Rhondall Feeles has been campaigning on a subject that until recently few spoke publicly about. And in the four or five months of the existence of the Single Fathers Association of Trinidad and Tobago (SFATT), people are beginning to pay attention.
The 28-year-old businessman has been saying, simply, that there are fathers in T&T who actually want to have more than a presence in their children’s lives. The idea of the “deadbeat dad,” he says, results from a system that has been discouraging men from assuming a nurturing role in their children’s lives.
“The system is pushing away the dads that want to be involved,” claims Feeles. It was his own personal experience of being a father in an estranged relationship which led him to take up the cause. “I realise men were suffering from a traditional bias, not only at the court but also throughout the entire system when it comes to the family...”
That message has found resonance among men struggling for parental access to often very young children. SFATT’s Facebook membership has already crossed the 700 mark and many stories are emerging about men who have felt themselves unjustly and unfairly treated.
“I’ve found from the meetings,” observes Feeles’ lawyer Hasine Shaikh, “...and from the Facebook group, that there are a lot, a lot of men out there who are hurt, hurting, going thru the same situations whereby they are being deprived of the opportunity to be in contact and have significant roles in the lives of their children.”
One Facebook group member posts a photo of his child celebrating her ninth birthday. It is captioned, “Two years I haven’t seen her...I’m being strong keeping the faith we will reunite one day soon.”
Another philosophises and makes an unusual point: “Well boy, I know that just as our children need us we need them. Our kids drive us to be successful, determined and strong. Their involvement in parents lives are just as important to us as ours is to them.”
A female member raises the question: “What is an acceptable amount of time per week that a separated couple should share their child?”
The discussions are not trivial. According to the SFATT Web site developer, the denial by one parent of a child’s access to the other parent is called “parental alienation” and has been made an offence in Brazil. He is hoping with this knowledge in the public domain, policy-makers will take notice of the practice here.
“The goal of SFATT is to get justice for both parents,” he says. He wants a change in the interpretation of the law when it comes to “best interest of children.” Part of the problem, as Feeles sees it, is how men have customarily been seen in the courts. “Men are always viewed as an aggressor: it is unnatural for us to love; unnatural for us wanting to be part of the child’s life; unnatural for people to think of a father nurturing, a father changing the baby diapers, a father feeding a baby a bottle— that is mommy job.”
He thinks that this one-sided view has allowed some women to abuse the system since they are not called upon to account to the same extent as men. He cites one stark example of one SFATT member who was ordered to pay $5,400 in maintenance for his two-year-old child, and a further $6,000 for the upkeep of his former spouse. The same person, Feeles claims, paid $1,200 monthly for two older children. (The order is posted on the Facebook page).
“I would like to know like to see the documents she submitted for these requests...if you could just walk in the court and ask for any kind of money and they grant it to you,” Feeles asked. “Why aren’t women called upon to present bills for the amount of money they asking. Why isn’t there accountability?”
Shaikh says from her experience in law “...no woman has a problem in bringing up a man for maintenance, you know.
“Maintenance is real popular, they have no problem...they not going to say, ‘give me less money’—They never ask for less money, they always asking for more.” She, however, believes the problem may not be found in the law itself but in a culture which assumes the nurturing role is confined to women.
The idea of men as nurturers, one might infer, is still to be fully accepted by society. Changing the perception is the challenge for SFATT.