Fathers demand rights

According to a letter sent by a divorced man to the Association for Male and Paternal Dignity (SYGAPA): «At first I tried to persuade myself I wasn’t one of your number, that my wife and I would find a solution for the good of our 2-year-old boy. Eight months of separation and my wife’s increasing unwillingness to give me the child for those two three-hour periods a week removed any illusions I had,» the man revealed in one of the many letters sent to SYGAPA. «Please contact me, I need your help,» continued the letter. More than 20,000 people have already contacted the association which was founded just three years ago and is fighting for equality between the sexes after divorce. Given the rapidly increasing number of divorces in Greece, the problem of child custody was bound to become more of a problem. According to the National Statistics Service, from 124 divorces per 1,000 married couples in 1993, there were 240 in 2004. Each year Athens courts hear more than 4,000 divorce petitions by mutual consent and another 2,500 contested divorces, as well as over 3,700 appeals for child support. Between 2001 and 2005 alone, about 31,000 divorce petitions were heard (61 percent of them by mutual consent) and another 17,500 child support and custody battles. According to lawyer Dimitris Georgiopoulos, in 99.9 percent of cases, the court awards custody of the children to the mother. «There are only three instances where this does not happen: if the mother is a drug addict, if she has been hospitalized for mental illness or if she is legally shown to be a prostitute,» he explained. «If none of these is the case, the father is out of luck.» Yet the law also states that in awarding custody, courts should take into consideration the interests of the children – that is, their living standards. Experts have shown that after their third year, children need both their parents. «Greek courts, however, decide purely on the basis of the parent’s sex,» said Georgiopoulos. «Their rulings are standardized. In effect, whatever the mother claims is automatically accepted. Even without seeing any evidence, the court will accept, for example, that the father has abused the children or that he is incompetent – these last two arguments have been much in fashion among lawyers. Of course, when the judges have to look at 100 cases a day, how can they be expected to go deeper? The point is that the state does not monitor the children’s living standards after the event.» As a result, according to Georgiopoulos and members of SYGAPA, the parent with custody of the children is not accountable to anyone. «Apart from having absolute control of everything concerning the children’s lives (the father is only allowed to manage their property), the mother is free to prevent the children from communicating with their father,» said Georgiopoulos. In most cases, the father is given access every first and third weekend of the month, a week each at Christmas and Easter and a month in the summer. As a rule, child support is also set at one-third of the father’s declared income. However, Georgiopoulos says that in many cases the father has to «buy» his time with the children by increasing the monthly contributions. «It is a trade-off. Despite the court rulings, mothers often don’t let fathers see their children when they are supposed to, and tell them to take their complaints to court.» The courts, however, cost money and the fathers are already being bled dry. It is no coincidence that 98 percent of court injunctions are issued over child support and custody. «No doubt the mother’s role is important, and no doubt there are mothers that set an example. However, the child needs both its parents in order to have a balanced emotional life,» said Nikos Spitalas, president and founder of SYGAPA. «Joint custody should be instituted in Greece as well as open communication and alternate residences, not to mention the institution of the family court.» ‘Day by day, all my parental bonds with my children are being cut’ A 68-year-old math teacher and member of SYGAPA, E.V.S., told his story to Kathimerini. «I have a 12-year-old daughter. I belong to that category of fathers that has no rights because her mother and I did not marry since she did not want to lose the pension of her late father, awarded to her as an unmarried daughter. I have recognized the child legally, but according to Greek family law, I have no right to custody or care. «After our separation, there was a series of struggles. For two years, I paid child support of 1,200 euros a month as a result of an injunction, even though my monthly income is just 1,900 euros. A court reduced it to 550 euros, but the child’s mother is now asking for more. Although the court recognizes my right to contact my daughter, that has become more difficult. Although the court ruled that I should have access from August 1 to 21, her mother hid her during that time… It is sad that I can’t see my child and sad knowing that someone else has taken my place as her father.» Cutting bonds G.P. and his wife, who works for the public prosecutor, separated nine years ago. «We split up in 1998 when I found out she was having an affair. We divorced by mutual consent at her request, due to her position. We agreed she would keep the children – now aged 12 and 15 – and she made no financial demands,» said G.P. «I saw the children whenever I wanted, and everything was going fine.» The problems began when G.P. met the woman who was to become his second wife. «When I met my current wife, I introduced her to the children and they got along fine. However, when we decided to marry, my ex-wife embarked on a merciless battle against me in the courts, and the children stopped visiting me.» The first court case ruled that he should pay maintenance of 1,230 euros a month, and issued an injunction on property to the value of 15,000 euros by auction. «I was unable to pay that amount, so I had to take out a loan, which I am still paying back,» he explained. After several court hearings, the amount was reduced to 750 euros monthly, which G.P. says he pays on the dot. Nevertheless, his ex-wife has appealed for an increase. «I am financially ruined, but that is not the problem. The problem is that day by day, all my parental bonds with my children are being cut. What sort of relationship can we have when we see each other rarely, and at my initiative? I am heartbroken.»