Custody cases in Malta where the father is awarded physical custody of the child are not unheard of… but they are rare.
While the concept of shared parenting – where both halves of an estranged couple participate in a minimum of 40% each of their children’s total time – is making an ever-growing buzz in Europe and elsewhere, Sweden and Luxembourg are currently the only two countries in the world with shared parenting as legal presumption.
In Malta, the term barely makes a splash, and is often confused with co-parenting, which is a broader term only prescribing equal decision-making and a collaborative agenda without requiring near-equal contact time with both parents as a condition in its definition.
In the mainstream, residing with only one parent is taken for granted, with many lawyers actively advising their clients not to request shared parenting as the judge is sure to shoot it down.
Due to this strong perception, perhaps not entirely unfounded, many fathers may very well, even on the advice of their own lawyer, voluntarily give up physical custody in order to get generous visitation rights and avoid going to a lengthy expensive trial which they are convinced they will lose.
Though the stigma of deadbeat dads is strong, and a number of these, as many other kinds of caricatures, do exist in real life, it might be the case that a significant number of men voluntarily giving up their physical custody do it for practical considerations.
One father who has experienced this in his personal life spoke to three other Maltese fathers, Neil, Conrad, and James, all in their 30s, who have decided to speak on their personal accounts to show what they’ve gone through over the last few years behind closed doors.
I met my wife at work. We had what can only be called a beautiful relationship up until she proposed, and we got married and lived at her parents’ house until we got on our own two feet.
Soon after, we found out she was pregnant. Though we did not have the most mutually understanding relationship during her pregnancy after the death of my father, who I was very close to, we patched things up in time for our daughter’s birth.
That’s when things started going really downhill.
Though we’d decided she’d be the primary caregiver for the first few months as I was the only working parent, I ended up doing most of the housework and much of the child-care in the time I was at home, including at night, as she always refused to wake up to change our daughter’s nappy when it got full and upset her, and I had to do it myself every time, every night, waking up shattered every day for work the next morning.
Things really took a yet more upsetting turn when, six months after our daughter’s birth, I received a phone call from my wife’s brother-in-law telling me that she had cheated on me.
This was promptly followed by a visit by both her sister and her brother-in-law, which resulted in a row where they both insisted she had been cheating on me with an ex-boyfriend ever since we had started dating, allegations which my wife hotly denied. Though nothing was ever conclusively proven or disproven, this incident thoroughly shook up our marriage as her denials appeared unconvincing to me, even as I still kept trying despite all this to keep it all from falling apart for the sake of our daughter.
As our relations with her family broke down, with her mother blaming and harassing me, we decided to move to my mother’s.
Her neglect escalated: for instance, she would give our daughter soft sweets in the morning instead of milk. I started growing anxious as I felt helpless and unable to cope with both a full-time job and mitigating the neglect, to the point of developing stomach ulcers.
Relations with my mother broke down too as they would row, accusing each other of child-neglect and of crossing boundaries, so we had to move out to rent lodgings, where things didn’t improve. Now, I could not even rely on having a square meal in the evenings, as my wife would just buy junk food, which I couldn’t touch because of my ulcers, instead of cooking something even rudimentary.
Eventually, she suggested we switch roles as I was more suited to the family life, which I happily accepted. She found a job and went to work while I’d stay home. Though she would not even give me money for groceries, I still managed with help from my mother. Time passed uneventfully, and relatively smoothly, for two months until, one night, while I was heating up the milk for the baby, as she’d woken up hungry, my wife emerged, angrily hurling insults at me, accusing me of neglecting the child. She simply grabbed our daughter and rushed outside into the street with her, shouting at the top of her lungs that I was beating her, and going in the direction of the local police station. Shortly after, officers appeared at the house, advising me to move out of the house “for my own good”.
For six months I lived at my mother’s, visiting my daughter daily and buying them both groceries. I found out later that during that time she was cheating on me with one of the neighbours while I was with our daughter. When we started court proceedings to get separated, she swore to make my life hell, and started constantly physically threatening me as well as threatening she would stop me from seeing our child.
I tried filing a report with the police several times but they always laughed it off and refused to believe me.
Six years later, with the situation more regularised but still largely unchanged, my daughter confided in me that my wife’s partner had sexually molested her.
Some months after I filed a criminal report, during which no action was taken and my daughter continued living with them as if nothing had happened, the police inspector summoned me, accusing me of making false allegations since our daughter had denied everything when questioned.
She was fuming, threatening to charge me. Later that day, my little girl confessed to me, with tears in her eyes, that she had denied everything as her mother, my ex-wife, had emotionally blackmailed her, telling her that because of her, her poor mother was going to end up alone and unhappy if they arrested her partner. In addition, she also locked her up in a dark room for a very long time as punishment until she agreed to retract her accusation.
What happened later? There is no happy ending, though the story is still ongoing, or more like never-ending.
Though my ex-wife is still trying her best to tarnish my reputation at court, she has not produced any viable evidence or witnesses, and yet we are still stuck in the same place for some reason. Even the social worker handling my daughter’s case after my accusation said, on the witness stand, that evidently something upsetting had occurred to the child, but declined to commit herself further.
At the moment, I see my daughter six hours a week, plus I have her over for a sleepover. At least I should be. Whenever the fancy strikes her, her mother refuses me visitation, accusing me of physical assault or threats, and the police always shrug their shoulders and tell me they can do nothing about it, I should tell the judge.
In the meantime, I pay monthly child support amounting to 35% of my average net monthly earnings. Between that and all the legal fees, I am barely surviving. I can’t afford a car, nor a home; I am living in a poorly ventilated garage. Often, I cannot afford to feed both myself and my daughter so when she visits, I skip my meal.
I am ready to do anything to see my daughter happy, and safe, but… I really don’t know how long I can feasibly keep the fight up. I don’t think I can afford the legal fees for much longer. I might just have to give up, although I’m very afraid for my daughter’s future and wellbeing if I do.
I do believe we fathers are suffering great injustices, and it is not simply a perception. I’m living it as we speak.
Don’t I have equal parental rights? Isn’t she my flesh? How is she still living with her mother with all this happening, when fathers have often been denied the least contact with their children on accusations far less grounded, even later proved false? I know for sure my daughter is aware of what is going on, of how much I truly care for her, she speaks with wisdom disturbingly beyond her age. I feel I should help her, and I vainly keep trying to.
But, I feel very alone in this, and hopeless.
Currently, my son resides with my ex, though my visitation hours are actually quite generous compared to most others in litigation.
Initially, when we first went on our separate ways not long after he turned one, she had point-blank refused to raise him. He lived with me for a short while, which I was quite happy about. Of course, in the meantime, I encouraged visitation and contact with his mother.
After a couple of months, his mother asked if he could sleep over at her apartment for a night, which I readily acquiesced to.
When I went to collect him the next day, she coolly refused to let him return with me. After I picked him up in my arms to take him back home with me, she stopped me from leaving and called the police, who promptly came.
They arrested me after physically forcing me to give him up to the mother. I later found out that they had blatantly abused their authority: unless there is a judicial decree to the effect, police cannot forcibly separate a child from either parent, not for any reason, unless there is an immediate threat of physical danger (which there wasn’t), and then they must involve social services, and definitely not hand him over to the other parent, which they did.
I didn’t mind being unlawfully arrested half as much as spending 17 days forced apart from my son, not seeing a peep of him after having practically raised him myself, until a judicial decree was published following our urgent hearing (which can still take several days or, I’ve heard, even weeks some times to materialise, depending on the judge’s personality and their load).
The decree did not return my son back to me but allowed me visitation rights: twelve hours a week and a sleepover.
A week later, my former partner started seeing my best friend.
Shortly after – my son was still not even a year and a half – I immediately saw red flags when, out of the blue, he grabbed a doll belonging to my niece and started simulating penetrative and oral sex with it, humping it and pressing his mouth between its legs.
Though I video-recorded this troubling behaviour and reported to the police; till this day, a year later, nothing has happened.
Both the courts and the police seem to have shrugged this incident off, I was told by both there wasn’t enough for them to go on, that he was probably just imitating what he saw on television. I’m still not convinced that my son wasn’t being exposed, at an age when children start being very alert to their surroundings and absorbing other people’s behaviours, that he wasn’t witnessing his mother having sex, especially considering she got pregnant very shortly after.
She’s also evidently not really taking proper care of him, which I’m not surprised about it since as I said she initially didn’t want to raise him, and I think she only took him out of pique: whenever I see him, he’s always wearing tattered, too-small clothes, despite the fact I pay hundreds of euros to his mother monthly for child support.
She keeps doing all sorts of things to try and keep me away from him.
She keeps filing false reports; she even once blatantly told me she will not rest before I’m in prison and they throw away the key. They’ve repeatedly try to arrest me, and they’re always presented with enough proof that she’s lying, and they keep not doing anything about her, especially now, as she was pregnant, and they were very keen not to upset her.
Sometime towards the end of her pregnancy, I was meant to spend, one time only, 24 hours with my son by judicial decree, which I was over the moon about.
He was staying with family that day, she wasn’t even with him. But she left strict instructions with her family not to allow me to take him with me, despite the judicial decree. Again, the police did absolutely nothing; I don’t just mean not arresting her, which I didn’t personally care much for either way, but I also mean they did not even want to accompany me to collect him. They had no issues arresting me and taking my son away from me illegally before, but now, they didn’t think I was worth bothering about, though I had a judicial decree in hand.
Furthermore, whenever my son has to go back to his mother at the end of each visitation, he is always visibly upset, crying like there is no tomorrow and sometimes even trying to hold on to car-mirrors, lamp-posts, street-doors, anything, to keep her from dragging him away from me and back to her home. I think this goes way beyond his attachment to me, I think he’s terrified to go back.
Upset is an understatement.
I feel completely down. But I cannot afford to give up, not without making him give up on a real childhood: I often even find not only bruises but also bitemarks on his back. I obviously document everything and keep telling social services, but so far, nada.
I’m terribly tired already, just over a year later…and getting more broke and disillusioned as time passes… but I have no other choice, for his sake.
Ever since my son was born, I changed all his night-time nappies without complaint, I gave him every single bath, I fed him milk whenever I was home from work, yet I’m being treated by the courts like the moronic, do-nothing dad? When she was the one who actually once told me, “Here, you take the kid, he’s yours now, I don’t know how to deal with him.” When I’d find her smoking in the yard when I return home from work, absorbed in her phone, and our 3-month old infant is in bed inside, crying alone.
We even sent him to child-care way too early in my books, on her request, purportedly so she could catch up with the housework; in reality, as I eventually discovered, so she could meet her current partner alone behind my back while I was at work. I often cried, but I grew tired crying while we were together.
I’m his father, and he clearly is very deeply attached to me, so why am I treated like a third-class parent? I’m not even second class, as my ex’s partner spends more time with my own son than I do.
My best hope for the future? That she forms a real attachment with her next child, grows bored of our son, and lets him come back home to me.
Eighteen days. That’s how long I spent separated from my seven-year old daughter.
It was my punishment, by my ex-girlfriend, her mother, for reporting her illicit drug use with our daughter around the house. The most I was allowed, after I literally spent several hours over the first few days, opposite her parents’ house where she’s staying, insistingly calling her phone though she’d hang up, was to allow her to stand in the balcony and we’d talk to each other from across the street, with the neighbours looking on.
I guess my obstinacy, combined with our daughter’s crying and pleading, had broken her in enough to allow as much.
I think it all started when I caught her cheating on me, seven months into the affair. We were all three living together in my house. She confessed to everything: not only seeing another man, but also her drug addiction, mainly marijuana and coke.
She promised to break it off, said it was the greatest mistake of her life, I was the world to her, and she also started going to rehab, so I let it all go. Things didn’t work out anyway, perhaps unsurprisingly, so a few months later, we amicably separated.
We weren’t married, and we decided we could still raise our girl together without involving the courts or even lawyers. She went to live at her parents’, and our daughter started staying an equal amount of time weekly with each of us.
However, I eventually found out she was on drugs again through my daughter, as she was also using liberally in front of her. I even found their front-yard full of pot rouches.
I reported to the police and hired a lawyer to file for physical custody. As soon as she found out, she was furious, and that’s when my daughter was legally kidnapped for 17 days, until an ‘urgent’ judicial ruling was issued. I was not awarded physical custody. She was. I got visitation rights, pending trial.
My thoughts? There is no justice. One unevidenced lie here, another unfounded allegation there, have a penis dangling between your legs, and that’s enough evidence for the judge to just pass you over for physical custody. A junkie mum is a better primary caregiver than I am. She’s a mother, that’s only natural.
But I was there, every milestone, every step of my daughter’s life, starting from that first ultrasound. Yet that all counts for shit.
What I hope for? Real scrutiny of the situation, a sound look at things, an objective, impartial look at the evidence. A sound evaluation.
For them not to drag things out so long, indefinitely; the actual proceedings haven’t even started yet. It’s been eight months. I tried everything. Everybody says the same thing: wait. Wait.
Waiting means waiting until my daughter grows older. Waiting means having her grow away from me during her formative years. Waiting means being denied my right to fully participate in her childhood, my right to my family.
I hope I am proven wrong, but I don’t have that much hope. The courts simply don’t care, the courts enable the abuser, the wrongdoer. I have barely started, and I already feel old, shattered, abused. All my savings are pouring out by the minute. The life I built for myself and my daughter has been shattered.
I’m sorry I sound bitter, but I am.
Ever heard a judge or lawyer say they’re seeking out the best interest of the child?
Crock of shit. The best interest of the mother comes first and foremost.