June 20, 2009 in Features

Two men stand tall in effort to boost dads’ rights

By The Spokesman-Review
Colin Mulvany photo

John O’Neill and his son, Conor, 16, shoot hoops at home after school. O’Neill pioneered programs in Spokane that encourage fathers to be involved in their children’s lives.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

Women fighting for women’s rights garnered the lioness’ share of media attention in the later decades of the 20th century. Yet in those same decades, dedicated men were educating society about the importance of fathers. ¶ On this Father’s Day weekend, here’s a look at the lives of two Northwest men who were pioneers in the so-called father’s movement. Both are still active in fatherhood issues. ¶ John O’Neill, 41, is a Spokane social worker. On Thursday, he and other father advocates will put on the Engaging Fatherhood Conference in Spokane. ¶ And 62-year-old Bill Harrington, who lives near Puyallup, is in Spokane today for a Father’s Day ceremony, followed by a wreath laying at the grave of Sonora Smart Dodd, the Spokane woman who founded Father’s Day 100 years ago.

Bill Harrington’s biological father, a man he’d met only two or three times, died when Harrington was just 10. His mother remarried, but Harrington and his stepfather never really connected.

“If you were a psychiatrist, you could see how my interest in these issues could have generated from this,” he said.

Harrington got married in 1973. Just a year before, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed an Illinois law that took children away from biological fathers if the children’s mother died and the mother and father were not married.

“The (unwed) father was automatically said to be unfit,” Harrington said.

Harrington and his wife had two children, Elaine and Tom. Harrington and his wife divorced in December 1987, when “anti-father was the official force in the divorce court world,” he said.

“It was pay your child support, see your kids every other weekend and have a good life. I fought like hell to get equal time.”

For the past three decades, Harrington and others lobbied the state legislature for more father-friendly divorce laws. Their latest victory? A 2007 law requiring “residential time summary reports” that detail the amount of time each parent will spend with their children.

The reports provide a statistical snapshot of how involved divorced fathers are in the lives of their children. A March 2008 summary of the reports gives Harrington hope, because 46 percent of children of divorce, statewide, spend 35 percent of parenting time with their biological fathers.

Spokane County Superior Court Judge Sam Cozza, who is finishing up an 18-month rotation in family court, said that it’s still common for fathers to get “every other weekend, plus Tuesday or Wednesday evenings, plus six weeks in the summer.”

But efforts by men such as Harrington have raised awareness.

“There’s a gold standard now – the 50-50 plan,” Cozza said.

Both Cozza and Harrington acknowledge that practical considerations, such as parents not living in the same town, often render the 50-50 plan impossible.

Harrington, a former commissioner on the U.S. Commission on Child and Family Welfare, urges competent fathers to fight for time with their kids.

“Reorganize your schedule and your life to be there,” he said. “Little kids can’t measure time. After a week of not seeing you, kids say, ‘I don’t have a dad.’

“Get a picture of your kids, drive around with it and never forget why you are fighting.”

John O’Neill grew up in a large, Irish Catholic Spokane family, one of seven children. He graduated from Gonzaga Prep and enrolled at Washington State University.

In 1988, O’Neill sat in his family science class at Washington State University; it was late afternoon and he felt drowsy. Then the professor said, “Today, we’re going to talk about fatherhood.”

O’Neill woke up and paid attention. His college girlfriend was pregnant.

When most men are 20, O’Neill realizes now, they “are not developmentally prepared for the awesome responsibility.”

Some of his preparation included research for a paper in that family science class. He wrote about factors that determine which fathers are involved in their children’s lives, both in married unions and in divorces. Mothers play a huge role.

“If the mother was an advocate about dad being involved, he was involved. If she was like, ‘This is my territory,’ he was less involved.”

O’Neill graduated from WSU in 1991 and did an internship at Spokane Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Center with his mentor Sue Hille.

One day, O’Neill asked her, “Where are the fathers?” Good question, Hille said; find them and do programs for them.

He then went to work for Spokane County Head Start.

“I would be talking with moms about their children and ask, ‘Where’s dad?’ They would curse under their breath: ‘That SOB is not around. I don’t let him around the children.’ ”

In the early 1990s, O’Neill put together Engaging Fatherhood, a program that has evolved into classes and resources for lower-income fathers, including incarcerated dads.

He and Dan Wolfley, a fellow social worker, also organized the DAD’s Committee, a group of professionals who still meet once a month at Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery and advocate for fathers.

In 1999, O’Neill earned a master’s degree in social work from Eastern Washington University. On graduation day, the dean asked, “How was your experience here at Eastern?”

O’Neill told him it was great, “but we didn’t have 10 minutes of information relating to men.” The dean said, “Why don’t you create something?”

And that’s how EWU’s “social work practice with men and families” class came into existence.

O’Neill’s son, Patrick, is now 20, the same age as O’Neill when he learned he was going to be a father. O’Neill and his wife, Heidi, have two other children, Conor, 16, and Maegan, 12.

He credits his enduring marriage to hard work and the example of his own father, J. Pat O’Neill, who once told him that men have to abandon certain things to free up their strengths.

“We’ve been bombarded with messages on what it means to be a man: ‘Be tough, drink a lot of beer, be a womanizer, don’t take crap,’ ” O’Neill says. “When we become fathers, those messages don’t work. Every man has strengths, but he needs to free up those strengths to become the father he needs to be.”

His message to fathers this Father’s Day?

“You are critical to the development of your children. Your children want you, not alternatives. Show your love. Have eye contact, give hugs.

“Our kids need to hear us say, ‘I love you. I’m glad you are my son. I’m glad you are my daughter.’ ”

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