When Dads Get Mad

Fuming fathers: Members of Florida Dads Against Discrimination are out to change the rules
Sherri Cohen

Between forkfuls of homemade cheesecake and sips of coffee served on the Sunday china, the seven men gathered around the dining room table of Bill Bettelli's Davie home tell their divorce horror stories. Nothing unusual about that -- thousands of men in Broward County could rattle off something similar.

What's different about these guys is they're doing something besides crying in their coffee cups. They're out to change a system they believe is inherently biased against dads. And they're off to a strong start.

But first, a few obligatory sob stories.

There's Kevin Cunningham, a physical therapist, who got divorced from his wife after six years of marriage. Cunningham wanted to split custody fifty-fifty. "I wanted as much time with my kids as possible," he says. He was blown away when a court-appointed mediator told him he'd be lucky to get them on weekends. Cunningham used to take his kids to school in the morning, but not anymore. "How is a judge going to tell me, a willing and able father, I can't take my own kids to school?"

And there's Pete Barski, a pharmacy student at Nova Southeastern University and the divorced father of a four-year-old boy. He'll graduate this month, and odds are good he'll land a job quickly. But he's afraid his ex may leave the state and take his son with her.

Then there's Bob Schlafke, a 53-year-old former policeman who was financially ruined after his divorce five years ago. After child support, alimony, and a chunk of his pension are taken from his paycheck, he is left with about 20 percent of his salary to live on.

What they have in common, besides a palpable disgust with the Florida family-court system and a deep mistrust of the institution of marriage, is the sense that fathers just don't get a fair shake in society. Too often, they say, mothers are automatically awarded custody of children in divorce cases whether they deserve it or not, and fathers are shut out of their kids lives by a biased legal system.

Which is why they've coalesced around Ira Teller, age 51, and the group he started seven months ago, Florida Dads Against Discrimination.

Teller is tall, thin, with straight black hair and the impish grin of someone sure he's right. He was divorced in 1989. He won't say what he does for a living. "This isn't about me. This is about this group, this system," he says.

When it comes to what he perceives as fathers being screwed by the family courts, he's pretty talkative. Bombastic even. "My position is that, the way the divorce laws are written, it really doesn't protect fathers at all. They pretty much pander to the custodial mothers. The Broward County Courthouse has become a playground for rich lawyers. They have completely lost sight of the children, and the fathers are discriminated against."

Teller's crusade began in October 1994, when he discovered a copy of his divorce decree in his daughter's file at Tamarac Elementary. His marital status was none of the school's business, he reasoned, and it had nothing to do with his daughter's academic performance. Florida statutes seemed to agree, and after a fusillade of letters, he finally succeeded in getting the offending document removed seven months later.

He found fresh outrage last year after being rebuffed by administrators at American Heritage School in Plantation, where his now 14-year-old daughter attends school. Teller requested a parent-teacher conference, but administrators denied it at the behest of his ex-wife, Irene DiSciullo, who has custody of the child.

Theirs was a typically acrimonious divorce, with each party blaming the other for a variety of transgressions. It's an old story, and one that needn't be detailed here -- suffice it to say it boils down to he said/she said.

What's relevant is that DiSciullo doesn't think her ex has their daughter's best interest at heart in requesting an audience with her teachers. "In this particular case, he is not doing what he is doing to see what is happening with her. He is doing it as revenge," she says. So she asked school administrators to share records with Teller if he requests them but not to allow a conference. As the court-appointed custodian of the child, she feels that is her right.

Teller maintains that his motive is irrelevant (though, he adds, he is a good father who cares about his daughter and wants to be a part of her life). "What does it matter [who has custody]?" he asks. "Every divorce decree can't be construed as allowing a custodial parent to limit access to school. You would eliminate tens of thousands of parents from coming to school."

He did his homework and dug up state and federal laws that seem to back him up. Florida statutes pertaining to divorce state that access to school "records and information" can't be denied because a parent is not the primary residential custodian. And the federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) states that schools must give full rights to both parents unless there is a state statute or court order specifically revoking them.

Armed with these laws, Teller again asked for a parent-teacher conference at American Heritage. School officials (who did not return calls from New Times) offered to allow him to meet with the school's principal to discuss his daughter's grades but not with teachers. That wasn't good enough. So Teller pleaded his case to State Sen. Walter "Skip" Campbell (D-Tamarac), who wrote a sternly worded letter to American Heritage. "It is important to remember that while Mr. Teller and his wife have divorced, Mr. Teller's rights as a parent have not been terminated," Campbell writes.

At Teller's urging Campbell introduced a bill last session that would codify access to school records for all parents in no uncertain terms and urge that fathers be given equal consideration in determining custody after a divorce. The bill died, but Teller is confident a better version will succeed next session.

Meanwhile Florida DADS is gaining steam. Sit these guys down, put a cheesecake in front of them, and they'll regale you with personal tales of tragedy all night. But this isn't a 12-step program for crybabies.

The group has 40 to 50 members, a board of directors, and a Website (www.dadsusa.com). It holds biweekly meetings and has a legislative agenda that goes far beyond access to school records: doing away with adversarial court proceedings in divorce and moving instead to mandated mediation, stiff penalties for women and lawyers who file restraining orders without proper justification, laws that would make it difficult to move a child out of reach of a noncustodial parent, and quashing laws they consider "non-father friendly," such as a bill that died in the state legislature last session that would have allowed police to enter a building at any time of day or night to make an arrest for nonpayment of child support.

If it sounds like pie in the sky, remember that the group has already made friends in legislative places. And its founding father is nothing if not persistent.

"It would be a mistake to underestimate how determined I am about these things," says Teller.

Contact Bob Whitby at his e-mail address: bob.whitby@newtimesbpb

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