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Photograph by Felipe Buitrago

Be Cool: Divorced Fathers Network founder Steve Ashley (left) has helped men like Russell Stover (right) get their children back into their lives—by advising them to be patient and work with the system. 'I didn't want to hear that,' admits Stover.

Dawn of the Dad

The Divorced Fathers Network is offering a revolutionary approach to the archetypal angry man: dealing

By Vrinda Normand

YOU MIGHT NOT be surprised to hear one of the men at this small gathering of divorced fathers in Los Gatos angrily shooting off his mouth about how the court system is conspiring against dads.

But you might be surprised to see the leader of the group invite that man to step out into hallway, and then calmly but firmly ask him to leave. The swift encounter passes smoothly, and the group's leader, Steve Ashley, returns and picks up the discussion without missing a beat.

"We're not political, and we don't have an ax to grind with the courts," he explains gently.

This is obviously not the bitch session most outsiders would expect. The Divorced Fathers Network, founded 18 years ago by Ashley, is not trying to change the family law system, and it's not a crusade against mothers.

Ashley's own unfaltering communication and level-headedness speak to the DFN's main purpose: to guide men through custody battles without anger and help them establish a co-parenting relationship with their children's mother. The middle-aged electronic contractor artfully steers participants in the meeting away from negative tangents in order to keep an upbeat, professional tone.

The organization has become so well known in Santa Cruz, where it was founded, that judges often order fathers to attend DFN meetings. Ashley established a second support group in Los Gatos two years ago and has recently launched a fledgling meeting in Fremont.

Interest in the DFN, composed of roughly 1,500 members, is spreading beyond the Bay Area. Thirty-five men in different cities across the United States currently want to lead DFN groups, and that number is steadily growing. In a two-week period in May, Ashley says he got 11 calls from people wanting to join out of the area.

Beyond Disgruntled

In gearing up for national expansion, the network founder is adding an alternative voice to the father's-rights movement, which has traditionally been fueled by disgruntled divorced dads who try to solve their problems by forming political posses.

"I really don't connect with those guys at all," Ashley says. "They're all about fighting. I try to shield the dads from that. If a dad shifts his focus from co-parenting to trying to change the courts, the kids are going to lose out."

The DFN has a higher success rate, Ashley says, because it gives fathers tools to face their individual challenges, one step at a time. In May, Russell Stover marked his one-year anniversary of attending DFN meetings and has, in the eyes of his group leaders and family members, improved his situation dramatically.

On a recent Sunday, the Stover family gathers at Grandma's house in San Jose. They're a jovial, noisy bunch of kids and adults who tend to talk at the same time. But everyone stops when 3-year-old Sara opens her mouth. Her ice-blue eyes shine as she describes her day at the park with her dad, Russell, and her 6-year-old brother Scott (whom everyone calls Scottie). She slid down a big pole all by herself—with Dad watching carefully—and spun on a tire swing. Scottie joins in, his somber face becoming animated as he mentions how far he got on the monkey bars.

Grandma, Barbara Stover, and her son Russell dote on every word these kids say—five hours on Sunday and three on Saturday never seem like enough to squeeze in all the squirt-gun fights, jelly sandwiches, impromptu ballet recitals and kite-flying. For Russell, though, this much time with his children is a recent improvement after a year-and-a-half of waiting for the family law "chess game" to pick up speed.

Coming Clean

Russell is the first to admit he's no angel. His former drinking and drug problems propelled his separation with his children's mother and landed him in prison for 15 months. When he got out in December of 2003, though, his head had cleared. He had only one thing on his mind.

"I wanted to prove to the court that I was clean and sober, and I would do anything to be with those beautiful kids," he says. "I love those kids so much. I already messed up the first couple years of their life, so I'm willing to do whatever it takes."

It would be a frustrating journey and one in which many men might have given up. But Russell remained a determined dad with the help of the DFN. He had to wait for six months to see his kids after he was released. During that time he enrolled in the Santa Clara County Family Treatment Court, a voluntary program designed to keep divorced parents sober and accountable with random testing. Ashley of the DFN told Russell to be patient, to play by the rules and to wait for the courts to acknowledge his persistence.

"I didn't want to hear that!" Russell admits. But he stuck with it and found himself gaining hope.

In June, he started with one-hour supervised visits in Roseville, where his children's mother had moved. She could not be reached for this article, and her attorney offered no comment. To date, Russell's communication with her has been sporadic at best, because she slapped him with a restraining order before he went to prison.

After driving 150 miles, Russell sat in a backroom at the visitation center while an attendant brought his son Scottie to him, nearly two years older. "He just ran down the hallway and jumped into my arms," the father remembers, deepening the smile lines around his blue eyes.

Russell's ex held Sara back for the first couple of weeks and would later keep her from the visits, saying the little girl was afraid of her father. Skeptical of this excuse, Russell suggested she let Sara come to the visiting room on her own. It worked. The spunky 2-year-old walked in "happily jabbering away," Russell says.

Since then he has gained more visitation rights. He now sees the kids in Vallejo, a halfway point, and is able to have longer visits outside of the center supervised by his brother, Donald Stover. Donald visited the kids regularly while Russell was in prison and helped them exchange photographs, drawings and letters.

"He has changed so much," Donald says about his brother. "He just keeps his eyes on the prize. And the prize is the children and their emotional well-being. [He knows] anger is not going to get him anywhere."

What Are We Fighting For?

The DFN's growth comes at a time when the father's-rights movement is split over what it's fighting for. Many advocates have veered toward the middle of the spectrum, supporting joint custody and shared parenting instead of demanding sole custody for fathers.

"It's been a major dividing issue in the community," says Frank Zepezauer, a Sunnyvale activist who used to belong to the Men's Defense Association. The MDA and the Father's Rights and Equality Exchange were well-established local organizations that ceased activity a couple of years ago.

Sole custody hardliners like Victor Smith of Dads Against Discrimination (based in Oregon) argue that fathers still get the short end of the stick in co-parenting arrangements. Groups that promote it, he says, are just trying to sugarcoat their message.

"Joint custody is crap," he huffs. "It's like selling out."

Disparities like this are exactly what the DFN is trying to avoid.

"Dozens of well-meaning men's groups fall apart because they destroy themselves by trying to make the courts change," Ashley says. He continuously tells dads, "The courts are not going to raise your children."

The message rang true to Michael Gough from Racine, Wis. He came in contact with Ashley while promoting virtual visitation, a high-tech way parents can spend time with their kids with the help of the Internet. Gough found that the fathers group in his area was not very productive.

"They don't help anybody," he says, "They're just a bunch of angry men." He found Ashley's approach so refreshing that he started a DFN group last month with a handful of other divorced fathers in Wisconsin. With Ashley's new startup guide and kit of support materials, Gough is planting the seeds for the beginning of what he and Ashley hope will be a national phenomenon.

Mothers as Allies

Seeing mothers as allies instead of enemies sets the DFN apart from many father's-rights organizations. Eddie Lopez veered onto the right track with his ex-wife after joining the Los Gatos group a year ago. He had just divorced and was sharing custody with his 6-year-old daughter's mother.

Things would get rocky, though, when his daughter, Adriana, started coming home with bruises from playing too roughly. Lopez's ex-wife feared he was being abusive and kept the child away from him for a couple of weeks. The father controlled his anger by planning a strategy.

Ashley told him to be patient and wait for the mother to come around. Freaking out would only sully his parental image.

"At some point, the mother will see the father as one of her most valuable resources," Ashley tells dads.

Just the fact that Lopez was attending DFN meetings appeased his daughter's mother; she gradually began to let him spend more time with Adriana and gave him an extensive list on how to take care of her. Lopez says he gained her trust by following this list and dealing with her in a professional, businesslike manner. After three months, he was back to seeing Adriana 50 percent of the time.

"I think it was just a test," Lopez says. "If I didn't have the Divorced Fathers Network when I was going through that, I think I still would have Adriana only 10 percent of the time."

Ashley's approach may even appeal to Elizabeth Owen from the Committee for Mother and Child Rights Inc., based in Los Angeles. Most dads fight for custody, she argues, because they want to get back at the mother, not because they're good fathers. The DFN, she says, "sounds good in theory if they don't have some ulterior motive."

For more than eight years, Susan Ashley has been volunteering for the DFN and married the founder Steve last October. She says she found his parenting skills and excellent communication "really attractive" and now realizes how important fathers are.

"Traditionally we hear about how hard it is on women," Susan says. "We never hear about all the guys who get the short end of the stick and are just so devastated because they can't see their kids."

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From the June 15-21, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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