After only a year of marriage and one son, Gillespie and his wife split in 2002, triggering a downhill spiral that forced him to spend thousands of dollars in lawyers' fees and court costs, and lost time at work, in a battle for visitation rights to see his son.

"I had the fight of my life,'' said the 51-year-old truck driver from Lowell.  Gillespie said he was stymied by judges who sided with his ex-wife, who took out a restraining order against Gillespie, creating a legal barrier for him to see his son.  "I was in and out of court for years," he said.

Shawn GillespieSun staff photos can be ordered by visiting our SmugMug site.
Shawn Gillespie

Sun staff photos can be ordered by visiting ourSmugMug site.

"The courts are a legal vehicle to shatter someone's life.''

Fathers, he said, "always seem to get the short end of the stick.''Thirteen years later, there are fewer issues surrounding visitation since Gillespie's every-other-weekend visitation schedule now revolves around his teenage son's schedule of school, friends and sports. But the years have not lessened Gillespie's bitterness about how he was treated by the courts.

"The system is broken and unfair toward dads,'' he said.  'Utopia doesn't exist'

Ned Holstein, founder of National Parents Organization, agrees.

"Utopia doesn't exist,'' Holstein said, at least not in the world of divorce and child-custody battles.

But a proposed bill, called the Massachusetts Child-Centered Family Law, strives to overhaul the state's outdated child-custody law and supports a "more modern understanding'' of what is in the best interest of children when parents divorce, Holstein said.