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
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
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
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
Dads of Florida. Fathers helping children by helping Fathers