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This article was originally published on Sunday, September 10, 2000 in the Philadelphia Inquirer South Jersey edition and is available on-line For divorced dads seeking equal time. The text is repeated here for convienence.


For divorced dads seeking equal time They offer one another emotional and legal support in child-custody cases in New Jersey.

Adam L. Cataldo, INQUIRER SUBURBAN STAFF

It was about 11 years ago when Jeff Golden realized he needed help.

Golden was going through a child-custody case with his ex-wife over his two young children, Lynnea and Erik.

He contacted a father's rights group in North Jersey. Its members swapped information about the courts and the legal system, and gave one another support.

"Everything is really great," Golden recalled about the group, "except they're 100 miles away."

It was a Pennsylvania group that he found could provide emotional and moral support, but it was completely unfamiliar with New Jersey law.

In 1990, Golden and eight others founded Fathers' and Children's Equality, also known as FACE.

The group wants to see more fathers awarded custody of their children, and see youngsters spend equal time with each parent.

"If the child has two good parents and the parents want a divorce, the child shouldn't be divorced from one of the parents," said Golden, who is the group's vice president and a computer and marketing consultant from Cherry Hill.

FACE holds its general membership meeting on the second Tuesday of each month at the Cherry Hill library. It also holds four meetings at members' homes each month. The group's telephone hotline is 856-786-FACE, and its Web site can be reached at www.facenj.org

Golden said that FACE's database listed about 2,200 people, and that there were about 300 active members. About 60 percent live in South Jersey, with 46 percent in Camden, Burlington and Gloucester Counties. The rest live in other parts of the state and in other states.

According to Golden, New Jersey law states that in a child-custody case, the rights of both parents are equal.

But in 90 percent to 95 percent of the cases in the state, children are placed in the care of the mother, he said.

"If that number wasn't 90 percent, and it was 60 percent, I would say, 'OK, that's about equal and maybe there are more women who are better parents than men,' " he said. "I can't believe that only 5 to 10 percent of the fathers are qualified or are able to be the parents of their children."

Golden's estimate was scaled down a bit by Dianna Thompson, executive director of the American Coalition of Fathers and Children in Washington.

"In our figures it's 85 percent, but it's still overwhelmingly in favor of the mothers," she said citing the most recent data, from 1995.

The national group was founded about three years ago and has about 45,000 members, Thompson said. The coalition is a nonprofit, educational group that advocates shared parenting.

"A lot of dads we represent are saying I don't want to be an every-other-weekend-visiting-Disneyland dad."

FACE provides legal information and advice for those who represent themselves in court, along with emotional and moral support for those in child custody cases.

"The divorce industry is a multibillion-dollar growth industry," Golden said. Unless a person has abundant financial resources, he or she cannot afford a lawyer, Golden said, adding that he has seen many child custody cases drive people into bankruptcy.

That was where Charles Forberg, 51, saw himself headed in the mid-1990s.

He reached out to the group for help with a custody case involving his daughter, Erika, now 14.

"I saw no way to fight this without spending money, lots of money," said Forberg, who lives in Hamilton Township, Mercer County.

"You're not in poverty so you can't qualify for free legal services, but you don't have $1,500 to pay as a retainer for a lawyer," Golden said.

Forberg decided to represent himself in court, and did so with the help of FACE.

Since then, Forberg has gone to court several times over his case. He said that most cases were won and lost in the paperwork filed with a judge before a court appearance.

"Most of the time the judges have their decision made before they walk out because they have all the documentation," Forberg said.

People can learn from FACE how to represent themselves in court.

Experienced members provide information and advice to newcomers going to court for the first time. But, it is up to the member to do most of the work on his case.

"You might make mistakes, but you won't make the same mistakes we have made," Golden said.

FACE members have access to the same computer programs lawyers use to fill out forms that must be submitted in court.

"It's the same software as a child-support hearing officer or a child-support judge has on his desk," Golden said.

The key form is a case information statement, eight pages of fine print providing a detailed picture of the person's financial status.

Golden estimated that 20 percent of FACE's members were women. It is often the wives, girlfriends and mothers of men in a custody dispute who first contact the group.

They then pass the information along or try to persuade their loved one to seek help from the group. About half the calls to the group's hotline are from women.

"When it comes to knowing what to do, men - and the old image of being macho - they don't want to ask for help," said Eileen Wolbert, 57, of Sewell. "It's a whole new world to them and they have no control over the court system."

Wolbert became involved with the group soon after it was founded, when her son was embroiled in a custody dispute over his daughter.

Wolbert said her main activity with FACE was accompanying group members to court. She does it in part to try to give them confidence when going before a judge and opposing lawyers. She also goes to send a signal to the judge hearing a member's case that others support and believe in him.

"But they have to get over that gender thing," she said. "Sometimes men make better parents, sometimes women do."

"I know men aren't supposed to be paternal, but a lot of men have this instinct to want to be with their kids," she said.

"Our sons need to see that there are other people that are in the same boats they are in. It's like taking a step with AA - you think you can do without it, but once you get caught up in the system you really need help."

That was the case with Dave Cantera, 49, of Mount Laurel. His mother put him in touch with the group about three years ago when he was fighting for custody of his son David John, then a year old.

"I was extremely depressed because I didn't now where to turn," Cantera said. He knew several people who had been in a similar situation and ended up losing their parental rights.

"It was unclear what I needed to go for, what I should have, and it was a very upsetting time and very traumatic," he said. "After a couple of meetings, it felt like I wouldn't have to lose my parental rights."

As Cantera spoke, his son played with building blocks, taking delight in constructing a tower and knocking it down.

Cantera and his son's mother eventually reached a custody agreement. The boy spends two days with his father, then two days with his mother, then five days with his father and the next five with his mother.

Last year Cantera became FACE's president.

Like Golden, whose case has been going on for 11 years, Cantera said his case is not over.

"It's not resolved and they never do get resolved; that's a myth," Cantera said. "There is always something that comes up in their lives that needs to be addressed at some point."


Adam L. Cataldo's e-mail address is acataldo@phillynews.com

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