Jeffery Leving
comes across in person as low-key, almost self-effacing. There’s a kind of gentle unobtrusiveness in his manner–as if he would go to great lengths not to offend. You will find none of the abrasive, state-your-business-because-time-is-money manner typical of high-powered attorneys. Nor will you find indications of the neater-than-thou sterility of great corporate law offices at Leving’s headquarters near Madison and Clark. Like the chief proprietor, everything is a bit rumpled, askew, and out in the open. Nonetheless, this soft-spoken, 38-year-old man with a receding hairline, tired eyes, and an expansive mustache tirelessly promotes his law firm through ads and news releases, has appeared on dozens of radio and television shows, and is involved in a multimillion-dollar suit against Geraldo Rivera.

“I’m getting worn out by all this,” he confesses, taking off his suit coat and loosening his tie. “I’m under pressure all day, so I go home and eat a lot more than I need.” He tugs at his belt, which could be let out a notch or two, and points to the floor around his desk, which is awash in files, folders, and cardboard boxes. “See that box over there?” he says. “That’s just one case that’s dragged on and on. You know, I’ll probably have a heart attack before I’m 40.”

Leving sits at his desk, cancels his calls, and talks calmly yet intensely about his nearly obsessive concern for that misunderstood and mistreated victim of the late 20th century, the American male: the divorced or separated American male, to be precise–especially those who are determined to have a continuing influence on their children’s lives.

Leving and the five other attorneys in his firm concentrate on divorce and custody cases. And 99 percent of their customers are men. The firm’s rates are higher than those of most divorce attorneys. From his clients Leving usually requires a $1,500 initial retainer, against which he charges $200 per hour of office work and $250 per courtroom hour. In a simple divorce (a rare creature indeed) the retainer just about covers the bill; with complicated entanglements lasting years, like the one in the box on the floor, the bill can soar to $20,000 or more. Such a hefty rate is justified, says Leving, because he and his colleagues in the firm (three women and one other man) are rare specialists. Leving believes he is battling for civil rights in a hostile society that grants those rights grudgingly if at all.

Leving is a cowriter of the Illinois Joint Custody bill, which allows a judge, after granting a divorce, to assign equal responsibility to both parents for the raising of their children. And he is credited with generating much of the pressure that got the bill passed through the General Assembly in 1985. Today Leving is an advocate of other initiatives that are far from universally popular: the rights of grandparents to maintain close contact with their grandchildren even when a parent is opposed; the right of a male parent to have a say in his partner’s decision regarding an abortion; the need for the legal system to punish, by fines or prison, mothers who deny child visitation to their former husbands.

Leving doesn’t dispute that there are plenty of victimized mothers out there, and deadbeat ex-husbands. But, he insists, he is an opponent of the “old situation,” which exaggerated the “unique and indispensable” role of the woman as nurturer and homemaker, even as it demeaned women’s capabilities in almost every other area of human endeavor.

His colleagues in the firm march to a similar tune. Janice Johnston was a successful matrimonial lawyer in McHenry County and taught women’s studies at the University of Hawaii before joining Leving. “There’s no doubt the court system today is prowoman,” she says. “Men are clearly the underdogs in custody cases.”

Johnston, a peppy, outgoing woman of 53, who wears large glasses and rugged-looking boots (“I’m ready for combat”), says she chooses to specialize in representing fathers because she is a feminist–“and until fathers are able to take equal responsibility for parenting their children, how can women fulfill themselves?” What’s needed, she insists, is cooperation, and the system makes cooperation unlikely if not impossible.

“I have heard so many poignant stories from heartbroken fathers who are shut out of their kids’ lives,” she says. “It’s very sad.”

She discusses a recent difficult case in which she fought successfully for a father’s joint custody of the children. “I know the father,” she says, “and personally I think he’s a schmuck. But he’s their father, and those kids need their father.”

In their book Mothers Without Custody, sociologists Geoffrey Greif and Mary Pabst discuss the image of woman as victim–a pervasive image in the Western world: “It appears in the ongoing threat to women of being raped. It appears . . . when an abused wife feels that she has no choice but to stay in a marriage because she perceives life without the income or protection of a husband as the harsher of two evils. It appears when women are held to a higher standard of appearance than men and when being attractive is linked more closely with success in the work or social world for men than for women. It appears in the workplace itself, where men dominate the administrative structures of most large corporations . . .” But, note the authors, the one preserve of life in which women have always remained sovereign is parenting. “Their relationship with their children is seen as more important than the father’s. . . . There is greater pressure for them to be full-time mothers.” In this segment of life, say Greif and Pabst, “men are the victims. . . . Their involvement with their children is often blocked by the same pressure that pushes women into the primary parenting role.”

Nowhere does men’s second-class status as parents appear more openly, in Leving’s view, than in the matter of child visitation. Since, until very recently, mothers got custody in better than 90 percent of divorce settlements, it’s the father who is usually on the outside knocking–seeking his Saturday afternoon or summer vacation with the kids. “When I got into this business, I kept hearing the same story,” says Leving: “‘I love my children, but she won’t allow contact or she’ll put up some weird conditions that make visiting impossible!’ Now, if the father is delinquent on child support, the mother can complain to the state’s attorney’s office and they are obligated by law to investigate and prosecute. And they do, they do! But if a mother denies visitation, nothing happens. Sure, the father can hire a private attorney and try to take her to court, but it’s an uphill battle.”

What we have in Illinois and every other state, says Leving, is “an implied public policy that says child support–money–is more important than a father’s contact with his kids. A mother with custody, even if she’s a millionaire, is granted a free, tax-supported attorney to press her rights, while a [noncustodial] father, even if he’s indigent, must find some way to afford legal help.” In some quarters, the bias against noncustodial parents–usually the father–is explicit. President Reagan’s Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork said it this way in one of his appellate opinions: “There is no substantive right to so tenuous a relationship as visitation by a non-custodial parent. . . . I cannot agree that the Constitution of its own force establishes any such right for a non-custodial parent.”

Theoretically, of course, the law’s inequity has no sex bias. A father with custody has the same right to free assistance from the state’s attorney if the mother reneges on child support. However, notes Leving, the courts invariably take a softer approach with a delinquent mother, since society says support is, after all, basically the man’s job; if a mother is not paying, there’s an assumption that she can’t help it. Besides, a study of noncustodial mothers published in 1988 found that the overwhelming majority were not required by courts to pay any child support.

Dr. Robert Fay, a leader of the National Congress of Men and a longtime Leving admirer, says the standard of visitation rights in American society is “outrageous and blatantly sexist.” Fay is an Albany, New York, pediatrician who is as acerbic in his comments as Leving is reserved. The very term visitation is “foul and disgusting,” he says. “A visitor is, by definition, an outsider. He has no concern for the educational, medical, or other needs of a child. And that’s just how visitation is understood. I say fathers don’t need or want visitation time; they need parenting time!”

Fay sees an undeniable correspondence between fathers’ failing in child support and mothers’ denial of visitation. “They talk about the feminization of poverty,” he says. “What about the emasculation of child loss? Does anyone figure into the equation what a devastating thing it is to be deprived of your children? No financial figures can capture the pain of separation. When access to your children is as important in society as sending a check every month, I predict fathers will pay!”

The popular image of the deadbeat father and the long-suffering, custodial mother is supported by U.S. Census Bureau statistics, which indicate that women after divorce suffer on the average a 42 percent decline in their standard of living, while men experience an immediate 73 percent boost. Another study found that only 50 percent of noncustodial fathers pay full child support, while 25 percent pay some, and the rest pay nothing. Both Fay and Leving dispute the figures, which were based largely on interviews with indigent women. Leving cites a study by the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., which double-checked fathers’ payment records and found that mothers underreported the amounts they received by as much as 40 percent.

Suppose, says Leving, the divorced father of two children makes $24,000 a year and the custodial mother makes $10,000. By law in Illinois, he must turn over a minimum of 25 percent of his income for child support. This means the mother now gets $16,000 a year ($6,000 of which is tax free), plus the full dependency exemption for her children. The father now has an $18,000 income, although he is paying taxes on $24,000, and he loses his exemptions. So it’s unclear to Leving how divorced fathers are suddenly living high on the hog, while mothers and children are impoverished.

Leving illustrates his charge of inequity by citing the experiences of two recent clients. Paul Smyth (the names of the litigants in this article have been changed), divorced and paying child support, lost contact with his child when his wife suddenly moved with the child from Chicago to Minnesota and just disappeared. Smyth sought their whereabouts for several months, then contacted the state’s attorney’s office, which initiated criminal proceedings against the mother. The judge in the case shifted custody from the mother to Smyth, a technicality under the circumstances. But the move did force her (after several more months) to surface and reveal to the court where she lived. After a period of legal wrangling, Smyth was granted the same visitation rights he had had all along. The warrant against the mother was dropped, the children remained in her custody, and no penalties were assessed. “No question about it,” says Leving. “If the circumstances were reversed–if the father took off like that with the kids–the court would have come down hard.”

In fact, Leving cites the case of George Ford, a Chicago man who had been granted custody of his two children at the time of his divorce. When he moved to Will County from Chicago, he did not immediately inform his ex-wife, who was living in Florida. She went to court, claiming child concealment. The judge saw fit to take the children away from the father and award full custody to the mother. “You can see,” says Leving, “where the presumption of the law lies.”

There were no special extenuating circumstances in either of these instances, he says, no charges of neglect, abuse, or parental drunkenness–only the court’s and society’s entrenched conviction that the child belongs with the mother.

When charges of abuse are involved, especially sex abuse, the stakes and the levels of animosity rise perceptibly. So, says Leving, do all presumptions in favor of the female. Indeed, a mother’s claim that her ex has abused the children sexually as much as constitutes guilt in many people’s minds. “When sex abuse is charged, everything gets tainted,” says Leving. “It’s almost impossible to look at things objectively after that specter is raised.”

From the looks of the courtroom, one would assume that Jeff Fort or some notorious Mafia chieftain is about to go on trial. The waiting area outside is swarming with policemen and bailiffs. Everyone who enters is searched for weapons. Though this is not a criminal court, the high security is an ordinary, daily procedure. This is Branch 95 of the Cook County Circuit Court, Domestic Relations Division–the place where people who once loved each other come to formalize their disillusionment. “Man, we gotta be careful,” says a bailiff, shaking his head. “Folks in here can get real mean!”

The case at hand involves Jim Argos, a tense, macho guy of about 30. Wearing a blue sweat suit, a hooded parka, and running shoes, he looks like he’d feel more at home at a hockey game, where violence need not be suppressed. He is accompanied by his lawyer, Jeff Leving. Argos’s opponent and onetime common-law wife, Nancy Gull, a slim, pretty woman in her late 20s, is attired in slacks, a pink sweater, and snow boots. She has with her a small retinue consisting of her attorney, Richard Varchetto, and six of her relatives who are prepared to narrate the crimes and misdemeanors of Jim Argos. Everyone looks a bit road weary, and well they might. The case has dragged on for more than a year, and Argos has been through at least five lawyers.

The issue at hand is whether Argos should be denied all rights of visitation to his two children, ages six and seven, whom he has seen only once in the past nine months. The judge, Everette Braden, an elderly, somber man, exudes patience and forbearance. With Gull at his side, Varchetto seeks from the judge a ruling on a petition he filed weeks ago. It presents a decidedly unsavory picture of Argos: He is “believed to be involved in illegal activities,” he has “been stabbed eight times,” he was “physically abusive” of Gull, he hasn’t paid child support, he hasn’t obtained medical insurance for the kids. And then the clincher: he has sexually abused the children. Varchetto and his client want a trial right now on the issues; the witnesses are rarin’ to go.

Leving hardly raises his voice. “What we have here your honor,” he says, in a steady monotone, “is a rambling narrative of four different allegations and five different causes of action. My client is believed to be involved in illegal activity. What activity? By who? The plaintiff is fearful. Why? Did he threaten her? Hit her with a stick? There’s nothing here for me to respond to. . . . This must be filed with factual specificity.”

Varchetto maintains that his opponent is just stalling and keeps interrupting Leving’s deliberate delivery.

“You’ll get a chance to respond,” Braden cautions Varchetto. “I can only follow one line of thought at a time.”

The bottom line of Varchetto’s argument is sex abuse. Gull had her children examined at Children’s Memorial Hospital, and though her lawyer says the report was “inconclusive,” he is clearly relying on the dark shadow of possibility.

For the first time, Leving raises his voice: “Children’s Memorial found no abuse, your honor. “I have the report here. . . . This is just game playing by this woman–a ruse to bar him altogether from his children.”

Precisely what the hospital said gets lost in the shuffle as Varchetto attacks from another flank. At a previous hearing, Argos had been given permission by the court to be with his children provided the visit was supervised–that is, an approved party would be with the father and children at all times. Argos had then submitted the names of four candidates to act as supervisor, but they had all declined his invitation. What kind of man is this, Varchetto asks, who can’t even find a buddy to spend a Saturday afternoon with him and his children?

Leving tries to dispel the shadow looming over the proceedings: supervision should not be required, he argues, because the allegations are groundless.

In the end, Judge Braden denies Gull’s petition to bar Argos, but he still insists that if the father is to see his children, he must be accompanied. A charge of sex abuse against small children leaves him, it seems, little room for judicial discretion. He sends both sides to the court’s Family Conciliation Department for mediation, and he sets a date for yet another hearing in 28 days. Braden leaves the bench, and the lawyers mill around with their clients in the back of the courtroom for another 15 minutes.

“Why can’t you just agree on supervised visitation?” Varchetto asks Leving.

“Because,” Leving says coolly, “supervision implies danger! If I allow that, it will be just one more step toward termination of all visits.”

“You’re being stupid and foolish and it’s pissing me off,” says Varchetto.

“No,” replies Leving. “There’s nothing I’d rather do than settle today. This man has hardly seen his kids since last April. He has a right.”

Meanwhile, Argos, who has been silent throughout the hearing, begins stalking around the room, glaring at Gull and her relatives. Both sides are upset because neither got what they wanted.

Soon, Argos and Gull are sniping at one another–from a distance–providing, perhaps, a glimpse of what their home life was like before the couple split.

“Who’s this Lisa?” Gull sneers, referring to one of the people Argos has proposed for the supervised visit. “Does she do drugs too?”

“No!” Argos snaps back. “Do you?” Turning to Varchetto he adds, “I just want her to stop harassing me and keeping me from my children.”

“Ooh!” says Varchetto, “the shit is getting deep.”

As he turns to Gull, Argos’s voice grows louder. “Nancy,” he says, “you don’t want me ever to see my kids!”

“Yes,” she says deliberately, “you are right.” Her steely tone is frightening.

“All right, all right!” says a bailiff, watching from near the bench. “We don’t want no street brawl.”

On the way out, I ask Argos if it’s true he’s not paying any child support. He looks bewildered. “I can’t see my own kids and I should pay support?” he says. “You’re kidding.”

Leving shakes his head. “This is not a real pretty case,” he says. “It’s ones like this that are wearing me down.”

The issue of sexual abuse is so fraught with emotion that it’s almost guaranteed to stop rational discussion. Mutually satisfactory settlements of disputes require the presence of two sincere, reasonably sane people. If one is a child abuser or even suspected of being such, then rationality flies straight out the window. And horror stories like the notorious Washington, D.C., case of Elizabeth Morgan, who went to prison rather than disclose where her allegedly abused daughter was hidden, only stifle further any hope of calm deliberation.

In recent years, the charge has become a kind of nuclear weapon in custody cases: the very threat of an accusation discourages fathers from aggressively seeking their rights. One of Leving’s clients sought joint custody of his two daughters, 8 and 13: “His ex-wife’s attorney came to me and said that if he pressed his demand, she would claim sex abuse. . . . I urged my client not to back down. But he did. He didn’t want to face a psychiatric evaluation and all the publicity that would come.”

In another Leving case, a mother hired a private detective to testify that the father had abused his children. But the detective got rattled on the stand and admitted he had been paid to lie. Unfortunately, adds Leving, the charge, along with the father’s name, had already appeared in the press. No penalties were assessed against the detective or the mother.

Some indication of just how far a sex-abuse charge can go is illustrated by the case of Bert Filter, a 36-year-old, north-suburban computer program analyst, who hired Leving in 1987, some months after he became mired in a legal swamp. Filter had been accused by his son’s mother (to whom Filter was never married) of sexually abusing the three-year-old son. She was determined to prevent visitation, claiming that Filter put pencils in the boy’s rectum, beat him, and tried to involve him in sexual activity with a dog. The boy told social workers that his mother’s accounts were true and more: that “Daddy put a dog’s dingy in my butt,” that his father poked him with a fork, and that his father even threw him out of a second-story window–an experience that had apparently left the boy uninjured.

“It was just crazy,” says Filter. “She had this whole litany of abuse she recited and she had him believing it.”

The mother admitted taking her son to more than 30 doctors seeking a medical confirmation of her charges; none found any indication of abuse. She finally struck gold when she encountered at a west-side clinic a doctor who declared that the boy had indeed been molested and that his father in all probability was the guilty party. Ironically, this doctor made his diagnosis less than a week after another doctor who checked out the boy saw no sign of abuse. And during that period, the mother conceded, Filter had had no contact with his son.

Nevertheless, the findings were deemed sufficient to justify a trial, which climaxed in Leving’s cross-examination of the accusing doctor. “Man, he did a hell of a job!” says Filter. “He hammered away at that doctor for what seemed like hours. I could see he was feeling genuine outrage at what they were trying to do to me.”

Judge Aubrey Kaplan threw the case against Filter out of court before the defense even presented its side. He found, he said, “almost no evidence in this case that rises to the level of true competence.” Filter could visit his son, he ruled. He also determined that all visits must be supervised–but, Kaplan explained, this was necessary not because the child was in any danger but because Bert Filter was in imminent and continuing danger of further charges by the mother.

“I could only say thank God I was vindicated!” says Filter, who had noticed the presence of two assistant state’s attorneys in the courtroom during the trial. If the judge had ruled in favor of the mother, it is likely that criminal charges would have been filed against Filter.

The case has dragged on since then. Last year Filter finally won joint custody of his son, now seven; he will spend weekends and most of the summer with his father–in an unsupervised setting. Meanwhile, the boy’s mother has been diagnosed as having a borderline ambulatory psychosis and is under a court order to seek psychiatric treatment. She is balking at that, says Filter, who is still uncertain how it’s all going to come out. He has been before 18 different judges since the dispute started and estimates he’s spent parts of more than 100 days in court. Filter has since joined an organization called Victims of Child Abuse Laws, which claims phony charges are becoming epidemic.

In fact, there are no authoritative studies on how reliable sex-abuse accusations are and estimates vary wildly. The National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse declares that less than 5 percent of abuse charges are false, but acknowledges that when child custody is involved the percentage is much higher. Even the Encyclopaedia Britannica admits the unreliability of such charges. According to an article by Dr. Domeena Renshaw, director of the Sexual Dysfunction Clinic at the Loyola University Medical School, “It must be kept in mind that children are suggestible and compliant, especially with parents and those adults whom they seek to please and protect. Coercion of a child to falsify may be in the form of misinformation (deception), rewards, or threats.” The harm that results from parent-induced deception is especially profound, say psychiatrists, since it can permanently damage the barriers separating fantasy from reality.

In 1988 Leving became the attorney of record for Brian Otter (his real name), a California man who is suing Geraldo Rivera and others associated with his TV program for $60 million. April Curtis, the mother of Otter’s daughter, had appeared on Rivera’s show and accused Otter of sexually abusing the girl. Allegedly with Rivera’s help, she then fled California rather than submit to authorities in the state’s juvenile court, which had found that it was Curtis, in fact, who was mistreating her daughter with her false allegations.

“I expect we will win,” says Leving. “You’ve got abduction, interference, conspiracy, emotional distress, and a lot of other things. We’ll win, but I don’t know about the real outcome. Everyone comes out hurt in these things–even the winners.”

Jeffrey Leving’s commitment to fathers has deep roots in his own life. He grew up on Chicago’s south side, the oldest of three children in a somewhat turbulent family. His father, a hardworking man, toiled as a tailor by day and moonlighted as a bartender at night. He was, says Leving, “a very laid-back man; you’d have to hold a gun to his head to get him upset.” His mother, on the other hand, was a very emotional, controlling person. Conflict festered in the house for years until the couple got a divorce in 1967. Leving, who was 16 at the time, says he didn’t take sides, though he felt deeply “hurt and angry.” His father moved out, and the family went through three or four years of hard times. “We were always strapped for money,” he says. “I remember we used to have lettuce sandwiches for lunch.”

There was little contact between father and children and, Leving says, “I thought he had rejected me. Only later did I come to realize how much influence my mother had on the situation and how much control the attorneys had over us. I felt bad about that then and I still do.”

After his mother moved the family to the north side, Leving graduated from Senn High School, then worked his way through Southern Illinois University and Kent Law School, graduating in 1979.

“I was fascinated by criminal law,” he says, “but I knew I would have to eventually work in family practice–for ethical considerations. I did not want to see men manipulated in a system that was clearly profemale.” For a year he worked for the Chicago Volunteer Legal Services, then took a position with a downtown law firm whose members allowed him to use the office and phones after hours to build up his own practice.

“I was sort of an indentured servant,” says Leving. “From nine to five I’d take care of the firm’s business, then from five until maybe two in the morning I’d work on my own divorce and custody clients.”

In the process he got an eye-opening education in some of the weirder phenomena of American domestic life. One case involved a man who had been making regular payments in support of who he thought were his two children. It was revealed during court proceedings that the two children were in fact fathered by his own father, who had been having a secret affair with the man’s partner.

In another freak instance, a man in his 50s who had fathered two children by a woman in her early 20s found out in the course of legal action that he was the father of the young woman. He had lost contact with her when she was a child, and had not recognized her when they met as adults. He was both father and grandfather to the two youngsters.

“I’ve met some strange ones,” says Leving. He began his own independent practice with a little cash and a lot of chutzpah in 1981, and the business quickly prospered. It is one of only six firms concentrating on divorce and custody cases in the Chicago area (though many individual attorneys do so), and, says Leving, it is the only firm in the country with almost total dedication to fathers and their problems.

Leving believes firmly in advertising. He mails brochures and recently launched a quarterly newsletter called “A Father’s Right.” An avid reader of newspapers, he is quick to reply whenever he spots a putdown of men or a misrepresentation of law.

His response to a Chicago Tribune article that described a seminar on divorce, “down and dirty style,” held in suburban Matteson is typical. The seminar leaders, two “lay experts,” according to the story, advised the 30 women in attendance to “discard all your notions about what is fair and just.” They spoke “delightedly,” according to the story, of a woman who cleaned out a savings account she shared with her husband on the day he filed for divorce, then went to the racetrack and picked up a bunch of losing tickets. She told her husband and his lawyer that she had gambled everything away, and the losing tickets were her proof. The experts labeled the tactic “very creative,” and later reminded the women, “With child abuse and spouse abuse, you don’t have to prove anything, you just have to accuse. . . . Think about it . . .”

In his letter printed in the Tribune Leving said he was “shocked” at the tactics advised by the “experts.” He then reminded readers that “the alleged experts not only are possibly subjecting their listeners to potential penalties for fraud and perjury . . . but the goals of the judicial system in its attempts to reach fair and equitable property distributions and in protecting the best interests of minor children can possibly be undermined.”

More recently, Leving has become a self-appointed advocate of grandparents’ rights. His letters and opinion pieces on the subject run in the dailies and neighborhood papers. He was heartened last year when Illinois passed a law allowing judges to grant visitation rights to grandparents, even if the parent through whom the grandparents are related to the child is dead. Children need contact with grandparents and vice versa, Leving says, but sometimes in cases of death or divorce the custodial spouse would shut the grandparents out of the family scene, and neither they nor the courts had any recourse. Now they can petition the court and obtain visiting rights. The new law stirred a flap recently when a Berwyn widow was temporarily barred from moving with her child to Arizona because the parents of the deceased father objected. Like any law, this one can be abused, concedes Leving; but, he argues, society must acknowledge that grandparents are “integral to the family unit”–in some cases just as integral as a parent.

One of Leving’s convictions–one whose time has not yet come–is that men should have a say in their partners’ decisions about abortion. “I haven’t gotten very far on this yet,” he says. “Face it, the men’s movement is not organized or powerful like the women’s movement.” Whenever he writes or comments on the subject, he says, prolife groups rally and start talking about banning abortion. “But that’s not the issue. Even if I was strongly proabortion, which I’m not, I’d defend the right of a man to have a say in the life or death of his child. If he wants, a father should be able to save the life of a child and raise it. Right now, his rights in this are irrelevant.”

“I’ll say this,” comments attorney Varchetto, who frequently finds himself opposing Leving or one of his partners. “He’s got a good shtick; he’s got this great advertising technique: Go for 50 percent of the divorce market. Speak out for men! Be the expert for men!”

But does Leving represent people better than an attorney who takes both men and women? Varchetto isn’t about to lavish praise: “Well, he does know custody law, and he’s gonna be better than an attorney who isn’t up on these matters.” And yes, he admits, Leving puts a lot of himself into his cases. But Varchetto wants it known that he does not go along with the idea that women generally hold an advantage over men in domestic breakups.

“It’s men who are a hell of a lot better off than they were ten years ago,” he says. “And it’s the women’s movement that has done this. That has helped men enormously. The courts now really want to be equal in treatment.” Varchetto does concede, however, that in one sense women are in a superior position: by moving in so quickly against delinquent child-support payers, the justice system and the courts obviously put a higher value on the payments than on visitation rights.

The one subject with which Leving’s name is most often linked is joint custody. From the time he entered private practice, he crusaded for a change in Illinois law that would allow the courts to assign divorced partners equal rights and responsibility for child care and rearing. He saw joint custody as a way of countering the stereotype that labels the father as moneymaker and the mother as nurturer, and by the same token considers a noncustodial mother as much a failure as a nonsupportive father.

The old Illinois law recognized joint custody but only when both parents agreed to it. They seldom did, and as a result the mother almost invariably won custody. When the new law was discussed, many lawyers objected to the idea of a judge imposing joint custody on less than cooperative spouses: Here are two people whose differences are so extreme they have broken up their home. How can they now be expected to sit down and decide on their children’s school, living situations, vacations, and other details?

“They can and they do,” says Leving. “We lawyers tend to see people at their worst, when they’re upset, suspicious, angry. We shouldn’t assume that means there’s a permanent inability to get along, especially when they’re obliged to consider the child’s best interests.”

The law was passed in 1986 and has gotten mixed reviews since. In some cases, says Leving, it’s a placebo for the father’s injured pride; the mother has physical custody and is for all practical purposes the controlling agent. In others, it works well if the court and parents wrestle with the relevant factors, including the children’s wishes, their relationship with grandparents and other relatives, and the parents’ emotional and economic stability. When those factors aren’t carefully weighed, bizarre scenarios occur. Last year, as a guest on Oprah Winfrey’s program, Leving tried to promote the values of joint custody while a parade of guests and callers damned the practice. One teenager in a joint-custody arrangement had spent six years moving back and forth between her mother’s and father’s homes every two days; she finally begged out on the grounds of emotional exhaustion. A mother told how her five-year-old spent kindergarten living with her for three weeks, then flying 400 miles to spend a week with his father, switching schools at a grueling pace. Leving kept trying to say he knew “hundreds, maybe thousands” of successful cases of joint custody, but he kept getting cut off by guests, Winfrey, and commercials.

“I know joint custody can work if there’s a minimum of goodwill and common sense,” says Leving. He cautions, however, that when disputes develop in joint custody and the parents have to go back to court, the mother usually comes away with the children.

Sometimes the flow of calls from clients makes it difficult for Leving to concentrate in his office. “Jeff,” says the man on the phone one afternoon, “this is urgent, very urgent!” He is panting as he talks. “I’m at this pay phone and I’m supposed to pick up my daughter in half an hour, and my ex just told me I’m harassing her, and she says I’m a manic depressive. If she denies me, I tell you we’re gonna have a confrontation! She’s saying I didn’t make my payments . . .”

“Easy, easy,” says Leving. He sounds like an air-traffic controller talking down a panicky pilot. “Do not lose your temper. If the cops are there when you get there and you blow up, you know who’s gonna get arrested . . .”

“I tell you, Jeff,” says the man, “my daughter’s life is at stake. She says, ‘Daddy, I’m so confused! Mommy is acting strange.’ Jeff, I don’t want to get arrested . . .”

“All right,” says Leving, “let’s get it straightened out. How far behind are you on child support?”

“Just one week. I swear that’s all! I took care of the rest. It’s on the record.”

“OK,” says Leving, “I’ll call her lawyer right now, and we’ll get it straightened out. So I’m gonna hang up, OK? Now if the cops are there when you get to the house, you call me back right away.”

Leving then phones the woman’s lawyer, someone he has dealt with many times before. They exchange pleasantries before Leving asks why there’s such a “big fuss” over one week’s child support. The lawyer says it’s more than one week. “There must be some mistake or misinterpretation,” says Leving, checking through a big manila folder he has pulled from his desk.

The two discuss numbers but are unable to resolve the difference. A few minutes later, the jittery father is back on the line. He still hasn’t picked up his daughter. They talk about the payment squabble. “I paid, I got the record!” says the man.

“Keep calm,” says Leving, “you don’t want to make a scene. . . . Just go get your daughter, and if there’s a problem, call me.”

Later, looking tired and ready for a big meal, Leving ponders men’s unfortunate lot in marital matters. If a married couple is having trouble, he notes, the woman can obtain an ex parte (one-sided) order of protection against him. All she has to do is say he threatened to beat her up or dissipate the family assets. “Even an incompetent lawyer can get one,” he says, then the police will remove the father from the home and his bank account will be frozen. Once he’s out, the old proverb–possession is nine-tenths of the law–tends to take over; the man is henceforth the outsider. After they’re divorced, any aggressive act on his part, such as insisting on visitation, is likely to spawn another ex parte order and get him arrested.

Leving has never married. On his desk is a picture of his only child, a beautiful 15-month-old daughter he is raising jointly with the child’s mother. “I see them every day,” he says proudly.

But marriage? Leving squirms. “I don’t know, I’m kind of leery, I’ve maybe seen too much,” he says. He pulls out a self-help book a friend gave him: Love Is Letting Go of Fear, by Dr. Gerald Jampolsky. “I’ve heard this is great and I’m going to read it,” says Leving–“very soon. I really am. This is something I’ve got to come to grips with. I know that.”

He would like to call it a day, but he plans to stay around a while in case his frustrated client phones him again–probably from jail.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.