married for 40 years, Bob and Jean Bettelli of Davie help lead an
organization that fights for the rights of divorced and unwed
"We have our own [marital] problems, like everybody
else," says Bob, 63. "But I got involved because my son
divorce is an ongoing nightmare, Bob says, and he and Jean
felt frustrated that they could only helplessly watch as
their son, who lives in Fort Myers, fought continually to
retain parenting rights over his 5-year-old son.
So the two joined Dads of Florida, founded in Broward
County three years ago as a local chapter of a national
group called Dads Against Discrimination, to help shape
legislation that affects fathers and their parenting
rights. The group, which changed its name after it
incorporated itself as a nonprofit soon after it was
founded, has about 50 dues-paying members and about 175 on
its mailing list. The group includes whites, blacks and
Though there are no current statistics that detail the
number of divorced dads in the state, nearly 630,000
divorced men reside in Florida. About 437,000 households
are headed by a single mother and nearly 75,000 by a
"I just know what I feel for my son," says Jean
Bettelli, 59. "We're there for support."
Their involvement in the organization, which
includes publicity and treasurer responsibilities,
"may not help my son, per se," Bob Bettelli
says, "but when any husband or wife goes to court,
shared parenting will help. We want it to be fair from the
"Shared parenting" is just one issue that Dads
of Florida has lobbied for at the state Legislature in
Matthew Munyon, executive director of Florida's Commission
on Responsible Fatherhood, a state Legislature-created
organization that provides lawmakers with annual reports
and suggests legislation, said that, with the help of Dads
of Florida, his organization supports a law that would
automatically grant both parents equal custody, or
"Divorce is between the parents, not the child,"
Munyon says, "and children thrive when two parents
are active in their lives. This [shared parenting] law
would ensure -- unless it's proven a detriment -- that
parents should start at the 50-50 starting place. Now,
it's usually 75-25."
Munyon says the would-be law is a "fundamental policy
shift" and says his organization has yet to find a
legislative sponsor. The new session begins Jan. 22.
The other issue Dads of Florida and the Florida Commission
are trying to find a sponsor for this session deals with
The law would deal with the father who finds out after he
claimed paternity legally that he was not the biological
father and wants to petition that child support be
collected from the biological father.
Carol Preston, deputy staff director for judicial
oversight in Tallahassee and an expert on child custody
enforcement, says that though she is unsure how much
"paternity fraud" is taking place, if any,
"what we're hearing is that paternity issues in
general are becoming more and more commonplace because the
law doesn't always keep up with the science."
Dads of Florida was founded in 1998 by Fort Lauderdale
resident Ira Teller, a divorced father whose daughter's
school persistently and illegally refused him access to
He contacted state Sen. Walter "Skip" Campbell,
D-Tamarac, who sponsored a parental rights bill. Part of
the bill, signed into law in July, dealt directly with
Teller's problem: "Access to records and information
pertaining to a minor child, including, but not limited
to, medical, dental, and school records, may not be denied
to a parent because the parent is not the child's primary
Campbell said he had already been working on a bill
dealing with the issue when Teller came to him.
"Most of my [constituents'] complaints deal with
child custody and child support issues," Campbell
An uphill battle
Teller, 50, hasn't seen his daughter, 16, for
four years. He has been divorced for 12 years. She is his
"They use the divorce laws as a weapon against the
father," Teller says. "They play the custody
card: if you don't have custody, you don't have a
Peter Barsky, a Dads member who lives in Jupiter, already
had divorced his wife when, as they were trying to
reconcile, they had a child.
"We thought having a child together would help
matters," Barsky, 33, says, but it didn't.
His wife moved to Virginia with their son, and Barsky had
to file for custody and visitation rights.
He now spends the summer, spring vacation and Christmas
with his son.
"It's an uphill battle for us," Barsky says of
his fellow dads, "but the point is ... to get the
public to see there are fathers out there who pay child
support and want to be more involved with their
Other issues Dads of Florida helps support include
testimony arguing to change the terminology of custody
For example, the organization would like the term
"visitation" changed to "parenting
"I'm not just visiting my child," says
Tony Spalding, president of the organization. "I'm
the child's parent."
A simple change in wording is important, says Sean
Gentile, a divorced mother of one who began Family
Incorporated two years ago to monitor child support
"If we say it's parenting time, it'll make the man
want to give more," says Gentile. "In our
society, the male feels he is no longer needed. So, if
they know they have a niche in parenting, I think they'll
jump on that."
She says her group and Dads of Florida have common goals,
especially getting fathers more involved.
Dads meets the second and fourth Tuesday of each month at
the West Lauderdale Baptist Church, 3601 Davie Blvd., in
They get new members by word of mouth, newspaper
advertisements and through their Web site,
www.dadsofflorida.org, Spalding said.
Teller and the Bettellis say the organization also
"court watches." Members attend custody hearings
and family court.
"We just sit and observe," Teller says.
"It's a wonderful thing. Just to have the judges
understand that we're watching. We've seen the demeanor
change to more politeness and dignity, what a judicial
proceeding should be."
Bob Bettelli says his experiences with the men in the
group have opened his eyes.
"I'm not an activist-type guy," he says.
"But when I met Ira, I could hardly believe what he
went through. We're always taught that deadbeat dads are a
bunch of bums. Maybe some of them are, but you wouldn't
believe how many nice guys there are out there."
And this happily married couple is there to help Florida
Victor Greto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or
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