Massachusetts Dad Reunited with his Son after Two Years

Richard Rodriguez and Son

Just yesterday, I posted a piece about an Irish single father who lost his three children when their mother absconded with them to England. Under current Irish law, he, as a single father, has no parental rights, while she, as a single mother has complete parental rights. So when she took the children, she did no legal wrong and he has no legal recourse. Tough luck, dad.

Now there’s this case in the United States (WNYT, 4/29/10). I wrote a piece about it last September here. Two years ago, Tina Helfer, the partner of Massachusetts single dad Richard Rodriguez, took their son, Richard Jr., and disappeared. Rodriguez always thought she was in Kansas, because he discovered she had an internet boyfriend there. But he didn’t know where. Two days ago, Ricky was found and now he’s finally back home with his dad.

Richard Rodriguez described the first moments after he and his son reunited after more than two years.

“He immediately jumped up, ran right to me, started crying. Very touching, emotional moment,” he said.

It’s hard to call a man who’s lost his child for two years ‘lucky,’ but that’s what Richard Rodriguez is. That’s because, (a) he found a dedicated fathers’ rights attorney in Rinaldo Del Gallo and (b) his son’s mother didn’t show up for the custody hearing that Del Gallo obtained in February of 2008. Of course, since she had abducted the child, it’s no surprise that she didn’t return to the Bay State to contest the custody hearing. But because she didn’t show, the judge had no choice but to grant Rodriguez custody of his son. If she had, Rodriguez would have had little chance of success.

When the boy went missing, Rodriguez says he was shocked to learn that because he wasn’t married to his son’s mother, she technically had custody.

Again, single mothers have parental rights automatically; single fathers have zilch.

But after the hearing, it took an outrageous 17 months for the judge to issue his order of custody. Why it took that long to issue a simple custody order is anyone’s guess.

But once armed with the order, Del Gallo immediately set to work trying to get the boy’s name placed on the state’s Missing Child Registry. Incredibly, the police refused to do so, despite the fact that Rodriguez had a court order establishing him as the sole custodian of his son. Del Gallo fought with the police and DA’s office for months trying to get them to do what the law plainly required them to do – list as missing a missing child.

Finally Jennifer Smith, the wife of Rodriguez’ foster brother, took the bull by the horns. She sent fliers with Richard Jr.’s photo to every elementary school in Kansas. Within days, they knew the whereabouts of the boy and he was on his way home.

Is that the end of the story? Few people think so.

Rodriguez said he expects the mother, Tina Helfer, won’t give up.

“I’m sure she’s gonna try to come and get him back. All I want is make sure that he stays in my life,” he said.

And Helfer? Will there be any consequences to her for her apparent act of parental kidnapping?

Berkshire County District Attorney David Capeless said the Helfer won’t be charged in this case, because when she left Massachusetts with the boy two years ago, she didn’t technically break any laws.

So there you have it. Again, as in Ireland, a single father has no parental rights simply due to the fact of his parenthood, but with a little luck and a good lawyer, he can still get custody. In Ireland, he can’t.

But in Ireland, there’s a bill before Parliament to give single fathers parental rights automatically at birth. There should be such a bill before every state legislature in this country, and they should be enacted into law.

Some 40% of children in this country are born out of wedlock. That means about 1.6 million children are at risk for losing their fathers, and a similar number of fathers are at risk for losing their children. If nonmarital childbearing is to be culturally acceptable – and it has been becoming more and more so for roughly the past four decades – then acceptance of the equal rights of single fathers must come as part of the package. If the stigma of nonmarital childbearing should be removed from mothers, the stigma of unmarried paternity should be removed from fathers as well.

Maybe Richard Rodriguez should be men’s Hester Prynne.

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