When a child is born to an unmarried couple in Tennessee, the mother is automatically labeled its custodial parent unless a court order identifies the father.
Joe Buchanan, a noncustodial parent, believes that fathers who are heavily involved in their child's life should have the same rights as the mother. Buchanan said he's only granted 80 days of visitation a year and has very little say-so in his son's life.
Buchanan and other local fathers have formed an organization, which has yet to be named, devoted to raising awareness of the lack of rights for noncustodial parents. The group, which met for the first time last week, plans to hold additional meetings once a month.
Under Tennessee's Parental Bill of Rights, noncustodial parents have access to their child's school and medical information, but the loopholes they may experience retrieving these records vary.
"Right now, if I wanted to check my child out of school, the only way I could do so is if [his mother] put me down on paper saying, 'Yes, his father can check him out of school,'" Buchanan said. "The only way I can have lunch with my son is the same."
On average, the Memphis and Shelby County Juvenile Court System allows noncustodial parents around 80 days a year to spend time with their child or children.
Tom Coupé, supervising attorney for the juvenile court system's noncustodial advocate office, said standard visitation is the first, third, and fifth weekends of every month for noncustodial parents. He said they get two weeks in June and July, and major holidays are split between parents.
"I can understand in a general sense that you're perhaps a father who is in a less powerful position if you're not getting as many days as the mother is generally given," Coupé said. "Whoever has the child more, that person is given the educational decisions and the medical decisions and those sorts of things. To some extent, there is a difference in the ability for the parties to co-parent and that can be frustrating."
Christopher Cosy is another noncustodial parent. Although Cosy doesn't have custody of his son through the court system, his son has been living with him since he was four months old.
"Me and his mother, we had to go to juvenile court. I told the judge the situation, that my son was staying with me, [but] he made me pay back child support," Cosy said. "That was when he was 6 years old. I ended up having to pay $17,000 in back-pay even though my son was staying with me. They gave me physical custody, but I don't really have custody of him through the court [system]."
Buchanan said he's not opposed to child support, especially for fathers who aren't in their child's life. However, he thinks more visitation and rights should be easily accessible to active fathers.
"[The juvenile court system] makes it difficult for us to see our children, because we're noncustodial parents from the start," said Erby Price, another noncustodial father. "You have no real ability to do for your child. I want the system to be equal. I want it to be easier to get joint custody for fathers who are taking care of their responsibilities."
Buchanan said the group is also open to mothers with custody issues. For information on the next meeting, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.