I have often been asked how I got involved in fathers’ rights. Here’s the short version:
I was putting myself through undergrad by working as the office manager at a dental office. This office was in downtown Buffalo, not far from the courthouse. So we had a lot of attorneys as patients.
One of our patients came rushing in, very late for her appointment. “I am so sorry I am late,” she said, “I was at the capitol testifying. I am part of the New York Family Law Bar and I was testifying about the new proposed child support legislation.”
“Well you’re in favour of child support legislation, right?,” I asked.
“Oh no,” she replied, “this is a terrible law!”
She started telling me all the reasons it was such a horrible law. It had to do primarily with that it first of all gave judges no discretion at all to make allowances in a case. It dictated a formula from which it would be nearly impossible to deviate.
Most states have a formula where you look at your income, you look at how many kids there are, you look at how much time the children are with each parent, and that is pretty much it. That dictates how much child support the non-custodial parent would be paying. But, because this particular law made it so the judge could not deviate at all unless they jumped through so many hoops that no judge would ever have done this it meant that people who were already paying to the best of their ability were really going to be in a lot of trouble. Especially because the other aspect of it was that it was retroactive. This meant that someone could have been paying to the best of their ability, paying faithfully every month and all of the sudden find out that they are now in arrears thousands of dollars.
Now, as she was explaining this to me, I was thinking about my very recent own personal experience with the family law system. I was very recently divorced, a single mother. Our divorce had been I thought very contentious, now I know that it was really quite tame compared to some. But, the point is our divorce had just been finalized. Even though we were through, for a split second I did the calculations and realized that with this new law I could have destroyed my ex.
And for that split second it was really tempting.
I quickly shook that off. I went, “Oh my god.” Here I am. I’m already done with my divorce and the power this law would have given me was too awful to even contemplate. Just for that second the power trip that was there. How I could have destroyed him. He had just lost his job. He had a baby on the way with his new fiancé, and I could absolutely have destroyed him. But after that split-second where it was tempting, I was horrified. Somehow, I don’t know how, but somehow I had the presence of mind to realize that if this passed, what it would do is it would cause these guys who were really on the edge, trying to make it, it would cause them to go underground, because they wouldn’t be able to do it. That would be really bad for the kids. First of all, the moms and the kids wouldn’t be getting any support, but more importantly, the kids wouldn’t have their dads.
So that’s really what galvanized me. I was extremely politically naïve at that time, and I said to her, “Oh, my gosh, well someone has to do something. We have to have a referendum.” Well New York doesn’t have a referendum. But again, I was politically naïve. I had no idea. I thought that citizens could just go to the capitol and get something going like that. I ended up founding an organization. It had the unfortunate name of; well it was called People for Reasonable and Intelligent Support Measures. Which of course the acronym is PRISM, as you can look through a prism, it bends light. But, when I would call I would say, “Hello this is Anne Mitchell calling from PRISM.” And you can see where that’s going! People thought it meant I was calling from prison. So that was a very poor name. It was a good lesson in naming organizations. It was specifically founded to go and testify in Albany about this law and how bad it was. I am very happy to say that even though that was my very first foray into politics and father’s rights, that we were at least in part responsible for the fact that those two really bad aspects of the law were taken out and were not passed. So, that’s how I got started in father’s rights.
After that I finished university, and I moved to California to go to law school at Stanford. Frankly, by that time I thought…It had already been a couple of years. I was working in father’s rights. I thought I’ve done my civic duty. I’m done now. My daughter and I, remember I was a single parent, her father and she have a good relationship and I always encouraged it, but she came with me to California by agreement with her father. I thought “Now I’m going to graduate from law school and I’m going to get a big job at a big firm and make lots of money and I’m not going to be a poor single parent anymore. We’re going to live high.”
That’s what I was thinking going into law school, but even before I graduated it was really clear I was not going to be able to walk away from it. Because once you have something like this under your skin and you really feel it, you just can’t turn your back on it. I founded a father’s rights organization during law school. I ran a father’s rights bulletin board from a computer in my student housing.
When I graduated I was looking at the possibility of an offer from one of those big Silicon Valley firms and an offer from a tiny, two-lawyer firm that did family law and personal injury. They were going to pay me half of what the big firm was going to pay me but they were going to give me all of the family law I could have. They were going to let me still do my father’s rights work. They took me even before I passed the bar. They said once you pass the bar we are giving you our family law department. I just couldn’t walk away from that.
I actually left that job before I got the results of my bar exam, because I knew that I was going to open my own fathers’ rights law practice, and I felt it wasn’t right to keep taking their money when I knew that I was going to leave.
I opened my law practice for single fathers in 1993, and while I am no longer in private practice, I’ve been involved in fathers’ rights ever since.