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High above London, a father's plea

Stunt closes bridge, opens debate over court custody cases

LONDON -- David Chick is an angry man and, now, a magnet for the anger of others.

Since Friday the 36-year-old father has sat atop a 120-foot crane beside London's Tower Bridge, dressed as Spiderman, in a bid to draw attention to the plight of fathers denied access to children.

Police say he is a safety hazard and have closed the bridge, a busy traffic route across the River Thames. The area around the bridge now buzzes with irate drivers, puzzled tourists, and a knot of angry men who say Britain's legal system is cutting thousands of fathers off from their children.

"Hats off to the man," said Charlie Harrison, a divorced father of one who stopped to view the scene yesterday. "It's the only way. Parents and kids are suffering, but no one's listening."

Chick's solo protest is backed by Fathers 4 Justice, a group that has drawn attention to the issue of fathers' rights with a series of high-profile stunts.

Last year, 200 supporters dressed as Santa Claus staged a sit-in at a judicial office. Last month, two members dressed as Batman and Robin scaled London's High Court building.

The group said that courts overwhelmingly award mothers sole custody of children after a divorce and that little is done to enforce court orders granting fathers contact with the children.

The Lord Chancellor's Department, which oversees courts in England and Wales, said mothers win custody in about four-fifths of cases. It said officials are looking into ways to make the custody system faster and less adversarial, including mediation for divorcing parents before they get to court.

Fathers 4 Justice has a celebrity supporter in rock star and Live Aid founder Bob Geldof, who battled for custody of his three children with former partner Paula Yates and who has spoken out in favor of greater custody rights for fathers. Yates died of a drug overdose in 2000.

Chick's protest has tapped into a vein of anger and hurt felt by fathers who have lost contact with their children. The area around Tower Bridge draws men who say they have not seen their children in several years and who resent a legal system they believe is biased in favor of women.

"It's like a ritual humiliation," said Harrison, 45, who said he has not seen his 12-year-old daughter in two years. "You're taken into court, stripped absolutely bare.

"Things like this will change things," he said, gesturing at the crane. "Going through the courts, I'll just come out another casualty."

Chick's protest has meant more disruption for commuters and residents around Tower Bridge, who faced crowds and traffic delays during magician David Blaine's recent 44-day self-imposed fast in an elevated plastic box beside the Thames.

London Mayor Ken Livingstone, whose office overlooks the bridge, said Chick "is amply demonstrating that women do not feel they always want their partners to have access to their children. He is a man who is putting his own life at risk, police officers at risk, other Londoners who may be passing along the road at risk."

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