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State Continues as Custody Battlefield : Families: Recent legislative gains by fathers have triggered increased lobbying on behalf of mothers' rights.


Dena Haywood figured a good wife had no other choice. When her husband was transferred to Ohio last year from Southern California, she planned to pack up her 8-year-old son from a previous marriage and follow.

But her ex-husband, Robert Gawel, didn't want his boy whisked across the country, out of touch, virtually out of his life. So he took it to court. For the next six months, Haywood had to remain behind with the child to fight the case.

Her persistence paid off. Faced with years of litigation, Gawel ultimately relented and agreed to limit his time with the boy to the summer and long holidays. "One of us had to give in and sacrifice something very deeply," he said. "This is the most devastating loss of my life."

Such sad struggles in divorce-rife California are fanning a fierce debate in the state Capitol over the dissolution of marriage. Like two icebergs grinding past one another, opposing camps representing men and women are waging a battle of the sexes in Sacramento, one that is reshaping divorce and its often-messy aftermath.

California has long set trends in family law, ranging from the state's landmark no-fault divorce decree signed in 1969 to the recent debate over surrogate parenthood. The coming months may bring further changes in the arrangements of family life after divorce. Debate has roamed from the proper level of child support to a redefinition of joint custody to legislation making it easier for Dena Haywood and others to move children far from an ex-spouse.

The most vocal participants of late have been advocates for fathers. Emboldened by the emerging ethos of the men's movement, they are beating a drum of protest in Capitol corridors in hopes of giving dads a better deal in divorce. These fathers say they are tired of being relegated to the role of Disneyland dad or maligned as deadbeats. The middle-class man of the '90s, they contend, yearns for a role as nurturer--even after divorce.

"We need to bring the father back to the family," said state Sen. Charles M. Calderon (D-Whittier), the Legislature's guru of the men's movement and himself a survivor of an ugly divorce. "In divorce as in marriage, the family needs the father."

Women's advocates don't quibble on that point, but say that divorced men often fail to hold up their end of the bargain on matters ranging from paying for a child's health care to changing diapers. They are also worried that hard-fought victories by custodial mothers over the past decade are suddenly at risk.

"There's just too much attention and deference being given to what fathers are calling father's rights," said Sheila Kuehl, an attorney with the California Women's Law Center. "That's not the touchstone of family law. The touchstone is what's best for the children."

Of late, the fireworks are flying over child support. Reacting to federal orders, California has hiked the rates twice since 1991. In some cases support levels rose by as much as 500%.

Advocates for fathers argue that the payments now are ridiculously high and represent a form of back-door alimony. They also complain that their new wives and children suffer because of the extra financial burden, and some say they've even contemplated leaving the state to avoid the boosted payments.

A few have already left. After being laid off from a Southern California aerospace firm, Peter Richardson moved to Las Vegas to be closer to his young children from a short-lived marriage--and to escape California's child support law. "When I was paying $500 a month, I agree, it needed to be raised," said Richardson, who saw his monthly payment more than double. "But I got slammed."

Women's advocates see it far differently. Men like Richardson, they say, were getting off easy before, and the increase finally brought the payments in line with the state's high cost of living and the price of raising children.

They also argue that the welfare of the original family should be the first consideration for men who have remarried. "You can't expect to have two families for the price of one," said Blanche C. Bersche, president of the Harriett Buhai Center for Family Law, which provides low-income legal aid in Los Angeles County.

Irked fathers prodded legislators to introduce several bills this year to mitigate the effects of the new support rules. Advocates for mothers responded with measures of their own, including one by Sen. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles) that would have required an ex-spouse to continue child support payments past age 18 if a teen-ager went to college.

The issue has grown so polarized that the debate on almost every proposal is riddled with bitterness, and most of the legislation has either been scuttled or held over until next year. Watson's college-support bill, for instance, was thumped in the Senate. Meanwhile, a measure by Assemblyman Trice Harvey (R-Bakersfield) allowing fathers to phase in the support hike became embroiled in an emotional discussion before it finally escaped the Assembly floor earlier this month.

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