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LIVING AND FAMILY:Suffra-gents' fight for fathers' rights.

Byline: BARBARA GOULDEN

WE'VE all seen Batman protesting on the balcony at Buckingham Palace and Spiderman bringing traffic chaos to London as he scaled Tower Bridge.

Even Bob Geldof was seen ranting on the television last week on the state of the British legal system regarding fathers' rights when it comes to custody battles.

But what drives these men to take such drastic measures?

BARBARA GOULDEN talks to the man behind a new branch of the Fathers 4 Justice campaign group which is about to open in Coventry.

THE irony of the date the Fathers 4 Justice campaign group was officially launched in Britain was not lost on its founder Matt O'Connor.

It turned out to be 100 years and just a few months since Emmeline Pankhurst began co-ordinating her Votes for Women movement leading Matt to quip that instead of the suffragettes, they were the new "Suffra-Gents!"

Of course, the father-of-two from Suffolk, has a background in public relations and marketing - hence the leaning towards direct-action photo opportunities like Batman at Buckingham Palace and high-rise stunts on suspension bridges.

It's dangerous but effective. And Matt would be the first to confess he'd learned a lot from those turn-of-the-century suffragettes who also used Buckingham Palace - to chain themselves to - as an effective way of getting their voices heard.

Since the stunt at the palace and Bob Geldof's candid documentary about families on Channel 4 last week, the Fathers 4 Justice website was so oversubscribed that it temporarily collapsed.

But one man who has been a member from the start is Lee Wilkins, who lives in Ryton-on-Dunsmore, and has agreed to open a new branch in Coventry and Warwickshire.

Lee, aged 33, and a mature student, doesn't want to talk about his personal circumstances.

But he says he has no faith in mediation and even less in CAFCASS - the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service which is so unpopular that the Tories have promised to have it abolished.

Lee, who was one of the dads demonstrating outside a CAFCASS meeting held in the Britannia Hotel in Coventry earlier this year, explains: "We feel we are fighting a system which is not only cruel to us but cruel to children.

"It can be three months before you get to a point of mediation and that's three months before a man can see his children after the split.

"Even after that, and a court orders a woman to let her husband see the kids, she needn't comply if she's still feeling aggreived. And then it can be be 12 or even 15 months before the whole case gets before a judge.

"How fair is that? When we begin holding monthly meetings in Coventry I certainly wouldn't rule out more direct action in the city. We're starting to get our voices heard and we're not about to take the pressure off this cruel system."

Mr Wilkins won't talk about his own involvement in any of the previous protests. But he does know the normally law-abiding Coventry businessman who publically dumped his children's toys outside the Royal Courts of Justice and last month became so desperate that he scaled the Middlesbrough Transporter Bridge.

At that time the 42-year-old reluctant superhero and former King Henry Vlll pupil was dressed not as Batman, but Robin.

For information about the new Fathers 4 Justice group in Coventry and Warwickshire phone Lee Wilkins on 07984 288377.

Service aims to keep solicitors out of the picture

EVEN though they are splitting up, most parents love their kids more than anybody else in the entire world," sighs family mediator Julie Dick.

Mrs Dick is both a supervisor and mediator for Coventry and Warwickshire Family Mediation service - an independent body that should not be confused with the Children's and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS).

Anybody can refer themselves to see Mrs Dick and her team on the fifth floor of Coventry Point, right in the heart of the city's shopping precinct.

Last year the organisation dealt with 900 cases - not always with a 100 per cent success rate, as Mrs Dick would be the first to admit.

But on a strictly practical level, she tries to focus a warring couple's attention on the children.

Mrs Dick says: "If we can get them to see that what they are doing during legal battles over custody and access is not just hurting their partners - as they might intend - but also hurting their children, then it's a start.

"There can be so much bitterness during a divorce or separation. Sadly a lot of adults do just want to make life difficult for their partner and they use the children as a weapon.

From Mrs Dick's point of view the longer the service can keep lawyers out of the picture, the better for all concerned.

The whole aim of the five-strong mediating staff, plus two trainees, is to work out practical solutions to schooling and access. If necessary the children themselves are brought in to talk independently of their parents.

"We are not here to mend marriages or reconcile relationships," explains Mrs Dick, who finds herself looking at the recent protests from Fathers 4 Justice with great sadness.

"Often the protestors have not been able to make their voices heard in any other way. I feel that if more adults could refer themselves to us in the early days of any decision to split up, there would be no need for dads to put their lives at risk by climbing transporter bridges or up the walls of Buckingham Palace."

For more information about Coventry and Warwickshire Mediation Service ring 024 7663 3434.

Aiming for a better deal for dads after divorce

WORKING on the quieter side of the political debate is David Lines, who four years ago set up a branch of what used to be called the Equal Parenting Party in Coventry.

At one stage the 10,000 strong EPP planned to contest Parliamentary seats all over the country. But after their first candidate lost badly to Tory Michael Portillo they decided to opt for "plan B" and reformed as the Equal Parenting Council.

While not having the same "in-your-face" approach as Fathers 4 Justice, supporters of what is now the EPC, have still managed to persuade 200 MPs to sign an Early Day Motion calling for a better deal after divorce, not only for dads, but the grandparents, aunties and uncles on one side of a family who a child is likely to also lose contact with.

Mr Lines, aged 52, has now resolved his former problems but is keen to point out: "There are still far too many of what I call McDonald Dads in this country - fathers who only see their kids on Sunday mornings when hardly anywhere you can afford to go is open and you are trying so hard to re-establish contact after a week, a fortnight or even months of not seeing your children.

"I still see these weekend dads and recognise the desperation in their faces. The children may have a new "dad" in their lives but they still need to know that their real father hasn't forgotten them."

Mr Lines said for him, the most telling part of the Bob Geldof's documentary was when his own daughters agreed that the court system had let them all down.

"Of course, we all know that there are incidents of domestic violence that the court needs to guard against. But our current legal system is so flawed that it aids and abets angry parents who want to punish their former partner by excluding him from a child's life."

For more information about the Equal Parenting Council ring the 24-hour helpline on 0906 550 1865.

Tories pledge to abolish system

THERESA MAY (left), the Conservative Party's shadow secretary of state for the family, has pledged to abolish CAFCASS if they Tories win the next general election.

CAFCASS is based on the corner of Queen Victoria Road and Greyfriars Road in Coventry and works directly with the courts.

Service manager Mike Turner rejects the criticism from organisations like Fathers 4 Justice and says the staff work very hard to get contact for a non-residential parent - usually the father.

In some cases they also refer divorcing families to the independent mediation service at Coventry Point.

Mr Turner added: "CAFCASS exists to make sure children are put first in family proceedings.

"We work from the commonly-accepted principle that, in most cases, a child's welfare is best served by maintaining a meaningful relationship and regular contact with both parents.

"Recent statistics show that around 42 per cent of fathers had no contact at the start of court proceedings but that figure dropped to just six per cent at its conclusion.

"We believe that the support of CAFCASS in this process is a critical factor and remain confident of our ability to offer a valuable service to the children and families we serve."

Geldof left feeling irrelevant after custody battle

SIR Bob Geldof went from Grumpy Old Man to angry man in the Channel 4 documentary last week.

He lambasted what he sees as the secretive family court system which he became embroiled during a custody battle with his former wife, the late Paula Yates (below).

Speaking on the TV programme Geldof on Fathers, he said: "I went to the law to try and be with my kids 50 per cent of the time. But like most men, I was left feeling criminalised, belittled, worthless, powerless and irrelevant.

"Under the guise of justice, children are stripped of their fathers, fathers of their children. This has to change."

Bob Geldof underwent a bitter custody battle with his late wife after she left him for singer Michael Hutchence in 1995.

He eventually won custody of their three daughters, Fifi Trixibelle, now 19, Peaches Honey Blossom, aged 14, and Pixie, aged 12, who he has brought up single-handedly. He is also the legal guardian of Tiger Lily, six, Yates's daughter by Hutchence.

After criticising the law on custody on TV chat shows, Geldof said he received more than 70 bin-liners full of letters on the subject.

Geldof wants the law to be remodelled so that parents are urged to ensure their children divide their time equally between both parents.

He believes the law assumes that women are automatically better at childcare than men, when in recent decades male and female roles have become more blurred.

CAPTION(S):

PRACTICAL SOLUTIONS: Family mediator Julie Dick D22669_1; DIRECT ACTION: Lee Wilkins is hoping to set up his own branch of Fathers 4 Justice. Picture: LISA CAREY D22708_3; DANGEROUS BUT EFFECTIVE: Founder of campaign group Fathers 4 Justice Matt O'Connor protesting at Buckingham Palace, dressed as comic-book hero Batman.; CRITICISM: Sir Bob Geldof became embroiled in a bitter custody battle with late wife Paula Yates
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Coventry Evening Telegraph (England)
Date:Oct 20, 2004
Words:1808
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