Dads of Florida champions fathers' rights

By Victor Greto
Staff Writer
Posted December 25 2001

Happily married for 40 years, Bob and Jean Bettelli of Davie help lead an organization that fights for the rights of divorced and unwed fathers.

"We have our own [marital] problems, like everybody else," says Bob, 63. "But I got involved because my son got divorced."

That 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 Hispanics.

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 single father.

"I just know what I feel for my son," says Jean Bettelli, 59. "We're there for support."

Shared parenting

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 very beginning."

"Shared parenting" is just one issue that Dads of Florida has lobbied for at the state Legislature in Tallahassee.

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 "shared parenting."

"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 paternity fraud.

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 her records.

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 residential parent."

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 said.

An uphill battle

Teller, 50, hasn't seen his daughter, 16, for four years. He has been divorced for 12 years. She is his only child.

"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 say."

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 children."

Other issues Dads of Florida helps support include testimony arguing to change the terminology of custody itself.

For example, the organization would like the term "visitation" changed to "parenting time."

Getting involved

"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 hearings.

"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 Fort Lauderdale.

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 understand that.

Victor Greto can be reached at vgreto@sun-sentinel.com or 954-385-7912.

Copyright 2001, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

 
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