Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's Superman, Batman and Robin or Captain America. Superheroes are alive and well, scaling the dizzy heights of a city landmark near you, all under the auspices of Fathers 4 Justice, writes Deborah Hobson. Colourfully described as a 'civil rights movement', 'dads army' or 'a bloody nuisance' Fathers 4 Justice, founded by Matthew O'Connor, has sought to raise general awareness and bring to the attention of Parliament the plight of fathers seeking access to their children, after divorce or separation from a partner.
Fathers are being failed by a system which, they say, flouts the principles of the 1989 Children's Act and works only in the interest of mothers. Figures released by the Lord Chancellors Department paint a depressing picture: 650 children a day have parents who separate or divorce and 10 children a day loose contact with their fathers in the UK.Certainly, the direct action tactics of Fathers 4 Justice, which have so far been peaceful, have amassed the level of press coverage and media attention that many other protest groups dream of achieving.
Celebrity endorsement (not membership) has come from Bob Geldof, who had his own highly publicised custody battle in the 1990's with his former wife, the late Paula Yates. Geldof won custody of his three daughters and also cares for Tiger Lilly, the daughter Yates had with INXS star Michael Hutchence, who is also now dead.
But what about the ordinary dad, caught up in the emotional and legal mire of fighting for access to his child through the Family Courts? Anthony is a 48-year-old University Lecturer, former trade union official and political activist. He is also the father of three children: Dominic,17, Paul, 12 and Amy eight. The children have different mothers. However, it is his fight for access to daughter Amy, which leads us to Anthony's story.
When you meet Anthony his masculinity is palpable. He has a sturdy, muscular build, a thick-set neck, broad shoulders and the signs of a stomach trying to make itself known to the world. He has a moustache which rests gently above his upper lip and a deep voice which softens as he explains the circumstances which led him to take legal action. "A breakdown in being able to talk to the mother on a reasonable level, where she would allow access. So therefore it was necessary for a third party to be involved. Mediation was offered on a voluntary basis which she refused, even though previously she'd said that she would agree to mediation. So I instituted court proceedings after thinking long and hard about it. I didn't want to do that. It took about eighteen months before I actually decided to, you know, because the option is you could do nothing or you could go through the legal process. So eighteen months ago I issued proceedings for access."
Anthony visited a solicitor who specialises in law specific to children in order to start this process. Fathers 4 Justice have spoken about the 'grotesque gravy train' of experts including solicitors and judges who profit from fathers fighting protracted legal battles for access. I ask Anthony about this.
"Well, it would be very expensive if you pursued it yourself and I can understand why people in Fathers 4 Justice for instance and other such campaign groups feel very aggrieved, because they might have reasonably well paid jobs or they might be self employed in businesses that are doing quite well and they can end up with bills
for 10, 20 or 30 thousand pounds, the sky's the limit in terms of Family Law."
There is a weariness in Anthony's voice as he describes his feelings about the actions involved in pursuing access. "It's a war of attrition with statement and counter statement. Teams of lawyers, social workers attached to the courts as court reporters, meeting with my other children, meeting with me and my partner, meeting with Amy, meeting with Amy's mother.
Contact centres where you feel like it's a prison visit. Visiting your daughter for less than two hours. Contact with no privacy. Lots of other people around, other fathers, young children, sometimes quite clearly disturbed other parents and you're not in that category and you don't understand why you have to be there. Why your daughter
should have to be in such a sterile environment."
Although Anthony has found his experience very gruelling, he has been strengthened by the support of friends, family, partner and Amy herself.
"She (Amy) really has come through the process as someone who has shown independence of thought and action and had the courage to actually write to the court and say she wants to see her father and inform the court and social services offices through drawings, sometimes not through direct speech, but through drawings
that she would like to know her father, and have a relationship, a meaningful relationship with me."
Sounding adversarial for the first time in the interview, Anthony says "I've been disappointed by the intransigence of my former partner, whose clearly put herself before our daughter and attempted to use her as a weapon against me." Despite this, all parties will be attending a hearing in September when an order will be given by the courts for Anthony to have access to Amy. "But that's not the final hearing, there will be another hearing which is the final hearing. This could well decide whether or not Amy's mother keeps my daughter."
Anthony isn't a member of Fathers 4 Justice. Has he thought about joining the group? "I'm certainly sympathetic to their campaigning objectives and the objectives of other similar campaigns."
Isn't Father 4 Justice an anti woman, anti mother campaign? Anthony bristles at the question. "I can't comment on Fathers 4 Justice. I talk generally about the very valid campaign of parents who are currently finding it very difficult to get access to their children, whether they be male or female. I don't think its gender specific, although it tends to be a majority of men who are frozen out."
Fathers 4 Justice, some politicians and social commentators, identify a link between absent fathers and teenage crime, substance abuse and general delinquency, particularly amongst young males. John Lloyd in his article 'Fatherhood in crises' for The Scotland on Sunday (19th June 2005), writing about fatherless families says 'it's no longer controversial that the children of these families are disproportionately bewildered, disruptive and criminal and that they make bad, or wholly absent fathers themselves.'
Anthony agrees with general tenet of this argument. "I think that parents who are using their children as a weapon against someone they're no longer with in a relationship should think long and hard about the long term consequences."