Tue | Jul 23, 2024

Dads in the cold

Fathers barred from visitation rights as mothers flout court orders

Published:Sunday | June 16, 2024 | 12:14 AMCorey Robinson - Senior Staff Reporter

Dr Herbert Gayle, lecturer in the Department of Sociology, Psychology, and Social Work at The University of the West Indies, Mona, and chairman of Fathers Incorporated.
Dr Herbert Gayle, lecturer in the Department of Sociology, Psychology, and Social Work at The University of the West Indies, Mona, and chairman of Fathers Incorporated.

For the past eight years, Kingsley Bennett* has endured an emotional rollercoaster due to his daughter’s mother, who he alleges has consistently defied visitation orders from the Family Court, striving relentlessly to undermine his relationship with the child.

He attributes his ability to maintain a cool head to his adherence to Christian principles while navigating the situation. However, he and other stakeholders argued last week that for many Jamaican fathers, maintaining such composure is challenging. They contend that the Family Court system is biased against fathers, allowing some mothers to exploit it to their advantage.

“The [Judicature (Family Court)] Act needs to be updated! It is a different generation of women that we are dealing with. It is almost as if the judges don’t have any powers based on these laws,” argued Bennett, a middle-aged father. “Of course, if they (mothers) don’t comply, you can go back and file a breach of the court order, but for the most part, it is neither here nor there. Nothing changes. There is no accountability.”

Moreover, engaging in court proceedings is expensive and time-consuming. He mentioned that he has repeatedly gone to court with his daughter’s mother to settle visitation arrangements since the child’s birth – at least eight times.

Initially, he explained, the mother would frequently find excuses not to bring the newborn baby to visit him. Later, she would sometimes completely deny him his visitation rights if he was ever late to pick up the child at the court-designated location.

In the latter instances, she stuck to the court’s decisions, Bennett said with a chuckle, but in other instances, she only acknowledged his right to see the child every other weekend whenever it suited her. He can also forget about seeing his daughter for alternate birthdays and holidays as the court had stipulated. Those days are claimed by the child’s mother.

Now, she refuses to communicate and makes all the decisions about the child herself, he fumed, “and there’s nothing in the court system that says she has to communicate with me. So there is nothing I can do.”

He finds satisfaction, however, in that his daughter now knows him and they enjoy a good relationship.

Despite not being under a court-ordered child support arrangement, Bennett told The Sunday Gleaner that he regularly deposits between $15,000 to $20,000 per month into an account accessible by his daughter’s mother. This financial provision is in addition to the expenses he covers while the child is in his care.

Mothers know they have the upper hand

“I think it is one of the things that destroy relationships with [children and their] fathers in Jamaica. The mothers know they have the upper hand, and worse if it is a girl child, they will use it to get at the man, and not every man is so humble,” Bennett said.

Dr Herbert Gayle, lecturer in the Department of Sociology, Psychology, and Social Work at The University of the West Indies, Mona, and chairman of Fathers Incorporated, also contends that the Family Court system exhibits bias – not only towards mothers but also towards affluent men.

The breach of visitation orders by mothers is a common problem in Jamaica, where culturally, children in such situations are used as pawns in a game of “emotions and pragmatism”, he said, adding that it is often fuelled by the rage of the embattled father’s parents and relatives, who are ultimately at the losing end.

Anger and aggression is never the answer, and neither is the justice system in some cases, Gayle charged. It is often best for fathers to make amends with the children’s mothers peacefully – using social interventions: the church, school, and peaceful relatives – to demonstrate that they are willing to do better.

“Usually when they (fathers) do that, more than two-thirds of them come back and say, ‘It works; we have a good relationship again’. Most of the times, it’s not that the woman is trying to spite the man, but that she is putting her foot down for him to do better,” Gayle noted. “But that’s the bulk!”

“We have a few cases where the woman believes the man was rude or treated her badly and that has brought her to a place where she cannot forgive him. So even if the court says, ‘Yes, you have the child X and Y times’, she is going to hammer it down that he is not getting that.

“So the court will make all these arrangements, and by the time they get out of court, she laughs at him, and says, ‘A my pickney’ ... and remember the court has an inherent bias,” said Gayle, arguing that Jamaican laws predominantly prioritise the protection of women and children over men.

This is also where socio-economic status comes into play, he further told The Sunday Gleaner. Men with the means to secure robust legal representation may prevail in a court system that often favours mothers. Others without strong representation are “battered”.

“Those women know they have an advantage before the court and the court will not pursue them with the same energy as the court would pursue the man for maintenance. When you speak to both men and women about this, it is very clear, and the women accept it. They feel that the court is going to be on their side,” the anthropologist explained, adding that cases where the mother is of better socio-economic standing usually go downhill very fast for fathers.

The Supreme Court and Family Court oversee child custody cases. Yesterday, the Court Administration Division reported that in 2023, the Supreme Court received 78 new custody and guardianship cases, resolving 34 by year-end. Information on Family Court cases and mothers facing court orders violations was unavailable at press time.

Gayle said that Fathers Inc, which used to handle more than a dozen cases each year, has been assisting with only a handful in recent years. He attributed this decline not to fewer cases, but to reduced outreach efforts.

Assist fathers who

face obstacles

Meanwhile, attorney-at-law Shawna Gay Mitchell emphasised that contrary to public perception, there are numerous avenues available to assist fathers who face obstacles in exercising their visitation rights due to actions by their children’s mothers.

“You can’t just disrespect a court order by not following it. You can be locked up,” warned Mitchell.

She noted, however, that while individuals may represent themselves in the Family Court, it is prudent to hire a lawyer for certain procedures, such as a committal application, which can lead to the arrest of violators. But securing legal representation can be quite costly, she admitted.

In Bennett’s case, he said he spent some $20,000 a few years ago for one attorney to make a commitment application, and luckily, the child’s mother was not resistant in court, so there was no need for additional representation and legal fees.

“People all over the world will say that there is a bias towards custody being given to the mother, I guess, because traditionally they are more the caregivers and so on, but I don’t know that I would say that,” Mitchell said. “If the child is very young, then, of course, the mother is going to get custody. But I do believe that the court is also looking to make sure men are not just seen as a ‘wallet’. They also have rights and have to be involved in the child’s life.”

*Name changed to pro tect child’s identity.