"I haven't seen my daughter for five years."
Shouting these words, an English protester hit British Prime Minister Tony Blair with a packet of purple flour as Blair answered questions on the floor of the House of Commons a few days ago. A somewhat panicked parliamentary session was quickly suspended.
The aggrieved father, Ron Davis, and his fellow protester, Guy Harrison, are part of a nonviolent resistance campaign launched by the popular English fathers' rights group Fathers 4 Justice. The group uses purple because purple is the international color of equality. Their purpose is to combat the greatest social injustice in the Anglo-American world today--the way decent, loving fathers are driven out of their children's lives after divorce or separation.
Their campaign has included daring, highly publicized protests atop cranes, bridges, and government buildings, as well as demonstrations and court occupations.
The English Lord Chancellor's Department admits that mothers win custody in four-fifths of all cases in English and Welsh courts, and several prominent judges have recently acknowledged and lamented the courts' complete impotence in enforcing visitation orders. Davis and most other protesters have court-ordered visitation with their children but cannot get English courts to enforce those rights. Their protests have broken the law, but have done so only in an effort to get the English government to enforce the law. On a radio talk show earlier this year, Blair promised Davis he would investigate the problem, but he has failed to act upon his pledge.
Many prominent British citizens, including Prince Charles, Nobel Peace Prize nominee Sir Bob Geldof, and actor Pierce Brosnan, have spoken out in favor of the campaign for fathers' rights. Brosnan says he "applauds the heroic fight of Fathers 4 Justice" and Geldof, who lost custody of his three daughters in his divorce, recently wrote:
"I cannot begin to describe the awful, eviscerating pain of being handed a note...that will allow you [limited] access to [your children]...What have you done? Why are you being punished?...Why is the person who has taken the children...suddenly given vast emotional, legal and financial power over the other party?...Though having done no wrong, the father is semi-criminalized and punished by having his children removed from him...[the children's] childhood is never recoverable."
Reflecting the heartache and desperation felt by many English fathers, several F4J protesters have become popular heroes. Most prominent among them is 37 year-old David Chick, who launched a world famous six day, one man protest atop a 150 foot high crane near the Tower Bridge in London last fall. Dressed as Spiderman because he is his four year-old daughter's favorite comic book character, Chick had been to court 25 times and spent the equivalent of $30,000 in unsuccessful attempts to get English courts to enforce his visitation rights.
The mayor of London compared him to Osama bin Laden, and labeled him a "menace" holding a city for "ransom." However, last year Chick came in second in the Evening Standard London Personality of the Year contest and was the runner-up Political Personality of the Year on a major English television station. Last week Chick, who faced a prison sentence for his protest, was acquitted by an English jury, some of whom were reportedly moved to tears by his testimony.
Another widely admired protester is Jolly Stansby, who spent seven days on a freezing perch aloft Tamar Bridge in Plymouth, England, in January. Stansby is a registered child care provider, and is thus allowed to care for any child in England except his own, who he is barred from calling and is allowed to see only a few days a month.
Unfortunately, the situation for American divorced or separated fathers is not much better. According to the Children's Rights Council, a Washington-based advocacy group, more than five million American children each year have their access to their noncustodial parents interfered with or blocked by custodial parents. Visitation is indifferently enforced, and hurtful, inequitable custody arrangements are still the norm.
Chick summed up how many disenfranchised dads on both sides of the Atlantic feel:
"[My daughter] is the most precious thing in my world. I was there for the scans when she was still in the womb, I was there for her birth. I fed her, bathed her, got up in the night with her, cuddled her when she cried.
"Now I'm just another statistic--another dad who has no part in his daughter's life. For me, it is a living bereavement."