Misogynistic bullies don't deserve justice

What if lone mothers in Cinderella costumes attacked politicians to get the Child Support Agency to secure decent support?
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The Independent Online

More bravado and bullying by the lads from Fathers4Justice. First they invaded a conference on family law in Devon where Jonathan "Jolly" Stanesby of F4J handcuffed Margaret Hodge, the minister for Children, and held her for 40 minutes. Not funny, Jolly. Then they warned of pre-Christmas mayhem for their 10 "most wanted villains", including Charles Clarke and Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, the highly regarded family court judge who will not meet them.

More bravado and bullying by the lads from Fathers4Justice. First they invaded a conference on family law in Devon where Jonathan "Jolly" Stanesby of F4J handcuffed Margaret Hodge, the minister for Children, and held her for 40 minutes. Not funny, Jolly. Then they warned of pre-Christmas mayhem for their 10 "most wanted villains", including Charles Clarke and Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, the highly regarded family court judge who will not meet them.

Now they have turned on the BBC and the presenter Fiona Bruce because she fronts a documentary to be broadcast tonight that looks into allegations that some of the key members of the F4J defence force are convicted perpetrators of violence against their former partners. F4J "accuses" Bruce of being a supporter of Women's Aid, which helps such victims - a revealing objection, don't you think?

The makers of the "Families at War" programme, part of the Real Story series, say there is no generalised slur on the campaign itself, but a rout of self-made martyrs is not easily persuaded out of monomania and, anyway, this is not what this campaign group has come to expect from its friends on newspapers and in television.

Like fond parents of spoilt children, the media mostly excuses and delights in the capers of F4J, perhaps because there are a significant number of separated media fathers who feel an instinctive bond with these chaps who make a spectacle of themselves, dressing up as Batman - boys who never grew up and who expect us all to bow to their demands. Some feminist journalists too have fallen for the loveable rogues, describing them as the new suffragettes. To equate the struggle for universal voting rights with these bounders is blasphemy.

I wonder if the nation would so generously empathise with young Muslim men if they handcuffed David Blunkett and threatened Jack Straw, to protest against their victimisation by the iniquitous new anti-terrorist laws? And what if lone mothers in Cinderella costumes attacked politicians, intimidated judges and journalists, stopped traffic and created deliberate chaos to get the Child Support Agency to secure decent financial support for their children from absent fathers?

Intolerably large numbers of these custodial parents live in poverty and misery while the fathers avoid payments and the CSA lurches from one wretched crisis to another.

The chief executive of this enforcement body has just resigned after its computer system failed to deliver, leaving mothers (and some lone fathers entitled to financial support from working mothers) with no way of getting what they are legally owed. What have F4J to say about this issue? I can guess: the demands of the CSA are yet another bit of state oppression in their lives, the unspeakable tyranny that forces them to pay up for children they helped bring into the world.

Many of us who oppose and despise F4J's tactics are keenly aware that post-separation anguish is tragically suffered by too many fathers. There are indeed mothers who violate all agreements and provoke constant aggravation with the non-resident parent in the hope that the contact will eventually cease, thus emotionally amputating the child from the father and, unforgivably, from loving grandparents who have done nothing to deserve such punishment.

Some of my own acquaintances are among these vindictive mothers. In one case, one wife told me she was getting her husband to pay for a massive house renovation before chucking him out and bringing in her young lover to live with her and her three young children. She did too. And now the father is left begging to see his kids while paying for their private education and everything else she demands. But he hates F4J because the image they have promoted of themselves is so offensively misogynist.

Saner and more temperate fathers' groups, such as Fathers Direct, are not; mothers and fathers are treated with equal respect. These groups work hard to dispel the myth that all separations end in ugly hate and wars. (F4J mocks their girliness.)

In a government green paper, Parental Separation: Children's Needs and Parent's Responsibilities, evidence is produced to show that more than 80 per cent of separated parents are happy with the access arrangements that they have worked out. Most lone mothers say they would like more involvement, not less, sometimes even women who have been terribly treated by the fathers.

Among the women who block or reduce access, a number do so because they are genuinely trying to protect their children. F4J gets very cross about these "recalcitrant mothers" and condemns Lord Justice Thorpe who has decreed that mothers can intervene in arrangements if children are getting anxious or depressed.

It is alarming to witness F4J imposing its uncompromising conditions on the law, society, politics, family life and the national conversation. Anyone who opposes them is given the treatment. The MP Clive Soley, for example, who has criticised these self-pitying warriors, gets regular warnings on the internet. One message says: "Watch yerself you wouldn't want to wake up one morning and find the BNP has stolen your seat."

This campaign has succeeded in getting the majority of Britons to believe that most departed fathers are desperately seeking justice in a cold world and that the only policy that will give them redress is an automatic 50-50 share in their children's lives. Family law is complicated and fraught, necessarily so. There cannot be absolutes, and in the end it is the children who have got to matter more than super-petulant parents.

In new research carried out by Young Voice, children of divorced parents are interviewed about their lives from the point at which the parents parted. The law may stress the best interests of the child, but in reality the thoughts and desires and needs of children are too often drummed out by noisy adults. Read their words and you get a glimpse into how different each child is and how they change too - happy one year seeing both parents then adamantly refusing to pack and repack and transport their lives.

Sarah finds it hard that there are such different rules in the two households she has to live in. Her mother doesn't talk to her dad about money but moans about it to her, and that gets her down. Jason didn't want to live with his dad, who then locked him up and blamed his mum. Rachel feels that "whoever you live with you have ups and downs, whether they are your dad's partner or your dad's frog".

Under-resourced family courts have to deal with these fragilities and with other problems of abuse, neglect, drug addictions, poverty and family relationships. Sometimes the courts do very badly; other times they manage incendiary situations sensitively. One change that would help to diffuse conflicts would be to open up the courts, so they are not shrouded in secrecy and easily maligned. With the surge in divorces, this is an imperative.

By now, I will have been posted on to the F4J website as yet another man-hater, an enemy to be pursued and brought into line. Maybe next they will start to mock kidnap their opponents and show them on a video, just for a laugh, just for the publicity.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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