Estranged Happenings

21 June 2004

TODAY, dads throughout Northern Ireland will be enjoying a special day with their children. But for one distraught Ulsterman, Father's Day will be filled with acute depression and anxiety.

Jonathan (not his real name), a civil servant from Belfast, is the father of three children, yet he is prevented from having access to two of them.

"I have three children - two teenage girls and one boy aged 11," he told Sunday Life.

"The two girls are currently living with their mother, while my son stays with me.

"I have no contact with my girls, and it breaks my heart when I think about being unable to play a role in their lives."

A member of Fathers 4 Justice, the group campaigning for changes in Family Law to enable children to have access to both parents, Jonathan highlights the group as his only form of support in his quest for access to his daughters.

"If it wasn't for Fathers 4 Justice, I dread to think what state I'd be in," he said.

The background to Jonathan's situation began with a painful separation from his wife, followed by divorce, and failure to reach agreement over access to the children.

"After I had been married for four years, I noticed a marked change in my wife's behaviour.

"She began to physically abuse me and our daughters," he alleged.

"When I could stand it no more, I contacted the police."

However, the response Jonathan received from the authorities was not what he expected.

"I told them I believed I was a victim of domestic violence, but the opinion that I received after I was interviewed, was that it was my fault, even though I had a red gash below my eye where I had been punched.

"It seems to be the norm that men are not perceived as victims of domestic violence - they are more likely to be the perpetrators."

Through the relationship difficulties and the eventual breakdown of his marriage, it was the love of his children that kept Jonathan going.

However, difficulties in keeping in contact with his children in the aftermath of the split have left him reeling.

"I went to court and got a non-molestation order - my wife did the same.

"Eventually, she breached the order, but the police continued to point the finger at me," he said.

"We decided that we could rotate access to the children on a weekly basis.

"This was a great solution for all of us, and it was working really well for a while.

"However, my eldest daughter started revealing some of the things my ex-wife was saying about me, and it became clear she was trying to turn them against me.

"She is now preventing them from seeing me.

"My son, who now lives with me, walked out, and now refuses to see his mother.

"My daughters have been left very confused, and I feel like my world has been turned upside down.

"All I want is regular access to my children."

Jonathan learned from a friend of his solicitor about Fathers 4 Justice.

He was informed that the group was forming a Belfast branch, and he decided to get in touch with its co-ordinator.

"I'm praying that F4J get something changed in the law, as I feel like I'm living in limbo," he said.

"I know lots of fathers who can't see their kids simply because the mother doesn't want them to.

"If it hadn't been for F4J, I would have had a mental breakdown by now.

"It's only through joining the group that I realise how many other men in Northern Ireland are in the same situation.

"There are fathers worse off than me, but the courts just don't seem interested."

For Jonathan, being a member of Fathers 4 Justice has provided a renewed sense of hope, as he attempts to get his life back on track.

"The emotional support is fantastic," he explained.

"If you are feeling down, you can contact one of the members and talk things through - it might not solve anything, but at least you can talk.

"There is this stereotype that men shouldn't express their feelings and emotions, but I've found it's the best way to try and cope with this situation.

"Family events like Christmas, and especially Father's Day, are agonising to say the least, but being a member of F4J has made me optimistic that, one day, my children can have access to both their parents."