of stiffer penalties for people who withhold one parent’s court-ordered visitation and anyone who knowingly and willingly make false allegations of domestic violence or child abuse, particularly in order to gain an advantage in a custody situation.

Fittro was quick to point out the legislation would not target mandated reporters or anyone who makes a good-faith report of suspected violence or abuse.

“We don’t want anybody prosecuted for just saying they suspect abuse is going on,” he said.

Another project MAWAD is pursuing is a program that Fittro said would curtail child support fraud by requiring both parents to deposit funds into a common account to pay for the child’s necessities. The adults could then use a state-monitored debit card to access those monies, thereby guaranteeing both parents financially support their kids.

Although group members said they invited a wide array of legislators, court officials and representatives from human resources agencies, Del. Thomas “Mike” Porter, R-Mercer, was the only one who attended the Saturday meeting.

He was supportive of the cause, but cautioned MAWAD members that a push toward the floor of the Legislature and new laws could be difficult.

“Everybody casts a vote up there (Charleston) thinking about whether they’ll get re-elected. It’s hard up there when you’re trying to do what’s right, but sometimes what’s right is right and what’s wrong is wrong,” he said.

After the meeting, Porter said he believed the MAWAD goals were worthy, particularly if they would help provide children a more balanced environment.

“It really does deprive the whole family, and what’s so sad is what the kids miss out on,” he said.

MAWAD representatives hope to develop relationships with members and officials statewide. They plan to attend a national rally in Washington, D.C., Aug. 18. Representatives will also be on hand Saturday and Sunday at the Brushfork National Guard Armory for the Princeton-Mercer County Chamber of Commerce’s Men’s Expo.

For more information on MAWAD or its initiatives, visit www.mawadwv.org, or call (304) 295-0053.

— Contact Tammie Toler at ttoler@ptonline.net.