‘The judge said it was too premature to offer me any time with my daughter. Ludicrous’

Fatherly: Lee Bradshaw’s fight to spend time with his daughter is the subject of a new film

Lee Bradshaw holds his daughter’s hand in Fatherly, a short documentary made by Karin Pritzel

Lee Bradshaw holds his daughter’s hand in Fatherly, a short documentary made by Karin Pritzel

 

Lee Bradshaw’s world imploded when his 13-year relationship ended suddenly and his time with his infant daughter was cut to four hours a week. “A child grows so quickly,” he says, “and you are missing out on so much. This is time you don’t get back.”

Bradshaw found out very quickly, he says, that unmarried fathers have “absolutely no rights”. “Even if your name is on the birth certificate, we are not recognised as being a parent. We have to apply for what’s called a guardianship, which is offensive and discriminatory. To go from bathing and dressing your daughter every day for 14 or 15 months to nothing was a really difficult pill to swallow.”

Bradshaw’s struggle to come to terms with losing full-time access to his daughter is the subject of Fatherly, a short documentary by Karin Pritzel that premiered at this year’s New York City Independent Film Festival after winning a Royal Television Society award.

We began with an interview and he just broke down. It felt like he was only being heard for the first time

“We have all heard many negative stories about deadbeat dads,” says Pritzel, who is a graduate of the National Film School. “We rarely see positive stories about incredible fathers or stories about the pain and hurt of the single father when a relationship breaks down – pain, hurt and frustration that is often only portrayed publicly by single fathers in the form of rage and anger ... I wanted to make a documentary film about the love of a father, and his dignified fight.”

Pritzel says, “It struck me that here is a fantastic guy who, despite his relationship breaking down, just wants to continue to be a great father to his biological daughter yet faces many emotional and legal challenges to continue to be her dad.

“When I asked Lee if he would be willing to share his very personal story in a film, understandably he was a little unsure at first, but we met up and I explained that my intentions were to make a sensitive, sympathetic, honest personal film about a father’s love and his dignified fight to be in his daughters life. He agreed. We began with an interview and he just broke down. It felt like he was only being heard for the first time ... We also filmed at probably one of the most difficult times of year for a single parent: Christmas.

“We travelled to Lee’s home, equipped with cameras, lights and microphones and a long list of questions, and documented his life ... Lee was so open, honest and raw, and perhaps even a little exhausted from the fight.” (Pritzel, who edited Fatherly film at home during lockdown, says it was important to her that the film didn’t mention Bradshaw’s former partner, or focus on their daughter, “as this was about Lee’s personal journey.”)

Lee Bradshaw in Fatherly: ‘unmarried fathers have absolutely no rights’
Lee Bradshaw in Fatherly: ‘unmarried fathers have absolutely no rights’

Bradshaw has been dismayed by the legal process. “At the first court hearing,” he says, “the judge told me it was to was ‘too premature’ to offer me any time, which I thought was ludicrous. My case was put back six months. At that stage I hadn’t seen my daughter for 12-14 weeks, and I was concerned about the bond that we had. Eventually I was allowed ‘overnight access’ – even the language is terrible.

“At my third or fourth court appearance I was number 36 on the judge’s docket, and the court started sitting at 10am or 10.30am. The judge had me sitting in from of him by 11.45am. My case was given consideration for two minutes at most,” he says.

The whole process is soul destroying. I understand now why so many fathers suffer from mental-health issues

“It feels to me that fathers are guilty until proven innocent. If I was involved in litigation I would be innocent until proven guilty. In litigation, a judge will make a decision based on a person’s background, what they have done, where they come from, etc. In family court they seem to make snap decisions.”

“They don’t know the real stories – and that, to me, was the most devastating thing about the process, seeing your daughter being pulled back from a relationship that you had organically grown together. The courts just seem not to understand what relationship you have had with that child. You are being pushed further and further back by a system that divides you up until further notice.

Shoes belonging to Lee Bradshaw and his daughter in Fatherly
Shoes belonging to Lee Bradshaw and his daughter in Fatherly

“When you have lost so much time with your child, and then have your case pushed back for six months, after already waiting six months for your case to even be heard, it’s devastating...

“At times I questioned whether I was doing the right thing. The whole process is soul destroying. I understand now why so many fathers suffer from mental-health issues or take their own lives. I come from a broken home: my own dad left when I was 3½ and was never involved in our lives after that, so I don’t know what it’s like to have a dad that fights for you. I was never fought for.”

Since its New York screening, Fatherly has been nominated for the Newport Beach Film Fest, in California next month. “I hope the story will really resonate not only with the fathers but also with the daughters and the sons who would like to have their fathers in their life, the big gap, the hole that’s there,” says Pritzel.

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