Fathers Have Rights.
The couple met, Jankowski says, when a friend of his traveled to the Ukraine and married Nikitina’s sister. His friend introduced the pair, and Nikitina emigrated to the States in 1998. They married a year later and went on to have two children together.
In the beginning, Jankowski said his mother liked Nikitina. “They had their moments, but so long as they had some space in their relationship, they were able to get along and be sociable.”
By 2005, Nikitina had filed for divorce. “It was Tanya’s decision to move out,” Jankowski said, “Her comment to me was, ‘I just want to try it on my own.’ There was no real reason—no infidelity, abuse, drugs or gambling.”
Post-divorce, Nikitina’s life was bleak, explains her sister, Anna, who lives in Florida and asked that her last name not be used in this story. “She kept getting small jobs, temporary ones, because of her two small kids. She went to electrician school and got an electrician license. She was trying so hard, but it was almost impossible.” While she holds a master’s degree in education from the Ukraine, she was underemployed in the United States. Anna says she often sent money to help Nikitina, who initially survived by living in public housing. “It was always a struggle,” she said, “and I hated to see her kids suffer—they are innocent children.”
Yet Anna adds that Nikitina was rising above her difficult situation. “After two years, she blossomed like a flower, from a person who was financially struggling and lonely to a person who was confident, had a good job and was respected by the community. She moved out of public housing and was paying rent on her own little house.”
She adds that while Jankowski initially received partial custody, and Nikitina “received very little child support,” after the judge saw what she had accomplished, he gave her complete physical custody along with more child support.
Jankowski agrees the conflict over custody was significant. He says he and Nikitina originally agreed to a 50-50 custody arrangement, where each would have the children on alternate weeks. Hernandez thinks that, for Jankowski, the 50-50 arrangement meant each parent would pay half of the children’s expenses and neither would pay child support.
On July 29, 2009, Jankowski posted a comment about the importance of fathers’ rights in custody on MeetUp.com, a Website for Utah fathers’ rights. “For those who are serious about the issues that confront active fathers regarding custody and visitation in the state of Utah, there needs to be a more active forum of truly interested individuals. Action needs to be taken to protect the position fathers hold within their children’s lives,” Jankowski writes. “We cannot afford to be marginalized by mothers with their own agendas, attorneys seeking personal gain over the best interest of the children, and state legislators who are out of touch with the consequences of the laws that they pass. Let’s get this organized.”
He says that his strong feelings about custody arose from growing up in a single-parent home where his father wasn’t active in his life because his mother had full custody. Jankowski grew up the youngest of six children born in a seven and a half year period. He doesn’t really remember his parents being together. “For a little while, bits and pieces, then, it was either my mom or my dad [taking care of me].” He recalls his dad, who now lives in Wisconsin, being active in his life between 1967 and 1968 and in 1971.
“Typically, back then, the courts gave the mother full custody, and the father received some form of visitation,” Jankowski said. “My dad was more than willing to make sure us kids were taken care of [financially], but he was not able to be, and wasn’t considered to be, an equal participant. A lot of the fathers in Utah are relegated to the position of a visitor, having their children one night a week and so many days on the weekend. I didn’t want someone taking away my opportunity to be responsible for my children.”
He believes Nikitina changed her mind about their original 50-50 agreement and eventually sought and received full custody. “Through whatever channels were available at the time—whether it was the legal system or attorney—the original perception changed.”
Jankowski feels many fathers share his financial frustrations with typical custody arrangements. “When you are given strictly visitation and another party has full custody, yet you are required to pay the bill for the majority of those expenses and also deprived of the opportunity to be actively involved, it is the worst of both worlds,” he says.
Who Has Control.
In fall 2005, the couple went through hearings and mediation. “Nothing came of the mediation,” says Jankowski. “We also ‘bifurcated’ to the divorce—indicating that while we were divorced, we understood that some matters were still disputed. I had no problems with paying child support to support the welfare of my kids. ... I was devastated by the fact that I was relegated to the visitor position. ... If my ex wife married someone whose ideas I didn’t agree with, he would have more influence with my child than I did,” Jankowski said.
Within their conflict, Jankowski says that he and Nikitina each called the police on several occasions. He says that the first of two protective orders she filed was dismissed. On another occasion, he says he called her from the rec-center parking lot where they planned to exchange the children at 1:45 p.m. After several calls with no response, he says Nikitina answered, saying her car was not working. He then drove to her apartment and arrived at 2:03 p.m. He says she accused him of being late.
“I lost my temper after having used a bad name I shouldn’t have used,” Jankowski said. “She held out a recorder and said, ‘I have been recording you.’ Attorneys don’t warn you about these entrapment things. She took two steps backward and fell on the bed in her living room. On the tape there was this false, silly-sounding scream. Her story to the police was that I pushed her.”
He says that while he didn’t touch Nikitina, police took photos of red spots on her stomach and gathered evidence. “No charges were ever filed and my ability to be a foster parent was never questioned [Jankowski was also a foster parent at the time]. The burden of proof for a protective order is so low that David Letterman got one against him when a woman said something in his monologue pertained to her.”
Nikitina also accused him of abuse and neglect, he says, to the point where the children were taken to the hospital under police escort. “There were never any findings to support her belief that there was abuse or neglect,” he says. Jankowski currently lives with both his children and two former foster sons over whom he now has guardianship.
Lori Nelson, a local domestic and family-law attorney, says that while parents believe that what they are doing is right for their children, “I don’t believe that they can fairly and completely analyze their own motives. … They are not intentionally trying to hurt their kids, but their behaviors have negative consequences on their children, which is difficult for them to see and accept.”
“Especially when there is abuse involved, custody disputes are challenging and emotionally draining,” says Keri Jones, chief program officer of the YWCA in Salt Lake City. “In our experience with domestic violence, we find that children often become a pawn, where that is the only thing an abusive partner has to control once their spouse has been removed. They will try to control the custody issues or arrangements of the children because that is all that they have left to control.”
Nelson adds that parents often will fight over joint parenting or shared time because it impacts them financially. “They will be so focused on the bottom line that, out of fear, greed or selfishness, their behaviors will have negative consequences.”