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 Appeal to be heard by WV Supreme Court

By Mark Hallburn
Publisher, PutnamLIVE.com

"You would think that the Department of Health and Human Resources would be out to help all victims of domestic violence and to make it gender neutral and not exclude anybody as a victim," says Brian Dent, "And to provide counseling services for perpetrators that is gender neutral."

Jacob Kerr knows all about that. On June 3rd, he says his former wife, Tiffani, tried to run over him with a car, but when he went to court, Kanawha County Magistrate Tim Halloran refused to allow him to fill out a Domestic Violence Protection order, only to grant one for her, less than two hours later.

Adding to the issue, Kerr says he cannot afford a lawyer, but says Tiffani gets assistance from legal aid, who won't help him.

Ron Foster, a respected Scott Depot businessman, says his former wife attacked him, in December of 2006, but law enforcement in Cabell County would not help him.

"I lost custody of my children," Kerr says. "I get to see them two hours every Sunday. That's it."

"Kids are being denied access to their father every day," says Foster. "There is no worse child abuse than denying kids access to their parents over a false accusation or for no reason at all other than one party is not happy."

One of the reasons parents are denied custody, the men say, is that overworked judges don't have time to properly research cases. And one of the reasons for that, the men say, is false accusations that overburden the court system. And, they concede, those false accusations are often made by men and women alike.

Either way, the children lose, and too often, innocent parents are defamed, the men say.

Foster's youngest child, who is 14 years old, is in Florida, a 16-hour car ride from Putnam County, with his mother. Ron only gets to see him 10 weeks a year.  

"It's definitely better than a lot of parents but it still isn't good for the child," Foster says. "His grades suffer and his discipline suffers. The children are the ones that suffer."

And when children suffer, ultimately society suffers, the men say.

With cases like these in mind, a group named Men & Women Against Discrimination has filed a lawsuit against the Family Protective Services Board, (consisting of all female members) a division of the Department of Health and Human Services, alleging gender bias in the court system against men.

"This lawsuit is more specifically related to domestic violence laws, not child custody," Foster says. "The code (WV 48-9-209-Parenting plan; limiting factors) related to child custody is full of provisions that restrict the amount of time that a child is allowed to be with parents based on domestic violence."

"When my wife made false accusations in court," Kerr says, "Just based on her here say, he (the judge) felt that wasn't appropriate for the children, and took my kids away."

In a world of "deadbeat dads" these men say they feel like they are being punished by the legal system when false allegations by mothers keep them from actively fathering their children. Instead of being able to "step up," they are told to "step away."

"False allegations are filed every day in court," Dent says. "To prevent one parent from being able to spend time with their children, who are being denied the benefit of both parents involved in their lives."

When visits with children must be supervised, often the local group that does this is the Charleston Y.W.C.A., a group that advocates women's rights.

"If you are a male, you cannot have (YWCA) voting rights," says Foster. "They can only be associate members. The Y.M.C.A. makes no differentiation between males and females."

In June of 2008, Men & Women Against Discrimination filed a lawsuit alleging gender bias in the system, related to how domestic violence shelters served victims. "There are none specifically for men and limited, if any, overnight services for males at a shelter," Foster says. Kanawha County Circuit Judge James C. Stucky ruled in the group's favor, but The Family Protection Services Board is appealing the case and, to Dent and Foster's chagrin, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals has agreed to hear the case.

"West Virginia's State Supreme Court has an opportunity here to do the right thing," Dent says. "And uphold Judge Stucky's ruling or they can overturn the decision and make men 'second class citizens' in the State of West Virginia and set the precedence for the rest of the states to follow."

The right thing, is exactly what Dent, Foster, and Kerr are looking for. A level playing field in the courts that equally protects men and women from domestic violence and also protects their children from being pawns in divorce court as part of the "War of the Roses."

It should be noted that none of the men we interviewed want to take away women's rights. They simply want gender neutrality.

The WV Supreme Court is expected to hear the appeal this fall, Foster says. Putnam County attorney Harvey D. Peyton is representing Men & Women Against Discrimination. We will report the court's decision when it is handed down.

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