There are few people more embittered than parents who lose custody of their children. "That's why there are metal detectors at the courthouse," observes lawyer Thomas Jurney. "It's not for the criminals--it's for the divorce cases."
In this emotionally charged arena, a Portland nonprofit called Dads Against Discrimination has provided support and counseling for fathers in custody battles since 1977. Currently situated in an office on the same downtown block as Borders Books, it operates from a militant viewpoint that family-law courts are hopelessly--and wrongfully--biased in favor of mothers.
Each year, the group fields calls from thousands of fathers. Given the high emotions, it's not surprising that sometimes the counseling goes a bit too far. Last month the Oregon State Bar, which is charged with policing lawyers, slapped the group with a $2,000 judgment for illegally practicing law without a license and obtained a permanent injunction against the group. It was the third time the group has been dinged for giving legal advice without a law degree--and it may now be headed for a fourth.
DADS is now enmeshed in a leadership rift, and Secretary-Treasurer Bill Prout is claiming the group has continued to practice law without a license. In addition to notifying the bar, he's also filed a complaint with the state attorney general.
Prout tells a harrowing tale in which he spent several weeks in the organization's dingy low-rent office on Southwest 3rd Avenue, trying to put the organization's affairs in order--sometimes with nothing to eat except packets of cold, dry Top Ramen.
Eventually, Prout says, the group's president, Brian R. Brown, ejected him from the office for questioning his management style. Brown says he 86ed Prout for pocketing a "small amount" of money.
"It's kind of a weird scenario," says Rick Scheets, a founder of Kids Need Both Parents, a similar group also based in Portland, who attended a recent meeting with Prout and Brown. "If I had to make a judgement on [supporting] either one of the parties," he added, "I would have to go with Bill."
Last month's bar injunction was based on the complaint of a divorced father named Don Taylor. According to the bar investigation, Taylor received legal advice from the group's then-president, Victor Smith. That advice, bar records show, resulted in Taylor being fined by a judge for filing a frivolous lawsuit. In addition, the bar report suggests that Smith's advice may have cost Taylor visitation rights with his daughter.
In June, the group agreed to a permanent injunction against providing legal advice. By this time Smith had stepped down, leaving Brown in charge. Brown was a signatory to the settlement.
A month later, Prout told a bar enforcement lawyer that Brown was charging walk-in fathers $150 to fill out divorce forms and "screwed up" a case involving a Vancouver, Wash., father. Prout also contended Brown is not giving his clients receipts and not depositing the money in the nonprofit's bank account. In fact, Prout, who is still the group's nominal treasurer, says the nonprofit has no bank account.
"People need protection from what's going on in that office now," says Prout. "If DADS goes away, it will be a really sad thing--but it's preferable to what's going on in there right now."
Brown denies Prout's allegations, noting that he just signed a promise not to give legal advice. "Practicing law without a license would be pretty damned stupid, wouldn't it?" he says.
But Brown admitted to one claim that Prout made to WW: that he does advise fathers to take legal steps to avoid appearing before Judge Merri Souther Wyatt, who he contends is the worst example of the family-law court's bias against men. (Wyatt presided over Brown's unsuccessful custody battle in 1999).
In addition to their battles in family court, both men have criminal experiences as well. Prout was twice jailed for allegedly violating a restraining order filed by his ex-wife (both cases were dismissed). Brown was convicted of a felony in 1992 for possession of cocaine, according to court records. "I was young and wild and stupid," says Brown, who was 32 at the time.
Jurney, who sits on the bar committee that examines unauthorized practice of law enforcement, says the bar will try to get the bottom of Prout's allegations. "We are probably going to go forward with an action," he said.
Whatever happens with the bar, but clear that demand for DADS' services won't go away. Earlier this year, a bar investigator called the group, only to get an earful of angry rhetoric from a volunteer. The investigator reported being told that "there were 30,000 to 40,000 men out there who were very pissed off. There weren't enough cops in the world to stop them."
The run-in with the bar last month was the second time DADS violated a court order barring such actions, signed in 1994.
The Oregon nonprofit is one of 11 DADS groups operating in 10 states and Canada.