When Dads Get Mad

Disgruntled over alleged discrimination in divorce court, Florida dads

have formed a network to air grievances -- and to even the odds

By Bob Whitby

Sherri Cohen Fuming fathers: Members of Florida Dads Against

Discrimination are out to change the rules

 

Between forkfuls of homemade cheesecake and sips of coffee served on the

Sunday china, the seven men gathered around the dining room table of

Bill Bettelli's Davie home tell their divorce horror stories. Nothing

unusual about that -- thousands of men in Broward County could rattle

off something similar.

What's different about these guys is they're doing something besides

crying in their coffee cups. They're out to change a system they believe

is inherently biased against dads. And they're off to a strong start.

But first, a few obligatory sob stories.

There's Kevin Cunningham, a physical therapist, who got divorced from

his wife after six years of marriage. Cunningham wanted to split custody

fifty-fifty. "I wanted as much time with my kids as possible," he says.

He was blown away when a court-appointed mediator told him he'd be lucky

to get them on weekends. Cunningham used to take his kids to school in

the morning, but not anymore. "How is a judge going to tell me, a

willing and able father, I can't take my own kids to school?"

And there's Pete Barski, a pharmacy student at Nova Southeastern

University and the divorced father of a four-year-old boy. He'll

graduate this month, and odds are good he'll land a job quickly. But

he's afraid his ex may leave the state and take his son with her.

Then there's Bob Schlafke, a 53-year-old former policeman who was

financially ruined after his divorce five years ago. After child

support, alimony, and a chunk of his pension are taken from his

paycheck, he is left with about 20 percent of his salary to live on.

What they have in common, besides a palpable disgust with the Florida

family-court system and a deep mistrust of the institution of marriage,

is the sense that fathers just don't get a fair shake in society. Too

often, they say, mothers are automatically awarded custody of children

in divorce cases whether they deserve it or not, and fathers are shut

out of their kids lives by a biased legal system.

Which is why they've coalesced around Ira Teller, age 51, and the group

he started seven months ago, Florida Dads Against Discrimination.

Teller is tall, thin, with straight black hair and the impish grin of

someone sure he's right. He was divorced in 1989. He won't say what he

does for a living. "This isn't about me. This is about this group, this

system," he says.

When it comes to what he perceives as fathers being screwed by the

family courts, he's pretty talkative. Bombastic even. "My position is

that, the way the divorce laws are written, it really doesn't protect

fathers at all. They pretty much pander to the custodial mothers. The

Broward County Courthouse has become a playground for rich lawyers. They

have completely lost sight of the children, and the fathers are

discriminated against."

Teller's crusade began in October 1994, when he discovered a copy of his

divorce decree in his daughter's file at Tamarac Elementary. His marital

status was none of the school's business, he reasoned, and it had

nothing to do with his daughter's academic performance. Florida statutes

seemed to agree, and after a fusillade of letters, he finally succeeded

in getting the offending document removed seven months later.

He found fresh outrage last year after being rebuffed by administrators

at American Heritage School in Plantation, where his now 14-year-old

daughter attends school. Teller requested a parent-teacher conference,

but administrators denied it at the behest of his ex-wife, Irene

DiSciullo, who has custody of the child.

Theirs was a typically acrimonious divorce, with each party blaming the

other for a variety of transgressions. It's an old story, and one that

needn't be detailed here -- suffice it to say it boils down to he

said/she said.

What's relevant is that DiSciullo doesn't think her ex has their

daughter's best interest at heart in requesting an audience with her

teachers. "In this particular case, he is not doing what he is doing to

see what is happening with her. He is doing it as revenge," she says. So

she asked school administrators to share records with Teller if he

requests them but not to allow a conference. As the court-appointed

custodian of the child, she feels that is her right.

Teller maintains that his motive is irrelevant (though, he adds, he is a

good father who cares about his daughter and wants to be a part of her

life). "What does it matter [who has custody]?" he asks. "Every divorce

decree can't be construed as allowing a custodial parent to limit access

to school. You would eliminate tens of thousands of parents from coming

to school."

He did his homework and dug up state and federal laws that seem to back

him up. Florida statutes pertaining to divorce state that access to

school "records and information" can't be denied because a parent is not

the primary residential custodian. And the federal Family Education

Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) states that schools must give full rights

to both parents unless there is a state statute or court order

specifically revoking them.

Armed with these laws, Teller again asked for a parent-teacher

conference at American Heritage. School officials (who did not return

calls from New Times) offered to allow him to meet with the school's

principal to discuss his daughter's grades but not with teachers. That

wasn't good enough. So Teller pleaded his case to State Sen. Walter

"Skip" Campbell (D-Tamarac), who wrote a sternly worded letter to

American Heritage. "It is important to remember that while Mr. Teller

and his wife have divorced, Mr. Teller's rights as a parent have not

been terminated," Campbell writes.

At Teller's urging Campbell introduced a bill last session that would

codify access to school records for all parents in no uncertain terms

and urge that fathers be given equal consideration in determining

custody after a divorce. The bill died, but Teller is confident a better

version will succeed next session.

Meanwhile Florida DADS is gaining steam. Sit these guys down, put a

cheesecake in front of them, and they'll regale you with personal tales

of tragedy all night. But this isn't a 12-step program for crybabies.

The group has 40 to 50 members, a board of directors, and a Website

(www.dadsusa.com <http://www.dadsusa.com/>). It holds biweekly meetings

and has a legislative agenda that goes far beyond access to school

records: doing away with adversarial court proceedings in divorce and

moving instead to mandated mediation, stiff penalties for women and

lawyers who file restraining orders without proper justification, laws

that would make it difficult to move a child out of reach of a

noncustodial parent, and quashing laws they consider "non-father

friendly," such as a bill that died in the state legislature last

session that would have allowed police to enter a building at any time

of day or night to make an arrest for nonpayment of child support.

If it sounds like pie in the sky, remember that the group has already

made friends in legislative places. And its founding father is nothing

if not persistent.

"It would be a mistake to underestimate how determined I am about these

things," says Teller.

Contact Bob Whitby at his e-mail address: bob.whitby@newtimesbpb

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