Billboard campaign criticizes Champaign County judge

By Mary Zemaitis

The American Coalition for Fathers and Children began a billboard campaign Thursday aimed against Champaign County Circuit Court Judge Arnold Blockman.

The billboards, located at 1201 E. University Ave. and 1101 N. Cunningham Ave., call on Blockman to reform his court’s handling of child custody cases, which the coalition claims prevents fathers and non-custodial mothers from having an active part in parenting.

“Children are being harmed by an overly rigid court system and an overly rigid judge,” said John G. Maguire, director of communications for the coalition.

The American Coalition for Fathers and Children is a nonprofit organization that promotes “shared parenting,” which means “after divorce, both parents have a substantial role in parenting,” Maguire said.

This contrasts with current custodial arrangements. In 90 percent of all cases in the Champaign County circuit court, a parent will lose custody of a child and receive visitation rights for four days a month, Maguire said.

Blockman declined to comment after several attempts.

Research has supported the importance of having two active parents in the child’s life, said Martin Srajek, a researcher at the Infant-Parent Institute in Champaign.

Girls separated from their fathers show higher rates of sexual activity and have a stronger chance of becoming pregnant at an earlier age, Srajek said. They experience decreased self-esteem and are more likely to use drugs, he said. Boys are more likely to be emotionally immature and unable to deal with aggression when a father is not present. Having an inactive mother creates similar consequences, he said.

While there is evidence that children benefit from spending substantial time with both parents, there is also empirical support that a child can be adversely affected by exposure to conflict, said David Meyer, University law professor. For instance, if parents fight in front of the child when switching custody, it can harm the child, he said.

Supporters of the campaign said that custody proceedings become war, with children used as pawns.

“I was not listened to,” said a University student who has been caught in the middle of her parents’ custody battle. She added that her relationship with her mother was destroyed because she chose to live with her father.

Her father is not allowed to discuss the case with his children. Because of this, she said her younger siblings, who do not fully understand the situation, do not think he is working as hard as he is to get custody.

This situation is usually thought of as applicable to men only, but many women also struggle for custody rights.

“There are women out there, and they’ve been bullied out of their children,” said a Champaign County woman involved in a custody battle. “I didn’t have the money to fight it. I didn’t stand a chance.”

A Champaign County man, who currently is involved in a custody battle, said that if one parent wants a shared custody agreement, but the other wants sole custody, the judge will award sole custody on the rationale that the parent who wants shared custody does not want to be a “full-time parent.”

The Champaign County man said a bias exists against shared parenting by the American Bar Association, since shared parenting agreements would take away $15 billion a year from lawyers.

Illinois legislation provides no direction either way in regards to shared parenting; as a result, judges may rule at their discretion, said Robert Ferrer, a University employee who has personally experienced custody proceedings as a parent.

Meyer said he believes the movement towards shared parenting legislature is based upon the rights of parents.

“(The arguments) are based on a superficial understanding of child development and a self-centered view … of what is good for the child.”

Supporters of the campaign hope it creates change in the court system’s handling of custody cases.

“We hope (Blockman) starts listening carefully to fathers,” Maguire said. “Listen to what they have to say and listen to the research that is out there.”

Some parents see the campaign as a way for their views to be expressed.

“(The coalition is) putting up the billboards, and they are taking the heat,” said the Champaign County man currently involved in a custody proceeding. “We don’t have any protection … when you speak out against a judge, there is retribution.”

Maguire said part of the subtext is that people are afraid of the judge.

“He has a great deal of discretion to set child support amounts, and therefore bankrupt you,” Maguire said.

Meyer said he knows Blockman personally and that he believes that he does a very good job and has proved himself to be concerned with the equity of the parents and children involved.

Some people, even supporters of the campaign, do not agree with the direct targeting of Blockman.

“We’re not dealing with just one judge,” Ferrer said. “It’s endemic across the country.”

Another Champaign County resident involved in a custody case said it is unnecessary “to pointedly include Judge Blockman” because “we don’t have to get into specifics; we have to change policy.”

“We have to have legislature that is willing to step up to the plate,” he said. “But if a judge can show innovation by leading the way, maybe the legislature will get the point.”