A father's struggle for shared custody
A Blenheim father, who has spent thousands of dollars on lawyers in a bid to see his children more often, tells reporter Paula Hulburt about the dread he feels every other Sunday night, when his weekend with them comes to a close.
The house is horribly silent and everywhere he looks he sees his children.
Crumbs lay on the kitchen table where his eldest enjoyed a biscuit. A child's painting, hanging proudly on the fridge, is tugged at gently by a breeze coming in the window.
Outside, the toys lay discarded on the lawn and, with a lump in his throat, he forces his gaze away. It will be another 11 days before this Blenheim father-of-two sees his children again and he is already counting the minutes.
The father, who has not been named to protect the identity of his children, says he is at his wits' end.
Since the mother of his children left him almost two years ago, he has battled to see his children as much as he would like.
With a shared custody arrangement put in place recently, at his insistence, the father sees his children every second weekend and every other week during the school holidays. He would like to spend as much time with his children as their mother does, but says she will not agree.
It is a situation that is breaking his heart, he says.
"I feel like a second-class citizen. When a mother and father split up, unless there's a strong reason why it shouldn't happen, then they should share time with their children 50-50.
"Why does it always have to go the mother's way? If no-one says anything, then nothing will change."
The law does not specify how much time children should spend with each parent; the welfare and best interests of the child are paramount when deciding on custody arrangements.
"When we split up I was working fulltime. I have no family here and no support so it seemed right then that they did spend more time with their mum.
"Now I work part-time and she works fulltime and I can help but it feels like what I think doesn't matter. I'm only their dad.
"The children want to spend more time with me and my eldest wants to live with me but I really don't know where to go from here," he said.
Countless meetings, mediations and round-table discussions have failed to see the pair reach an agreement. The father says the case is due before the Family Court. He does not expect a positive outcome.
"My opinion should count just as much as her's does, they are our children; we had them together," he said.
Every second weekend, the Marlborough father picks his children up from school, a big smile on his face, delighted at the thought of spending three nights with them.
Now engaged, the father tries hard to offer his children a "loving family home", he says. Camping trips, movie nights and "just being a dad" fill up their days.
But as Sunday night approaches, the dread starts to slowly set in.
"I just want to be involved in their day-to-day care. I'm their dad and really don't understand how everything just goes her way. Why don't I count?"
Figures from Statistics New Zealand show the number of one-parent families are expected to rise from 230,000 (in 2013) to 265,000 in 2038.
The number of solo male parents are expected to increase at a faster rate than single female parents, the statistics show. In 2038, solo male parents will make up 22 per cent of one-parent families, compared to 18 per cent in 2013.
The Marlborough man says all he wants is equal access to his children. He believes it is only fair their mother has shared access too.
"I love my kids and while I would love full custody, I think they need their mum too."
On the nights he does not have his children, he stands in the bedroom where they sleep and wishes they were there.
Their pyjamas lay neatly folded on unwrinkled pillows, washed and waiting for the next time they'll be worn. Behind closed kitchen cupboards are foods the children like to eat, and movies they might enjoy are saved to watch at a later date.
The father says he feels like he spends much of his time "just waiting" to see his children.
"They're always really excited to be here at the start but I've noticed a change too over the last few months.
"My youngest has started being rude to me and acting out as I think he's being poisoned against me by his mum.
"He used to be such a happy-go-lucky clown and would dance about in the kitchen being silly. He doesn't do that so much now. It's like they just start to relax and be themselves then it's time for them to go again," he says.
His words are coated with acerbity and obviously leave a bad taste in his mouth. What sticks in his throat the most, he says, is the fact it was not his decision to leave.
"She came home one night and said she was leaving. She took the kids and spent the night in a motel. I left the house as I really didn't feel I had much of a choice.
"Now I don't have much faith in the system. I know what it's like now. I have spent about $8000 so far trying to spend more time with my children and now I can't even afford a lawyer.
"I'll keep trying to fight for my rights though as I want my children to know that I fought for them every step of the way."
What the law says
Parental rights don't distinguish between a mother and father. Instead they are determined, by a Court, by what is in the best interests of the child or children, said Nelson lawyer and mediator Michelle Duggan.
The family law specialist says custody rights have been replaced by arrangements and orders. Parenting Arrangements are agreed, without the need for a family court to be involved, while Parenting Orders are processed or determined by the court and set out day-to-day care arrangements.
Shared orders where both parents have day-to-day care are becoming more common but sometimes it is impractical because of the age or stage of the children and each parent's work commitments, she said.
The Care of Children Act specifically says that the gender of a parent is irrelevant to the issue. It states it must not be presumed that the welfare and best interests of a child, of any age, require the child to be placed in the day-to-day care of a particular person because of that person's gender.
- The Marlborough Express