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Better Bled than Dead

Local dad says a system highly sympathetic to single moms invariably feeds upon men

By Richard Sine

WHEN HE SAW the judge's court order, Doug Sinsley figured he had two options: he could pay, or he could eat. Sinsley chose to survive. "If I'm gonna starve to death, I might as well do it here on the courthouse steps," Sinsely said, "not in the bushes."

On the 11th day of his self-described "hunger strike for justice," Sinsley's protest signs shouted out in the hot sun while he picked out a shady spot on the concrete ramparts of the family law building in downtown San Jose. Actually, it was a quasi-hunger strike, as occasionally a sympathetic father would come by with a soft drink and his own tale of woe.

Soon after losing his contracting business, Sinsley says, he started falling behind in his child-support payments. Then he learned his support level had been set considerably higher than the state requires. In October a judge lowered his monthly payments but rejected his claim that his previous lawyer had defrauded him into paying the higher amounts. He still has to pay off his delinquent support at the higher rate.

Sinsley may not earn any special treatment because of his protest. But his strike signals a growing willingness for men to speak up about an issue they have groused about privately for years.

Concerned about the plight of divorced women with children, the Legislature in 1992 passed a law boosting the average statewide child-support payment. The Coalition of Parent Support, or COPS, says California now has the highest average payment of any state, at $1,154 per month. (The average among all states is $770.) The 1992 law also allowed the income of the second mate to be included in support calculations.

COPS formed in reaction to that 1992 bill. This year the coalition got a full-time lobbyist in Sacramento to complement its letter-writing and bill-drafting. Though its efforts to reduce average support payments have failed, this year it passed a bill that suggests a time-limit on alimony payments and requires the receiving spouse to be on a path toward employment.

About a third of COPS's over 2,000 members are second wives who feel the financial impact of support payments. "Women are less bashful about organizing than men," says Richard Bennett, head of the Silicon Valley COPS chapter. "It's hard for men to come to terms with the idea that they're somehow disadvantaged."

COPS also fights for greater visitation rights for fathers. Bennett believes that the courts are biased in granting visitation rights. In a 1992 study of 1,000 Santa Clara County and San Mateo County families, judges were two-and-a-half times more likely to side with the mother in cases in which both parents sought custody. And even in 12 percent of the cases in which both parents agreed that the children should live with their father, the courts awarded mothers custody anyway.

A COPS bill that would have made judges consider joint custody of children as a first preference failed this year. COPS cites studies finding that men with joint custody were more likely to pay all their child support. And Bennett points to a National Institute of Mental Health study which finds that fathers in two-income couples spend as much time parenting school-age children as mothers do. "That's what's happening in intact families," Bennett says. "Arrangements in divorced families should reflect that."

Anne Mitchell, a Palo Alto attorney and divorced mom who runs the Fathers Rights Equality Exchange, argues that divorced fathers will get to share more of their children's lives only when courts start thinking of them as more than walking wallets. "We tell dads who can't pay $900, but can scrape together $500, that if they show their faces at mom's house they'll be dragged into court. We're perpetuating the cycle of fathers' absence."

Mitchell believes the excesses of the feminist movement hurt fathers' ability to parent their children. "Feminist authors now say only women can nurture, that only women can bond with children. But that just holds women back.

"Feminism has done such a good job giving women control over their bodies by convincing society, the media and legislature that men are scum. So when I say we have 1,200 members who all want to see their kids more, they don't believe me. When I cite the federal census, which says that 75 percent of all support ordered is paid, they don't believe me."

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From the November 14-20, 1996 issue of Metro

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