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Activist gaining ground on fathers' divorce rights

Page 2 of 2 -- Bolstered by their recent ballot-initiative victory, Holstein and others are filing a bill next week in the State House calling on judges to begin with the presumption of shared custody.

''I walked into court believing we were a society that had worked hard toward gender equality," Holstein said, recalling his divorce proceedings. ''Then I began to see all these attitudes running counter to that."

In the end, Holstein said, his divorce in 1993 went relatively smoothly: He was given joint physical and legal custody and he believes his children, now grown, have adjusted fairly well to the marital breakup. But his eye-opening courtroom experience, as well as the stories he has heard from other fathers who fared less well in divorce court, prompted him to begin an organization that lobbies on behalf of fathers' issues.

Others who work in promoting fatherhood programs praise Holstein's group as among the first to gain credibility on Beacon Hill. Anthony Palomba, who heads the For Fathering Project at the Medical Foundation in Boston, said that he always refers divorced fathers who call him for help to Holstein's group.

Representative Colleen Garry, Democrat of Dracut, said that Holstein approaches the Legislature with ''a calmness and a logical perspective" that have won him respect and distinguished him from the many fathers who, she said, testify on Beacon Hill with raised voices and vindictive rhetoric that is easily dismissed by lawmakers.

Garry, a lawyer who practices in family court, said many judges are more open-minded now about awarding joint physical custody to two deserving parents, though a decade ago, that type of resolution was rare.

''Ten years ago, the wife would get custody and the father would pay child support," she said. ''There was no sympathy for men."

Fathers still do not always receive fair treatment from divorce courts, Garry said. She plans to file a bill based on Holstein's referendum question.

The bill may be met with some resistance, said Andrew Cohen, cochairman of the family law section of the Boston Bar Association, who argues that Holstein's bill could ''take discretion away from judges."

Currently, Cohen said, judges base custody decisions on the ''best interests of the child," not whether both parents perceive the arrangement as fair. For example, a judge might grant custody to the mother because she has the closest relationship with the children, ignoring the father's argument that he was busy earning money for the family.

Holstein counters that the current practice penalizes such fathers and assumes they are unwilling to change their lives to spend more time with their children as divorced fathers.

Holstein said he never imagined that he would someday be in charge of one of the largest fathers' rights groups in Massachusetts. Growing up in northern New Jersey, he figured he would grow old as a happily married man juggling his career while enjoying his grown children. But Holstein said the breakup of his marriage was a ''cataclysmic event both in terms of pain and growth." Remarried and living in Newton, Holstein said he spends 30 to 40 hours a week working on issues for Fathers and Families, while maintaining his environmental health consulting business.

Holstein said his extended family has a history of political activism, mostly on the side of progressive politics. A self-proclaimed liberal who protested against the Vietnam War in his college days, Holstein said he has found that progressive groups seem reluctant to embrace the fathers' rights movement. He believes this stems from the perception that people who press for fathers' rights are biased against women. Holstein said he works hard to defy the image that fathers' rights come at the expense of mothers' rights, and is wary of men who come off as too angry or vindictive. He says he receives phone calls from fathers who do not seem interested in the well-being of their children and instead want to vent their rage about their former wives. He does not welcome these people into his group.

''We have a style we've chosen -- based on informed activism," he said.

Patricia Wen can be reached at wen@globe.com. 

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