CHARLESTON — As a cornerback in the NFL, Tim McKyer knew how to win on the gridiron. The three-time Super Bowl Champ spent a decade in the ranks of professional football, but his greatest challenge came in a court system he said was determined to penalize him for being a father.
McKyer, who now lives in Charlotte, N.C., and has spent the last eight years embroiled in a bitter custody battle with his ex-wife, rallied a West Virginia team ready to rush the 78th session of the West Virginia Legislature Sunday and Monday in Charleston. He appeared for a series of events sponsored by Men and Women Against Discrimination, the Domestic Violence Counseling Center and Healing Through Creativity and the Black Ministerial Alliance, all in a bid to draw attention to a family court system McKyer and supporters said is broken.
“It has nothing to do with color when you get in this family court system. People, it’s about money,” McKyer said Sunday before a capacity crowd in a conference room at Kanawha County Public Library. “If the government is subsidizing the destruction of our children and our families, every one of you in here ought to be angry. It’s not about man or woman, black or white.”
McKyer sought primary custody of his children, beginning during his divorce in 2000. Soon after, a family court judge named him the custodial parent of his two young sons.
While the court awarded him custody, the judge gave most of his money and home to McKyer’s ex-wife in an order that McKyer said included an announcement that his money no longer belonged to him — it belonged to the state.
“He decreed me poor,” McKyer said.
Still, he managed on savings and investments that remained from his NFL career. He maintained primary custody of his sons for three years, until his ex-wife petitioned for a change of custody. Since then, the debate has continued, with McKyer receiving only limited access to his children. He visited West Virginia Sunday, Jan. 13, and said he saw his children last on Jan. 2.
Once deemed football’s Mouth of the South as he took the field for the San Francisco 49ers, Denver Broncos and a handful of other teams, McKyer asked his audience, “You see why I’m an angry black man?”
Based on a system McKyer said made a shipwreck of his due process, he said criminals are treated better than fathers in custody proceedings from coast to coast. While the decisions happen inside a courtroom, McKyer said the consequences reach into hearts and homes throughout a nation, leaving children facing life without real fathers and fathers living broken lives.
“When family’s broke, everything else is broke,” he said. “Nothing else matters.”
American culture may teach men to be the providers in a family, but McKyer said the court system reduces dads to little more than a paycheck, stripping them of their value and purpose.
“Under this bold exterior, men cry in the dark … A lot of hearts are breaking,” he said.
The family court system also sets a bad example for children in general, McKyer said, teaching young boys their future roles as fathers are not important and showing young girls they can get away with nearly anything.
Still, just as he wouldn’t give up on the playing field, McKyer vowed never to give up on his children. He’s already worked eight years for at least 50-50 shared parenting, and he announced Sunday, “I’ll do eight more.”
Though McKyer was only in West Virginia for two days, Men and Women Against Discrimination has been working for years to change the way child custody is determined after divorce.
MAWAD Region V Coordinator Kevin Summers said the organization has identified four pieces of legislation to even the playing field for mothers, fathers and extended families, including:
• Establishing Children’s Access to Both Parents Act;
• Establishing criminal and civil penalties for false allegations;
• Establishing authority for law enforcement to enforce parenting plans;
• Establishing a method in which males may contest allegations or presumptions of biological parentage under certain circumstances.
MAWAD’s main goal has always been to revise how courts begin custody negotiations. Now, custody is calculated based on individual formulas involving which parent provides the most day-to-day care and which one has the most earning potential to provide financial child support.
MAWAD contends that formula ought to begin with 50-50 shared parenting, unless one parent proves to be unfit. Beginning negotiations with the presumption of equal parenting puts both the mother and father on even ground in the court’s eyes and starts the process with a child’s right to equal time with both parents.
MAWAD State Director Tim Fittro began the program Sunday, explaining the group consists of ordinary people fighting to remain parts of their children’s lives. He encouraged supporters to contact legislators and declare their support for the bills listed above as early as possible. The West Virginia legislative session began Jan. 9. Though organizers are “reasonably confident” their bills will pro-gress, there’s no guarantee.
“We have 60 days here. If we don’t do it now, we have to wait another year,” he said. “I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to wait another year for my daughter.”
A host of other joint-parenting supporters spoke at various events this week.
Children’s Rights Initiative for Sharing Parents Equally (CRISPE) Founder Larry Kirkman didn’t drive his trademark purple bus to Charleston, but he did make it to the capitol city Sunday.
He called for an overhaul of the family court system, likening the situation to a tree in which a non-custodial society is the root of most problems today.
“Equal parenting is the fertilizer in changing it,” he said.
American Coalition for Fathers & Children (ACFC) President Dr. Linda Nielsen teaches the only course in the United States dedicated to studying females’ relationships with their fathers. She sees the situation from a different perspective — through the eyes of her students who grew up without a constant father figure in their lives.
“I see it from the other end — the damage that’s done to young women who haven’t had shared parenting,” she said.
While Nielsen said she was proud to call herself a feminist, she said it’s important for women to remember their equal rights also mean equal responsibility and equal sacrifice in the event of a divorce. She said America must get rid of the notion, “We need a father to provide the money, and we need a mother to raise the children.”
Instead, both parents should provide and nurture children.
Nielsen is a professor of women’s studies at Wake Forest University and directed anyone interested to her website, www.wvfu.edu/~ nielsen, for more information.
ACFC Executive Director Mike McCormick also called for a groundswell of support from families working to revamp family law.
“These children are yours. They belong to you,” he said.
The ACFC’s Stephen Walker told the audience, which included a range of age, gender, ethnic and geographic representatives, that its members represented a breath of fresh air in the struggle to stem the “carnage” of familial disputes.
Defining the absence of non-custodial parents as the “common denominator” in a host of problems today’s children face, he said changing laws is the first step in healing.
The Joint Parenting Act, HB 4042, was introduced in the House of Delegates Monday. To track its progress visit http://www.legis.state.wv.us/, and enter the bill number.
For information on MAWAD and the shared-parenting movement in West Virginia, contact Fittro at (304) 295-0053, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.