Tony Bickel considers himself one of the lucky ones. After his marriage of 14 years ended in 1997, he secured 45 percent custody of his two daughters, an arrangement he realized not many fathers were afforded.
“Thanks to the internet I was able to immediately determine my rights and exercise them without the assistance of an attorney,” Bickel said. “But by 1999 I had come into contact with a great number of fathers that had not enjoyed the relationship and time with their children that I had with mine. While I had to fight at times to have my rights enforced, I became aware of other fathers’ plights that were much worse than mine.”
Looking to support those struggling with custody, Bickel joined Wisconsin Fathers for Children and Families, a nonprofit organization founded in 1987 and based in Madison that promotes joint custody arrangements and giving fathers equal input in their children’s lives.
Bickel now serves as president, treasurer and database administrator. The volunteer-run organization has seven additional board members and more than 1,000 members statewide.
“We are a group of men and women working to assure that children have the benefit of both parents in their lives ... the best parent is both parents,” Bickel said. “We help people going through divorce or relationship breakups secure significant time with their children.”
The group provides support and services to about 50 people a month through its email help line, ALL-DADS telephone hotline, Facebook page and Father’s Night Out meetings, which take place monthly in six locations throughout the state. A new chapter is being added to La Crosse this month. Bickel, who lives in Madison, will be on hand to conduct the first of the area meetings, being held the second Thursday of the month at Shenanigans.
“Father’s Night Out is a huge help for many people, offering face-to-face discussions of issues surrounding custody, placement, support and other problems,” Bickel said. “People listen and share their past experiences to help others get through an often very emotionally trying time in one’s life. We are not lawyers and cannot give you legal advice, but we can give you support and tell you how to work through the situation.”
Meetings often feature guest speakers and information about custody courts and legislative remedies. The organization sends out a quarterly newsletter to members, judges and commissioners.
“The family court system often refers fathers to us,” Bickel said. “They know we are out there and that we are trying to help willing and able fathers be parents to their children.”
The organization has complied statistics in favor of joint custody, showing children raised by both parents have lower suicide, drug or alcohol and crime rates, higher academic scores and higher self-esteem. A 2015 study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health found children living in nuclear households or dividing time between two parents had significantly fewer psychosomatic problems.
Bickel, who is remarried and has a stepdaughter as well, says his joint custody arrangement was integral to the well-being of himself and his daughters, now 28 and 30 years old, citing an article his daughter Amanda wrote for the WFCF newsletter:
“Thankfully, because of many people pushing for and demanding equal placement and custody, I was able to benefit from being raised equally by both of my parents,” Amanda said. “Some feel that shuffling equally between two homes creates too much instability in the child’s already fragile life post-divorce or -split. The benefits of being able to experience the different styles of love, upbringing and support from both my parents greatly outweighed this inconvenience in my life.”