Fathers' Rights Victory in Massachusetts

A determined father in Massachusetts has delivered an early Father’s Day gift to non-custodial parents, the overwhelming majority of whom are dads.

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.

The specifics 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.”

The letter 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.

Father’s rights 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 fairly.

The struggle in Massachusetts for non-custodial rights offers both hope and lessons to divorced parents across North America.

One lesson 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.

According to 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.

By contrast, 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.

But following 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.

Moreover, any 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.

Yet, despite 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.

Radio host 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 effective.”

That option may now be available to all of Massachusetts’ teachers, parents, and children.

June 2, 2005