Single Black Dad: You Can't Take My Child

After his daughter's mother died, a father struggled to win a custody fight with her parents.

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Cydney and Chad Milner (Sabrina Thompson/KUU Photography)

(The Root) -- Within the span of three weeks, two public officials went above and beyond their immediate duties to help Chad Milner gain custody of his 9-month-old daughter.

An officer in a Virginia sheriff's department gave Milner (then 26, and a recent Morehouse College graduate) off-the-record advice about what he needed to do to prove that he shared an apartment with his dying fiancée, Timile Brown, and provided for her and their baby daughter, Cydney. At the time Brown, a 25-year-old graduate of Spelman College, was in the throes of an aggressive chemotherapy regimen to treat her stage 4 esophageal cancer. She and baby Cydney were in the care of Brown's mother -- a woman with whom neither Brown nor Milner maintained a great relationship.

A few weeks later, in December 2011, Brown was dead, and Milner found himself in a county courthouse near his hometown of Baldwin, N.Y., on Long Island, filing an emergency motion that would allow Milner to retrieve his daughter from Brown's parents without their hindering him, as they had once before. He then received advice from a courthouse clerk, who was compelled to help Milner after listening to his story.

" 'You didn't hear us say this, but we'll do this for you,' " Milner recalled the clerk telling him as she made photocopies of his paperwork. He told The Root that there were "We Don't Make Photocopies" signs plastered throughout the office.

"I had gone five months without so much as seeing a picture of her," Milner wrote about his daughter on his blog, the Adventures of a Single Dad, where he shares stories about the custody battle and his experiences as a father.

That his daughter's grandparents initially assumed that Milner did not want custody of Cydney sheds light on a bleak perception of black fathers.

"One might think the term 'black fatherhood' an oxymoron. In their parenting role, African American men are viewed as verbs but not nouns; that is, it is frequently assumed that Black men father children but seldom are fathers," Roberta L. Coles and Charles Green write in their book The Myth of the Missing Black Father.

The fact that his daughter's grandparents did not allow Milner to take his daughter after his fiancée died speaks to the issue of fathers' rights -- or, rather, its ambiguity. It's a topic that Rita Hill, an attorney who practices family law in Queens, N.Y., wanted to make abundantly clear to Milner.

"I wanted to make sure he didn't compromise his rights," said Hill, who agreed to give Milner free legal advice after hearing about his situation. "I wanted him to be aware that his custody rights were superior to those of the grandparents because he was the biological father," she explained. "His rights took priority."

Milner now has full custody of 2-year-old Cydney. The path he took to get her underscores Hill's urgency in counseling Milner about his rights, believing that the idea of fathers' rights is either shrouded in confusion, ignored or not respected by some. The phrase "Mommy's baby, Daddy's maybe" comes to mind.

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