father in Massachusetts has delivered an early Father’s Day gift
to non-custodial parents, the overwhelming majority of whom are
Dr. Henry M.
Fassler has successfully contested a 1998
Massachusetts law that requires a non-custodial parent to have
court certification as a non-batterer on a yearly basis before he
(or she) is allowed access to their children’s school records. The
school system currently views all non-custodial parents as guilty
of battery until proven innocent. But all that is going to change.
of Fassler’s case: he wanted to see the academic class list
for his 17-year-old daughter Lindsay, who had asked him for help.
No charge or complaint had ever been filed against Fassler; he is
on good terms with his ex-wife and children.
When the school
refused the class list, Fassler not only got angry, he also got
active. Last October, he complained to the Family Policy Compliance
Office at the U.S. Department of Education, challenging the statute
as discriminatory. On May 6, the DOE sent a letter to Massachusetts’
Education Commissioner David P. Driscoll, which warned that “the
commonwealth and every school district in Massachusetts is in violation
of federal law, and has been for years.”
explained, “non-custodial parents cannot be denied access to school
records unless there is evidence those ‘rights have been specifically
revoked’.” The government cannot stand between parent and child
when no evidence of abuse is present.
advocates had fought against the law since its passage. (Indeed,
Fassler belongs to Fathers
and Families, a leading voice in that battle.) Suddenly, however,
with millions in federal funding at stake, Driscoll has
indicated that a “new policy” will treat divorced parents more
in Massachusetts for non-custodial rights offers both hope and lessons
to divorced parents across North America.
is cautionary: even well-intended laws can be hijacked and used
for unintended political purposes. This one fact alone should prejudice
reformers in favor of repealing bad laws rather than stacking the
new ones ever higher.
Fassler, the 1998 statute was first pushed by father’s advocates
who wanted to clarify their parental right to school records. Then,
anti-domestic violence groups – especially a Boston-based victims
advocacy group, Jane Doe Inc.
(JDI) – amended the measure to make a distinction between custodial
and non-custodial parents. Fassler claims the changes converted
the statute into an “abuse-prevention bill” that discriminated against
the very fathers who suggested it.
JDI has a history
of receiving large tax-funded contracts to handle the training and
other assistance necessary to implement anti-abuse programs in Massachusetts;
it seems natural to assume that JDI wielded influence over the policy-makers
with whom it has established a long and remunerative partnership.
Nancy Scannell of JDI helped to draft the statute.
the father’s rights advocates against whom JDI is often
pitted consist almost entirely of volunteers.
This is another
lesson from the Massachusetts struggle. Grassroots organizations
and actions can prevail over generously tax-funded agencies, but
it is crucial to “follow the money.” The crusade against the 1998
statute won out only when Fassler called federal funding into question.
the money means more than this; the tax-funding of JDI should be
tracked and made public. As taxpayers, fathers have a right to know
how such funds are dispensed and to expose any political bias in
the granting of contracts.
organization that will profit from a legislative measure should
be excluded from drafting it. The exclusion is important. The Boston
Globe quotes Scannell as saying she “will eagerly participate in
any discussion to rewrite the bill.” If the “non-profit” JDI will
eagerly cash checks based on such a rewrite, then JDI should not
shape its language.
words of caution, the news from Massachusetts is heartening. Non-custodial
parents will no longer be viewed as abusive until proven innocent.
Fathers can play a greater role in their children’s academic lives.
Glenn Sacks, who campaigned against the 1998 statute, explains the
importance of a father’s presence. “As a former high school teacher…I
could teach a class for a few weeks and then have a pretty good
idea which kids had fathers in their lives and which ones didn’t.
I had few discipline problems…but I always knew that there was
one truly effective way to get an errant boy to change his ways – call
his dad and explain…that he needs to leave work and come to the
school to talk to me about his son’s behavior. It was 100 percent
may now be available to all of Massachusetts’ teachers, parents,
McElroy [send her mail]
is the editor of ifeminists.com
and a research fellow for The
Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and
editor of many books and articles, including the new book, Liberty
for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century
(Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002).