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Think Local

It's a heart-warming scene: a young father teaching his young son to play football in the park collapsing into giggles as they fall onto the grass. After a while the father lifts his son onto his shoulders before heading home to make him dinner, followed by a warm bubble bath, fresh nappy and a bottle of milk. Maybe dad will lovingly read his son a story, giving him a kiss goodnight before closing the bedroom door.

   Sadly, for local father Matt Costello and many fathers on the Northern beaches, this loving image is just a pipe dream, as he is just one of the many fathers who are being kept - hopefully Just temporarily - apart from their children.

   Due to a family breakdown following a split from his partner of five years last June, Mr Costello, a volunteer firefighter with the NSW Rural Fire Service, has only seen his 18-month-old son, four times since November 2015. He hasn't seen his two stepchildren, aged eight and six, since October.

    In the Immediate aftermath of the relationship breakdown, Mr Costello, 32, was still going to the family home twice a day, five days a week to help the children get ready for school and other daily activities. However, he claims his estranged partner cut his access down to two days a week in September and in November he was devastated to receive an email stating that, due to an alleged background of family violence, there would be no more access to his son.

    "There hasn't been any violence," he says sadly. "Every avenue of our lives is governed by consequence and action, but in our society, even if labels aren't true they seem to stick.

   "It's like legalised kidnapping. If I was to go to her house and take my son from her arms, I'd be arrested. They've moved and I don't even know where they are, which really hurts. She's got family in America and I've often wondered if she's just going to pack a bag one day and move over there."

   As a result Mr Costello, who lives in Beacon Hill, "did a lot of soul-searching" and in January set up a Facebook group to help other fathers in the same situation called Dads-A-Part. There are currently 65 fathers from the northern beaches in the group and as well as offering 24/7 support, they often meet up for bike rides or other activities.

   "It's hard for men to open up," he adds "but that's what the group is for, to reach out and be embraced. I thought "there's got to be people who are going through a similar situation to me' - but there is a distinct lack of men's support groups in general and the ones that are there are only open during office hours. With Dads-A-Part, there is always someone there."

   As well as five admins who work on a rota 24/7, there are also a couple of trained counsellors amongst the membership, and Mr Costello says as well as organising get-togethers, they post links to the Legal Aid NSW website and up-to-date judgements and rulings of similar cases both nationally and internationally to encourage some positivity towards the situation.

   Most of the group's discussions focus around parental alienation and allegations of violence, which Mr Costello says, in his case, is false, adding, But until we can get to court and this allegation of violence is dismissed - and we can get temporary or final orders - the mothers can say and do as they please."

If the cases go to trial and the allegations of violence prove to be insignificant showing there's no history of family violence or aggression and it's removed, there is no consequence to the person who originally made the allegation, which Mr Costello believes is unfair.

    "We just don't understand why we're so easily thrown out of their lives," he explains, "and the hardest part is, it's legal. If it was the other way around, and It was the mother being withheld, there would be a huge outcry and more help on offer.

"That's what's so frustrating. We just have to stand by and watch it happen. Yet if we get upset frustrated or angry we're labelled 'dangerous' or 'unstable'. We're always behind the eight-ball.

   Mr Costello says he has only seen his son four times since November 2015, with visits supervised by his ex-partner. They were supposed to meet in March to talk about unsupervised access but he says she cancelled at the last minute. However, he remains hopeful saying, "Ideally I'd like to be able to have my son sleepover, and to be able to do all the usual things that a dad does; change his nappy, help him when his teeth are coming through, hear his first words, see his first steps.

   "Unfortunately I can't be there every day, so I might not hear his first words. But the next time I see him he may say something else. I may have missed his first steps, but maybe I can be the one that teaches him to ride his bike."

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