The picture taken from a 2009 investigation by the Eurispes social studies institute has fuelled debate about the size of the 'fleeced fathers' phenomenon. The family breakdown rate in Italy is lower than in other European countries such as Lithuania, Latvia, Czech Republic as well as France and Spain, but around 400, 000 people are involved per year. The trend has been escalating since 2000, following a relatively quiet period after the first boom which followed the introduction of the divorce law in Italy in 1972.
Where minors are involved, it’s the general practice of Italian justice to award custody to the mother; this happens in 67.1% of cases against 28% of sentences in which dual custody is awarded. The custom has important economic consequences. First of all, the father has to leave and is then burdened with cost of additional rent. In 24.9% of cases, an average monthly payment of 498.19 euros (£431) also has to be made, in 97.9% of cases by the husband. If you take child maintenance into account, this amounts to around another 445 euros (£385). In 94% of cases, this is paid by the father.
Divorced fathers on support wayside
With this premise, it’s not surprising to find an emergent new class of 'the poor' in Italian newspapers. Divorced or separated fathers are forced to sleep in their cars and are seen in meal kitchens often run by religious organisations; they can’t even rely on help from an organised social structure because public assistance is limited to sporadic local initiatives of local administrations, as has happened in Rome, Milan and Bolzano.
'Current legislation regarding child custody is good, all in all,' says Alessandro Ciardiello, president of the group Papà Separati('Separated Dads'). 'But there’s an enormous cultural resistance on part of the judiciary to apply it.' The difficulty in putting the principle of dual custody into practice is the biggest clue as to how the father is relegated to a role of secondary importance after the family nucleus has split. It is but a short step from here to his position on the margins of society; most men who fall into this trap are workers on a fixed income. Ciardiello’s battle to overturn this state of affairs started in the mid nineties with the emergence of the world wide web. 'Around ten years ago father’s groups were mostly local and disconnected from each other,' he recalls. 'However, the use of the internet has allowed the creation of a network which has given visibility and forcefulness to the movement.'
Separated fathers: north versus south Europe
'The situation in Italy is very similar to the one in Spain,' observes Alessio Cardinale of Adiantum, a Gorizia-based society for the protection of minors. 'There's the added aggravation that the fathers very often live quite far from their original towns or cities, and therefore can’t count on a family network for help.' The situation is different in France and in Scandinavian countries, where the principle of dual custody is now part of mainstream culture. 'In northern countries the house can be left to the child, with parents alternating a week each,' says Cardinale. 'This different approach also has a different impact on the economic condition of the ex-couple; it’s less devastating on the father, and the opposite of what happens here.'
Dual custody is mainstream in the northern European countries
Italy is victim to a culture which experiences the prevalence of the maternal role and which doesn’t take into account the major social role invested by women outside of the home, nor of the major educative role practised by fathers in the family. It's an old-fashioned view which is supported by the church, which finds its stronghold in the judiciary against the defenders of separated fathers. The church has pushed Adiantum into launching a class action against the ministry of justice for their failure to address the enforcement of the law on dual custody introduced in 2006. 'We are prepared to go beyond Italy and appeals to the European court of human rights,' a belligerent Cardinale concludes.