June 19 is Father's Day. In the last few decades, that has come to mean much more than it once did. Dad used to be just the guy who worked and kept the bills paid, while Mom took care of the home and children. But in recent years, dads have come to play a much more important role with their children. And research shows children definitely benefit from the different nurturing influences of both parents.

Sadly, in many cases, when the relationship between the parents fails for whatever reason, the child is denied contact with one parent, most often the father. This is often true even if a visitation agreement is on file with the court. Such agreements are rarely enforced. It has become more common that fathers from these failed relationships who wish to play an active role in their child's life must fight their way through a legal obstacle course in order to secure their right to do so. This is especially true if the parents were never married. Unwed fathers seem to have no rights to their children unless they go to court and request them. However, according to information and case law cited on several Web sites, including that of the Children's Rights Council (http://www.gocrc.com/conF.html) , a parent's rights to raise his or her children are fundamental rights protected by our Constitution.

In the state of Iowa, we like to talk about the importance of family values. And yet even when laws such as HF22 are passed - requiring the courts to grant joint physical custody of children, except in cases where points of law and facts declare that not to be in the child's best interest - in reality, many judges choose to overlook this new legislation. In extreme cases, judges are rewriting the law on the bench, and HF22 has been discounted altogether. Also, the state makes some new laws retroactive (i.e. "health insurance must be provided"), while HF22 is non-retroactive. All of these laws should be applied equally, or not applied at all. Otherwise, Iowa is promoting "de facto discrimination" based upon custodial status and violating "equal protection under the law."

The forums at (http://www.Iowafathers.com) have postings on many judges, both good and bad, by county.

So why is it that most unwed or divorced fathers still have to battle in our court system to protect their relationships with their children? If HF22 were enforced in every Iowa courtroom, that initial battle might be over before it even began. However, once a father does gain some rights, he is still faced with a court system that often doesn't enforce its own rulings in custody and visitation issues. The laws in place to protect an absent parent's rights are comparable to a guard dog with no teeth.

If a father is lucky enough to appear in a courtroom where his rights are considered on an equal footing with those of the child's mother, there is yet another pitfall of which he must beware. This has been described as "the nuclear weapon of custody warfare" - false allegations of child abuse, especially sexual abuse. These allegations are all too often used by a mother as a last-ditch effort to gain a tactical advantage in court. The current social climate concerning such allegations can allow her to keep the child from his or her father with the court's blessing. Social services and law enforcement also back the accuser, entering into investigations with an assumption of guilt, instead of the assumption of innocence supposedly guaranteed to those accused of criminal behavior. And, especially in the case of very young children, the lack of necessary expertise on the part of the interviewers/investigators results in many groundless allegations winding up in court. A far more costly result is that too much time spent away from Dad can alienate the child from him. This creates a win-win situation for a mother wanting to push the child's father out of the picture completely.

The primary concern here really isn't for the rights of the father or the mother, but for the rights of the child. Every child has the right to both parents playing active roles in his or her life, no matter what happened to the relationship between Mom and Dad. The inequalities found in our current legislation and the application and enforcement of said legislation by our courts are in direct violation of the constitutional rights of fathers and their children. Fathers are not merely walking paychecks whose sole purpose is to pay child support (a mandate that our courts have no problem enforcing, by the way). We have the right to form strong and lasting emotional bonds with our children, and to play an active role in their lives. Until our lawmakers and court officials decide that a level playing field is required to ensure equal parenting opportunities for both mothers and fathers, our children will continue to pay the price.

As a father currently battling for my rights, I encourage our elected officials to address these concerns seriously, lest our children continue to suffer the consequences. And to any man facing similar circumstances, I say: Do not give up, no matter how insurmountable the obstacles may seem. Your relationship with your child is worth far more than any lawyer's fee, or any amount of personal sacrifice. One man can change the world, but he cannot do it alone. We must stand united, and fight for our rights. Only then will things change. And by the way - Happy Father's Day!

Terry Yale

Council Bluffs, Iowa

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