Visitation rights are a rallying cry for non-custodial parents in divorce cases.
"I'm angry!" "I'm so discouraged, it doesn't seem worth the fight!" "I am really frustrated; I don't understand the judicial system!" are all-too-common statements by parents who have been denied the right to visit their children who are in the former spouse's custody."Visitation rights are at the forefront of every one of our meetings," said Evelyn Ward, chairwoman of Utah Parents for Children's Rights. "I don't see how anyone can be against visitation.
"Children need the nurturance provided by a father and a mother. Fathers have an important influence on their children's development, and visitation is every bit as important as support," Ward said.
Members of the Judiciary Interim Committee will discuss child support and child custody July 20 at 9 a.m. in State Capitol Room 303.
"In nature, a child has two parents," said Mark VanWagoner, attorney representing Utah Parents for Children's Rights. "That natural birthright to two parents is lost to most children of divorce."
VanWagoner said divorce laws are unnatural; they permit a custodial parent to use a child as a weapon to express anger by denying visitation to the non-custodial parent.
"Fathers have not been granted full parental status in our modern society," VanWagoner said. "Mothers are presumed to be the `real' parent, the nurturant parent, while the father's role is limited to financial support."
VanWagoner said that historically, British law, which was the forerunner of American law, viewed the father as the "owner" of his children, and the natural custodian if the parents parted. An agrarian way of life required that children remain on the farm to help the father, giving him the dominant claim.
"Maternal custody was a rare exception granted only when the father was grossly unfit," he said.
That changed with the invention of the steam engine. The father could provide a more substantial living for the family by leaving the farm and working elsewhere. It was an economic decision, VanWagoner said. "The woman stayed home and became the primary caretaker of the family while the father's position changed."
VanWagoner thinks the idea of "owning" children is bizarre. "Why should children be denied the natural affection of either parent when there is a divorce? Fathers and mothers should have joint custody and share the responsibility of the child's care," he said.
The word "visitation" itself implies the non-custodial parent is a remote relative - a circuit rider who comes into the child's life not to "father," but merely to visit, VanWagoner said.
R. Allan, a Salt Lake City businessman, started looking into the rights of non-custodial parents when his ex-wife refused to let him visit his child, although the visits were part of the divorce decree.
In February, Allan's 7-year-old daughter was hospitalized. "My ex cut off my overnight visits, and took it upon herself to deem me unfit to administer my daughter's medication. By doing so, she deemed me unfit as a parent," he said.
The battle to reinstate his visitation rights took five months, a court order and signed statements from the child's doctors that it was OK for her to visit Allan.
The court ordered visitations to resume the weekend of Allan's second wedding. "It was really important to me that my daughter be there. But when I went to get her, she wasn't there."
The child called to say her mother wouldn't let her attend the wedding unless he signed a document saying he wouldn't keep the child overnight until she was completely well. He refused.
"There was no way I was going to sign that document," Allan said. "It was open-ended. My ex might decide our daughter would never be well enough to visit."
When Allan again went to court, before the same judge who had ordered visitation to resume, he thought his ex-wife would be charged with contempt for ignoring the order. Instead, the judge said he could have visitation two consecutive weekends.
The lack of support a non-custodial parent gets from the judicial system is shocking, he said. "I used to do everything by the numbers. I paid my child support payments promptly at the beginning of every month. I have kept my medical coverage active on my daughter. But now I'm paying on a COD basis," he said.
Now he only pays a full month's support if he gets all the visits he's entitled to that month. "If my ex-wife won't do anything, if the court won't do anything, if the judicial system won't do anything to help me see my daughter, then I will," Allan said.
"If a woman doesn't get her support - if her ex is 30 days in arrears - all she has to do is go to the Office of Recovery Service and fill out a preprinted form and officials will attach the father's wages, often without notice," said Ward.
"But if a father is denied his visitation, he has to hire an attorney, file a show cause for action, then wait for a court date, which often takes months. And he, the non-custodial parent, has to do this every time he is denied a visit," she said.
Sen. Lyle W. Hillyard, R-Logan, said he thinks that much of the opposition to stronger child support laws comes from fathers who are being denied a meaningful relationship with their children.
"Visitation with non-custodial parents is a very real problem," said Hillyard. "I believe when the court is determining custody, one of the issues that the court should consider is the willingness of one parent to provide meaningful access to the other parent."