Six years of bitter struggle between ex-husband and wife ended dramatically, like a scene from the old television serial Divorce Court: The judge ordered the spouse to pay $225 a month in child support payments. The spouse stared in disbelief at the judge and whispered "No, no," then sobbed and collapsed on the defense table.
But unlike the television show, it was the woman, Susan S. Fili of Alexandria, who was ordered to pay support for her two children. Mrs. Fili had given custody of her son, 13, and daughter, 11, to her husband, Richard Dangel of Bethesda, as part of a divorce settlement in 1971.
Dangel left the Alexandria Circuit Courtroom triumphantly this week, offering to buy beer for his friends. To his friends, Dangel was the symbol of a victorious fight for men's equal rights, a movement that is slowly emerging across the country as more and more men form organizations seeking to end alleged discrimination against them in the courts.
Their means and ends are oddly reminiscent of the women's movement, which they gave them impetus for their actions.
"We see nothing wrong with women getting equal pay and rights," said Elliott H. Diamond, head of the Northern Virginia chapter of Fathers United for Equal Rights. "But they should also take what comes with it."
Last month a national group, MEN International which stands for Men's Equality Now, was formed in California to coordinate 86 local groups such as "Fathers United."
"This is an offshoot of the women's movement and legislative protection of equal rights," said New York University law Prof. Henry Foster.
Since 1970, 36 states, including Virginia, Maryland and the District have, revised their divorce laws to give judges the choice of ordering child support payments from one or both parents, regardless of their sex, according to Doris Freed, chairman of the American Bar Association's divorce law and procedure.
But since the laws were passed, few mothers have been ordered by courts to pay for their children's support when the fathers have custody, Freed said. The courts usually say the father is better able to make the payment, Freed said.
"About 45 to 50 per cent of women are in the work force, but I don't think the wife has achieved (economic) parity with the husband," freed said. "We still have all those years of discrimination to make up for."
Jones said in a study he did of 12,819 divorce cases from 1972 to 1975 in Ohio, California, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts, men were granted custody of the children in 804 cases. In only 15 instances were the mothers ordered to provide child support payments, Jones said. He said mothers now pay child support in about 3 per cent of cases where the father has custody of the children.
Diamond said he believes the child support payments granted Dangel constitute the first such decision in Alexandria, although at least one mother has been ordered to make child support payments in each of Fairfax, Arlington and Montgomery counties and the District. No national statistics are available on the number of women making child support payments.
In Dangel's case, Judge Donald H. Kent said, "It is the duty and obligation on the part of the wife to support the children . . ." He said that an improvement in Mrs. Fili's financial status and the added expenses of the Dangel children since the divorce prompted his decision.
Since the 1971 divorce, Mrs. Fili's salary increased from $6,000 to $27,000. She said she has a GS-13 Civil Service rating and is a public affairs officer for the Naval Sea Systems Command in Arlington. Dangel, who has a GS-14 rating and is an engineer with the same agency, now earns $33,000 a year to the $17,000 at the time of the divorce, he said.
During the two-hour court hearing, Dangel and Mrs. Fili testified about their respective abilities to pay child support and their contributions, financial and otherwise, to the children.
"I feel, contrary to (Mrs. Fili), the children are not living in affluence and neither am I," Dangel testified. "I make no claims that there are necessitous circumstances, but other children in the neighborhood have more than they do."
Mrs. Fili testified that if her children were in need she would support them and that she contributed financially to her children's care during the divorce settlement.
"If the circumstances of their sexes were reversed, the court today would without hesitation, order Mr. Dangel to pay for the children," said Dangel's lawyer B. VanDenburg Hall. "The court wouldn't hesitate five seconds."
Mrs. Fili's attorney, John M. Wells, said Dangel would try to use the money for himself as alimony.
"You could send two kids to Harvard and have money left over" with the $14,000 Dangel said it costs annually, to support the two children, Wells said. He contended that payments from Mrs. Fili would "contribute so that the standard of living of the Dangels will go up."
Wells said he will appeal Kent's decision.