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The Second Wives' Crusade : Those Men. They Get Married and Start a Family. Then There's That Messy Divorce. They Get Married Again, and the Second Wife Wants What the First Wife Had. See Where We're Headed Here?

December 03, 1995|Sonia Nazario | Sonia Nazario is an urban affairs writer for The Times

A hush falls over the 60 women at a rally of ex-wives on a grassy field behind the Federal Building in Westwood. A 5-year-old girl at the podium haltingly recites a poem addressed to her father. She asks why he doesn't send money anymore. The women in the crowd, clutching their children and flickering candles in Dixie cups this balmy night, are there to call for enforcement of child-support laws against ex-husbands they say are uncaring about their own children.

But as the vigil proceeds, the group is ringed by a dozen women from the Coalition of Parent Support, California's largest fathers' rights group, who have heard aboutthe demonstration and rallied their own troops to challenge it. "That's child abuse! That's child abuse!" screams Laura Ross about the use of the youngster to bring home the ex-wives' point. Ross is a member of COPS and is married to one of the divorced or separated men the 5-year-old is indirectly maligning. She angrily waves a sign that says "Second Family-Second Class." Another COPS member planted next to Ross calls the ex-wives "money grubbers" who use child support money "to live high on the hog" and impoverish ex-husbands and their second families.

Two of the ex-wives turn toward Ross. "Be quiet!" snarls one, clenching her fist inches from Ross' face. "You are a low life," hisses the other.

Ross, a legal secretary, stubbornly holds her ground. "Fathers are paying more than they can afford," she snaps back. Ross resentfully recounts how child-support increases have made bearing a child with her new husband prohibitively expensive. The couple can barely muster rent on a one-bedroom apartment, she says. Meanwhile, Ross believes her husband's ex has used a child-support increase to enlarge her breasts.

(Sherena Traxler says her new husband paid for the $5,000 procedure. It is ludicrous, Traxler says, to think she'd have anything left from $350 a month in child-support payments that barely cover his share of raising their 6-year-old daughter.)

Welcome to the down-and-dirty war of the wives. Feminists recoil at this hateful women-on-women skirmish, but these confrontations are becoming more common as second wives emerge as the most vociferous foot soldiers in the flourishing "fathers' rights" movement that has mushroomed to nearly 300 groups nationwide.

Of course, deadebeat dads abound. Nearly 57% of parents who don't have custody of their children pay no child support. Even those who are paying aren't providing their proportional share of the true cost of raising a child, studies show.

But for the women struggling to raise families, whether they are first wives with children from a failed relationship or second wives with their own families, a venemous battle has evolved over the relative rights of each in splitting a squeezed resource: the man's paycheck. And the war reverberates from state legislatures to family law courts around the country, with troubling implications for judges who must weigh what is best for America's children. It has become particularly fierce in California, where, judges say, declining wages make it increasingly hard to support one family, let alone two.

"I know I make orders and I can't imagine how the father will pay it and how the mother will live on what she gets," says Los Angeles Superior Court Commissioner Robert Schnider, who, like other judges, must now largely adhere to state guidelines that calculate payments based on both parents' incomes and how much time the court has granted each with their children. On several occasions, men in Schnider's courtroom have pleaded that child-support orders will force them to live out of their cars. "We are just dishing out relatively equal levels of unfairness and impossibility."

To the flag-bearers of groups such as COPS--many of them second wives--the amount of child support some men are ordered to pay discriminates against the second or third families. A husband's high payments, they say, deprive them of a God-given right: to have a family with their new partner. Worse, court awards to children of first marriages are taking food out of the mouths of children of second marriages. "Why are the first wife's children more important than mine?" COPS member Diane Santos Jaussaud asks.

Proponents of tougher child-support laws have a ready answer: a man's primary responsibility is to his first family. If he can't afford to support his first family, they say, he shouldn't indulge in another.

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