|Mary Sinanidis||August 11th 2008|
Athens News Correspondent
The stereotypical image of downtrodden mothers battling to make ends meet after "deadbeat dads" vanish from their children's lives is being trampled by a growing group of dads rallying for quality time with their youngsters in the age of divorce. Media attention on this group has been ample since the creation of the Society for Male and Paternal Dignity (SYGAPA) in 2005.
The society's existence has somewhat rehabilitated the image of divorced fathers, but little else has changed. In most divorce cases, custody typically goes to the mother. "No other European country gives 95 percent of custody to mothers," guesstimates SYGAPA member and divorced father Dimitris Pahoumas, speaking about Greece's custody laws. "Ideally, custody should be 50-50, with fathers able to have input in their children's lives."
Pahoumas believes that "social policies" are to blame for the bad relations between parents after divorce. "The government appears scared of women's organizations when chartering fathers' entitlements," he says, pointing to the fact that the general secretariat for equality has not yet met with SYGAPA.
"Things are even worse in 'de facto' relationships where fathers are called upon to recognize their children, pay for their upbringing but have no entitlement to see them," says Pahounas.
SYGAPA's main focus is on giving fathers greater custody rights with unhindered visitation, unobstructed communication with their children, and reasonable alimony payments.
"We just want common sense," says Pahounas. "Psychiatrists and child psychologists often come in to muddle the situation. In modern society, both parents work and share child rearing, so the same should apply in divorce. It's really quite simple."
Lawyers are often skeptical of the father's motivation when seeking more rights. "Too often fathers begin drawn-out legal battles for custody rights when the underlying motive is to reduce child support payments," says lawyer Tefta Kyriakou. "During custody hearings for child support, a large number of fathers suddenly become poor due to unemployment or being unfit for work. Judges have to gauge the actual situation, and sometimes they don't have specific qualities required to try family court cases. Social services are sadly inadequate."
A lack of state social workers means that judges often don't have all the facts available in order to make the fairest decisions and properly research the real situation beyond the court presentation.
"Recently, I had the case of an alcoholic father who was unfit to have rights over his child, yet the judge was not convinced of this," says Kyriakou, who believes that social workers are necessary for fairer decisions.
Despite its shortfalls, Kyriakou believes that the Greek system is fair. "For a father earning 1,200 euros, child payments are around 350 euros per child," she says, adding that this is not an exorbitant amount.
However, things go awry when one parent is foreign. "I recently had the case of an English mother who lost custody simply because the father claimed that she would consider taking their child abroad," says Kyriakou.
Usually, it is difficult for a Greek court to grant a mother's request to move to another country as this would mean uprooting the child, which would not be in the child's best interest.
"Once a child is taken abroad, the case leaves the Greek legal system and is tried in the child's new country, making it more difficult for the Greek parent to get the child back," says Kyriakou.
UK fathers who've been through divorce make their point with a sense of humor.
During summer holidays, the situation is fuelled even more. "Every July, I get inundated with calls from divorced parents wanting their holiday visitation to be secured. Lawyers are called in to help alienated parents work out something that should be straightforward," says Kyriakou.
During a television dedication to divorced fathers on private station Alter, SYGAPA's secretary, Anastasios Vaknidis, referred to one father who received a judicial decision to go on holidays alone with his children but chose not to as he was so alienated from them that he was clueless about how to care for them. SYGAPA president Nikos Spitalas says that problems arise when fathers are alienated from their children, are unable to spend enough quality time with them, and are obstructed in their communication.
Psychologist Chrysoula Mavraki states that nobody doubts that fathers can raise their children as adequately as mothers; however, holidays are a tough period for divorced fathers who are unaware of their children's daily needs. This in itself makes holiday time even more necessary for the bonding process.
Lawyers, psychologists and divorced parents all speak of the "best interests of the child" and the uniqueness of each situation. Unfortunately, even in the best of cases, all agree that there's no such thing as a perfect divorce.
Mary Sinanidis writes for Athens News and appears here with permission.