In 2004, a fathers’ rights group formed in West Virginia to promote “Truth, Justice, and Equality in Family Law.” They created a media campaign including billboards and radio spots warning about the dangers of false allegations of domestic violence, sexual assault, and child abuse, even offering a $10,000 award to anyone who could prove false allegations of abuse were used against a parent in a custody case. In 2007, they released a study concluding that seventy-six percent of protection order cases were unnecessary or based on false allegations, and warned that protection orders were often filed to gain leverage in divorce and custody cases. They used their research to propose a new law with language created by a national fathers’ rights group to sanction parents making false allegations of intimate partner violence during custody cases. The Governor signed their bill into law in 2011.
Within the broader context of the fathers’ rights movement, a closer examination of the West Virginia group’s work raises important questions. In spite of its dissemination within and beyond the fathers’ rights movement, their research conclusions bore little rational relationship to the findings. The research was at best misguided and confused, and at worst, a deliberate attempt to mislead the public in order to promote a political agenda. The new law was redundant, as both the domestic relations code and criminal code already provide sanctions for parents who make false allegations of abuse. The law was effectively a solution created to prove a problem by shifting the public policy focus from protecting victims to questioning their motives and potentially silencing them.
At first glance, the modern fathers’ rights movement and law reform efforts appear progressive, as do the names and rhetoric of the “fathers’ rights” and “children’s rights” groups advocating for family law reform. They appear a long way removed from the activists who climbed on bridges dressed in superhero costumes or the member martyred by the movement after setting himself on fire on courthouse steps. Their use of civil rights language and appeal to formal gender equality is compelling. But a closer look reveals a social movement increasingly identifying itself as the opposition to the battered women’s movement and intimate partner violence advocates. Beneath a veneer of gender equality language and increased political savviness remains misogynistic undertones and a call to reinforce patriarchy.