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January 8, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

For the fathers interviewed for this study done for the Administration for Children and Families, one of the major impediments to having access to their children was the mothers of those children. Indeed, the title of the section dealing with maternal gatekeeping is “Everything Goes Through Mom.” The fathers reported significant difficulties with mothers interfering with access to their children. Not only that, but many of the mothers knew how to recruit the legal system to abet that interference.

Over half the fathers reported some form of gatekeeping by the mothers, but of course they didn’t use that term.

More than half of nonresident fathers offered accounts of gatekeeping behavior, ranging from refusing to grant physical access to making frequent last-minute schedule changes. Gatekeeping also came in more indirect forms, such as refusal to communicate in person or by phone, withholding information from the father about the child, or berating the father.

Many mothers simply disappeared and left no contact information with which the fathers could locate them or their children.

The most severe form of gatekeeping, involved mothers who moved without leaving a forwarding address, changed their phone numbers, and cut off all other means of contact. Quincy, a 35-year-old father of four, had no idea where his youngest son, Kendell, lives—he just knew the mother moved to another city. He said that the only way he can see his son is if the mother decides, when it suits her schedule, to drop Kendell off to visit his maternal grandmother. Similarly, D’angelo, a 37-year-old father of two, had not seen his 10-year-old son in six years because the child’s mother moved away without leaving a forwarding address.

Even that didn’t stop the dads from trying to have contact with their kids.

Fathers who had little to no contact with one or more of their children often strove to increase their involvement, whether in person or not. They reported placing repeated phone calls to the child or the child’s mother, texting, using Facebook, and less commonly Skype, or sending letters through the mail.

But all too often, that accomplished little or nothing.

[Isaac] had not seen his 9-year-old daughter since that child’s mother “vanished” seven years ago. His efforts to locate them at the time of the interview had not been successful:

I’ve been reaching out to [my daughter’s mother]. She ain’t got no cell. She ain’t on no social network. . . . I searched for her on Myspace, when Myspace was around a couple of years. I searched for her on Facebook. She ain’t got no Twitter. No nothing. [I’ve been looking for] about seven years. Been a long time. They just vanished you know.

One way the legal system abets maternal gatekeeping is by issuing restraining orders. Sometimes those are warranted and based on evidence, but often they’re issued only on the say-so of the person requesting the TRO. Many of the fathers reported themselves to be the victims of restraining orders obtained falsely.

About 15 percent of fathers said they had no or very limited physical contact with one or more of their children due to an order of protection or a restraining order… Willie, a 33-year-old father of three, for example, described his children’s mother as:

. . . very spiteful. She’s hateful. You know, maybe one day she’ll grow up. . . . She play love, you know, oh, [and then she’s like] “That’s my baby, so you got no rights.” She ran out and got a . . . protection order against me. For what, I don’t know, because I don’t argue with her, I don’t call and bother her, you know, I ain’t trying to jump on her or nothing like that. Basically [I] just left her alone . . . . She do everything in her power to try to hurt me. . . . The best thing a woman could do is use the system [against him].

Another key to using the legal system against the fathers arose from the fact that many of them had been in prison. As I mentioned in my first post on the ACF reports, 73% had been convicted of a crime and many were on probation or parole. And that gave mothers a trump card in dealing with the fathers. For those dads, an allegation of DV, even a specious one, could land them back in prison.

Fathers with a felony conviction were particularly wary of taking any action that might be perceived as violating an order of protection or a restraining order, since this also spelled a violation of probation or parole.

Unsurprisingly, the mothers understood the fathers’ predicament.

Malik, a father of two on probation, described the following scenario:

That no-contact [order], that scares me because you don’t know what can happen. Even though [we] aren’t in a relationship anymore, even when I go around there she’ll start up a fight and if I don’t do what she says she’s like, “I’m calling the police.” That’s going to make you leave and not come back for a while.

Other fathers described strategies commonly employed by custodial parents to control or deny access to children by the non-custodial parent.

Stories of other, less severe forms of limiting physical access permeated our interviews with fathers. Some fathers said their children’s mothers were erratic in their willingness to let them see their children…

Abrupt changes of plans, dodged phone calls, and ignored Facebook messages or texts were also common. Dexter, a 34-year-old father of six, told us:

As far as seeing [my daughter], [my children’s mother] be saying “I’m a bit busy. I’ll bring her by on Friday.” Friday comes, she does not answer the phone. . . . You say you’ll be there a certain time, but don’t show up? That’s what we’re going through. This is the problem. . . . Our big problem is she won’t let me talk to my kids, or see my kids [unless she feels like it].

Still other fathers reported mothers who demanded “extras” in exchange for child access.

Several fathers who reported complying with formal child support orders claimed that their children’s mothers would sometimes restrict access when a father failed to provide “extras” over and above the required child support—for rent, utilities, clothing, school trips, and the like. These fathers complained that they struggled just to keep up with child support, and could not meet these additional demands.

Why did the mothers keep the fathers from their children?

Most fathers attributed mothers’ gatekeeping behavior to the mothers’ desire to punish the fathers for past misdeeds, including breaking off the relationship. As Marquis, put it, “It just basically has a lot to do with when a woman is bitter or scorned. We’re not going to get back together so you want to hold that against me.” Similarly, Dexter claimed, “She’s doing it on purpose because she always told me when we broke up, ‘I’ll make your life a living hell. I know what to do to you.’ . . . She knows the only [way to get] to me is to take my kids . . . my children is my weakness.”…

In some cases, fathers believed that mothers intended to drive them from their children’s lives…

Blaine, a 29-year-old father of two, expressed a common sentiment when he claimed that his son’s mother used his son as a “weapon” to hurt him:

She’s caught up in her feelings. She hates me. She spites me. She takes my son away and does all this stuff to hurt me and it’s not right. You shouldn’t use a child as a weapon or a game to play, you know? That’s your son, you know. That’s your child. It’s not right and that’s what a lot of women are doing nowadays and it’s really putting a toll on children around the world. . . .

Now, it may be claimed that the fathers interviewed were themselves simply bitter or angry at their exes, and that colored their pictures of the mothers. But that’s a dubious argument. Some of the dads had good relationships with their ex-wives and girlfriends and those that did had high praise for the women who were the mothers of their children. In short, when the mothers included the fathers in their children’s lives, the fathers praised the mothers to the heavens. When the mothers interfered with the fathers’ access to their children, the dads weren’t so enthusiastic. From here, that looks like the fathers’ feelings about the mothers matched the mothers’ behavior.

What do the Responsible Fatherhood programs do to help dads enrolled deal with gatekeeping by the mothers? Precious little. As I mentioned in an earlier post, only one advertises that it provides legal services, but those seem to consist of referring the fathers to a lawyer. Needless to say, these are men who can’t afford to hire a lawyer and have too little education to pursue their parental rights themselves. And of course, as per federal law, none of these organizations can use federal grant money to pay lawyers to assist the men who come to them for help.

So now we know that maternal interference with fathers’ parental rights is common among the demographics represented by these fathers, and a major source of conflict. But the RF programs do little to assist fathers legally, for the most part because federal law prohibits them from doing so.

Having gathered this information on maternal gatekeeping, maybe the ACF will change its policy on helping fathers and lobby Congress to change the law prohibiting the provision of legal help. After all, as this PACT evaluation says,

Research on family policy suggests that fathers’ presence and involvement with their children have positive consequences for both children and fathers. Many low-income nonresident fathers long to be more involved in their children’s lives.

With the importance of fathers to children so well established and fathers striving to be the type of responsible fathers everyone claims to want them to be, you’d think that policy-makers would provide them the resources to overcome the maternal gatekeeping that keeps so many dads estranged from their kids.

You would think that. But would you bet on it?

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