Rhondall Feeles’ foray into social activism stemmed from a heart-wrenching personal experience. His first son was born into a broken relationship, and the custody battle that followed left him feeling disadvantaged purely because he was a man. He was not alone: many single, widowed and divorced fathers wanted nothing more than to play an active role in their children’s lives, but felt that the court system, government ministries, and even public opinion, weighed so heavily in favour of mothers that they were not given a fair chance. Thus, the Single Fathers Association of Trinidad and Tobago was born.
His own family situation with his son and the child’s mother is much improved now, and he has since become father to another son. What he has learned from this experience, and from supporting so many other men in similar situations, is that whatever the state of the relationship, the welfare of the child comes first. “However you feel towards your ex-partner, that is the child’s mother or father. We need to respect the fact that the child has a relationship with the other parent. We must form partnerships to parent the child.”
Reflecting on his own development as a dad, he says, “It was an amazing experience for me as a man. It brought out another side of me, that nurturing and caring. It even makes it easier for me to express my feelings for a woman.” With over 7,400 Facebook members and 1,000 registered members (including many women), the Single Fathers’ Association has become a recognised force for civil and parental rights.
In recent years, many partners have recognised their value and come on board. They recently completed a project with the Emancipation Support Committee and the European Union, called Empowering Single Fatherhood in Trinidad and Tobago. That project saw them forming a multi-sectorial committee with involvement from National Family Services, the Office of the Prime Minister, the Children’s Authority and the Citizens’ Security Programme, led by Gregory Sloane-Seale.
Among their chief concerns is examining current legislation and government policies. They have identified key areas that require addressing at the highest levels. For example, unmarried fathers are currently ineligible to apply for joint custody of their children, a situation which Feeles finds outrageous. “That affects our constitutional rights,” he points out. Equally distressing is the fact that, even though there is no law barring single fathers from applying for public assistance or government housing for their children, they are significantly less successful than mothers in the same circumstances. The assumption is that the man, as the “head of the home”, is expected to provide for his children.
He’s happy to note that this systemic bias has been brought to the attention of the Minister, the Honourable Cherrie-Ann Crichlow-Cockburn, and she is seeking to address this. “We were the first group to highlight the dangers of parental abduction,” he says. “We partner with a group called the iStand Parent Network based in the United States, to assist in the recovery of children who have been abducted by a parent into or out of Trinidad.”Their efforts are supported by the fact that Trinidad and Tobago are signatory to the Hague Abduction Convention, which treats with parental and family abductions. The Association is also trying to make headway with this matter throughout the region, since abducted nationals are frequently taken to other Caribbean territories.
They do not, however, ignore the challenges faced by young people within their own communities, and have worked closely with the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service (TTPS) and community groups such as the Chaguanas-based Ryu Dan Dojo and the Dass Trace Youth Empowerment Committee to engage young people who might otherwise be seduced by gangs. These efforts have taken on a life of their own, he notes, and no longer need much support from the Association. “That’s such a blessing to witness,” he says with an air of satisfaction. The next project in that vein will be the formation of the Central Division Multi-Sectoral Education Committee, which will focus on violence in schools.
Looking back, he is amazed at how far the scope of the Association’s activities have grown. “I thought the focus would be helping men who are having problems gaining access to their children, but there’s so much more. It’s hurtful to me to know our society is in such a devastated state.” He even felt driven to attain a Bachelor of Law degree, not just for himself but to support him in his quest.
“I advocate more for the children than the parents,” he clarifies. “People have embraced us, understanding what we are trying to do.” There is also an app bearing their name available on Google Play Store, which points people in need of support in the right direction. And in July, the group intends to renew their registration drive, looking for more active and involved members. “We just don’t have enough members to deal with the number of men and women who come to us broken and hurt. It is frightening the number of people who come to us in dire need of help. SFATT alone is not enough. We need to shelve our biases and agendas and find a way to work together if we truly want to see change in Trinidad and Tobago.” To join, get help, or offer your services, find the Single Fathers Association of Trinidad and Tobago on Facebook.