Insight
June 26, 2000

"Nanny State Clobbers Fathers' Rights in Court"

By Stephen Baskerville

Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore has been calling for yet
another crackdown on "deadbeat dads," with a view toward sending more to
jail. The House of Representatives, meanwhile, passed the Fathers Count
Act of 1999, which commits $150 million to promote fatherhood and
reconnect fathers with their children.

These two measures might seem to indicate a contradictory national
love-hate relationship with fathers. Yet in some ways they are two sides
of the same coin, which is the government involving itself in the most
private corner of our lives: the family. The state promotes fatherhood
but denigrates fathers. The state defines fatherhood and punishes
fathers who fail to measure up.

What Democrats are promoting as a crackdown and some Republicans are
furthering through a social program is based on assumptions about
husbands and fathers that increasingly are recognized to be untenable.
It now has been more than a year since psychologist Sanford Braver, in
the largest federally funded study ever undertaken on the subject,
conclusively demonstrated that the so-called "deadbeat dad," who deserts
his children and evades child support, largely is a myth. Braver
confirmed previous studies showing that it overwhelmingly is mothers,
not fathers, who are walking away from marriages and that most forcibly
divorced fathers pay child support when they are employed. Columnist
Kathleen Parker likewise has written that "the deadbeat dad is an
egregious exaggeration, a caricature of a few desperate men who for
various reasons -sometimes pretty good ones - fail to hand over their
paychecks, assuming they have one." Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Cornel West,
coauthors of The War Against Parents, also question the state's war
against fathers, calling it "ugly and fierce."

The deadbeat dad is typically a fully responsible and loving father who
has been divorced over his objections, whose children then have been
taken with no evidence of wrongdoing on his part and who has been
thoroughly plundered by a powerful machine of judges, lawyers,
psychotherapists and enforcement bureaucrats. Once the state has seized
control of his children, a father can be forced to pay almost any amount
for attorneys' fees, psychotherapy and child support (which his children
may never see); he can be summoned to court so often he loses his job;
and he can be jailed without charge, trial or counsel.

It is especially ironic that conservatives should be silent on this
abuse, for every prophecy about the dangers of judicial tyranny,
bureaucratic expansion and feminist extremism is being fulfilled in the
government's unrelenting war on fathers.

Many are upset about the trial lawyers' plundering of tobacco companies
and gun manufacturers. Yet lawyers loot vastly more from fathers -
private individuals who are much less able to defend themselves or their
children's patrimony from the shakedown of court-ordered attorney's
fees, for which they can be jailed for not paying.

Conservative critics are unsettled at the costs imposed on business by
bureaucratic regulators. But many more fathers are reduced to servitude
by bureaucratic courts and police who, in violation of the separation of
powers, set the very child-support guidelines they also apply and
enforce and which they have a vested interest in making as onerous as
possible. By establishing crushing burdens that may consume a man's
entire salary, these agents create the very "deadbeats" they are
pursuing and generate demand for an ever-larger coercive enforcement
bureaucracy with ever-more intrusive powers.

We hear the term "totalitarian" used to characterize the criminalization
of private behavior through sexual-harassment and date-rape laws. But
the criminalization of fathers is far more invasive and follows the
forced dissolution of their families, the invasion of their homes, the
raiding of their bank accounts, the micromanagement of their personal
and family lives, the use of their children as informers and coerced
psychotherapy. Fathers and children also are separated by protective
orders that are issued without any evidence of wrongdoing and that
cannot protect anyone because they serve to criminalize not violence
(which of course already is criminal) but a father's contact with his
own children.

It might be one thing if all this somehow benefited children, but it is
destroying them. It now is well-known that every major social pathology
of our time - including violent crime, drug and alcohol abuse, unwed
pregnancy, truancy and suicide - all correlate more strongly to
fatherless homes than to any other factor. It also is established beyond
doubt that removing the father from the home dramatically increases the
exposure of children to violence and sexual abuse - up to 33 times,
according to a British study.

Yet, ironically, the new awareness of fatherhood is appropriated by
politicians and bureaucracies to further demonize actual fathers and
penetrate deeper into the private lives of individuals and families.
"Child support is more than money," declares the National Child Support
Enforcement Association. "Child support also is love, emotional support
and responsibility." This sounds reassuring. Yet there is something
troubling about government officials taking it upon themselves to define
and enforce a parent's love and emotional support of his own children.
Are the state and its operatives mandated to punish fathers who are
deemed to have defaulted on this as well? In Massachusetts, state
officials have used federal money to draw up a list of "Five Principles
of Fatherhood," including: "give affection to my children" and
"demonstrate respect at all times to the mother of my children." One
cannot help but wonder what penalties the state will bring to bear on
fathers who fail to show sufficient "affection" and "respect."

Government-sponsored media campaigns similarly claim to promote
fatherhood by vilifying fathers with the slogan, "They're your kids. Be
their dad!" The Department of Health and Human Services, or HHS, is
spending $1.4 million to put out advertisements in nearly 25,000
newspapers, magazines and TV and radio stations around the country. The
spots portray fathers walking out on their children for no apparent
reason: "When Vanessa's Daddy walks out the door today, he's never
coming back," declares the voice-over. "Goodbye Vanessa," the pretend
father says coldly. "Goodbye Daddy," says Vanessa.

The Christian Science Monitor sees these ads as "the latest sign that
Americans, including the government, are waking up to the importance of
fatherhood." Perhaps, but fathers who have been ejected from their
families by the full force of the state find them disturbingly close to
propaganda, reinforcing the assumption that being pursued by federal
agents is their just desert for having, in President Clinton's words,
"chosen to abandon their children." By comparison, mothers account for
at least 55 percent of child murders, according to a Justice Department
study (and fathers for a tiny percentage), but were HHS to sponsor TV
commercials showing a mother smothering her infant and saying, "They're
your kids. Don't kill them!", it would not likely be taken to indicate
an awareness of the importance of motherhood.

This agenda is institutionalized in what is perhaps the most dishonest
and frightening side of government promoting fatherhood: programs billed
as facilitating access and visitation with children. This entails
creating supervised visitation centers, institutions where fathers
charged with no wrongdoing must pay up to $80 an hour to visit their own
children under the gaze of social workers.

Rick Brita is a father in Massachusetts who has been forced to use such
a center, though he was never convicted of child abuse. Brita tells me:
"It's like being in jail. Everything the father does on the visitation
has to be permissioned. Even hugging your own children could end your
visit." He can't take the children out to a park or anything else
outside the center. He can't even take pictures of his own children.
Expansion of these centers is being pushed by the Cambridge, Mass.-based
Supervised Visitation Network, described in a series by the
Massachusetts News as a "matrix of lawyers, judges, social workers,
academics and domestic-violence activists who have networked, talked
with each other, served on various commissions, boosted each other's
careers and helped to expand state and federal funding massively."

If our leaders were serious about providing for children, they would end
the power of the divorce industry to rip apart their homes in the first
place. On economic grounds alone, the most effective antipoverty program
is an intact family; this even was recognized in a 1998 paper by the
Democratic Leadership Council. Those concerned about encouraging
irresponsible men should consider that there is nothing mutually
exclusive about protecting the rights of fathers and their children not
to be separated without cause and enforcing child-support collection on
those men who truly abandon the offspring they have sired. That the
former would benefit vastly more children than the latter is precisely
why the iron triangle of family courts, child-support-enforcement
bureaucracies and organized feminism won't allow it to happen.

Not since the overthrow of the Weimar Republic have the leaders of a
major democracy used their offices and the mass media to disseminate
invective against millions of their own citizens. In fact it was Adolf
Hitler who urged that "the state must declare the child to be the most
precious treasure of the people" and who explained, in the words of
Rabbi Daniel Lapin, that "as long as government is perceived as working
for the benefit of children, the people happily will endure almost any
curtailment of liberty." Using children to tug on our heartstrings may
be not only a weakness of the sentimental. It also may be a ploy by
those cynical and unscrupulous enough to exploit children for their own
purposes. This is likely to be remembered as one of the most diabolical
perversions of governmental power in our history, a time when we allowed
children to be used and abused by fast-talking government officials and
paid for it with our families, our social order and our constitutional
rights.


Stephen Baskerville is a professor of political science at Howard
University in Washington.


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