© 2001 Stephen Baskerville
Fatherhood is all the rage. President Bush unveils a $315 million plan "to promote responsible fatherhood." Sen. Evan Bayh, head of the Democratic Leadership Council, hosts a televised conference on "Connecting Fathers and Families" and promises to make fatherhood a top issue. Both houses of Congress, plus the governors and mayors, create bipartisan taskforces on "fatherhood promotion" and issue resolutions affirming the importance of fathers. The National Fatherhood Initiative holds a Fatherhood Summit in Washington on June 7-8.
How, precisely, the state can promote something as personal and private as a parent's relationship with his own children (let alone whether it should) is seldom explained. But if government fatherhood programs sound somewhat nebulous, there is a more concrete side to our leaders' discovery of fatherhood. In 1998, President Clinton signed the ominously-named "Deadbeat Parents Punishment Act" and announced a "new child support crackdown ... to identify, analyze, and investigate [parents] for criminal prosecution." On the campaign trail Al Gore called for jailing more fathers.
In Virginia, a commission dominated by lawyers, judges and feminists moves to increase child-support obligations. In Alabama the government calls fathers "dogs" and announces increased measures to hunt them down.
That a crisis of fatherhood exists can hardly be denied. Forty percent of American children and 60 percent of African-American children now live without their fathers. Moreover, the social and personal pathologies directly attributable to father absence crime, unwed motherhood, truancy, drugs and alcohol are now too well known to belabor.
But what may be at work here is government, once again, creating a problem for itself to solve. Certainly policymakers are so intent on registering their concern that they never stop to tell us where the problem comes from in the first place. The often unspoken assumption is that these fathers have, in Clinton's words, "chosen to abandon their children." Yet there is no evidence this is true.
No academic or government study has ever demonstrated that large numbers of fathers are voluntarily abandoning their children. On the other hand, no knowledgeable policymaker or scholar denies that millions of fathers are involuntarily separated from their children by government officials.
Of the almost 1 million divorces each year involving children, at least two-thirds to three-fourths are initiated by mothers, according to Sanford Braver of Arizona State University and other scholars. In the largest federally-funded study ever undertaken on the subject, Braver confirmed previous studies showing that overwhelmingly it is mothers, not fathers, who are walking away from marriages without legal grounds. These divorcing mothers have virtual certainty of getting the children and a large portion of the father's income, regardless of any fault on their part.
What is happening in divorce courts is much more serious than gender bias against fathers. A massive divorce industry is finding it increasingly easy and lucrative to simply eliminate fathers from their families with no show of wrongdoing and seize control of their children. The industry consists of judges, lawyers, psychotherapists, social workers, bureaucratic police and women's groups all of whom have one interest in common: separating as many children from their fathers as possible. A father can then be plundered for almost any amount in coerced attorneys' fees, involuntary psychotherapy, and "child support" which his children may never see. Failure to pay frequently results in incarceration without trial.
"The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals," wrote Ayn Rand. "When there aren't enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws."
What we are seeing today is nothing less than the criminalization of fatherhood itself: criminal penalties imposed on parents who have committed no act but are made outlaws through the actions of others in ways they are powerless to avoid. Once the father is stripped of custody, his contact with his own children outside government-approved times and locations becomes a criminal act. His criminalization is further consolidated through forced legal fees and impossible child-support burdens.
Child support obligations are determined by the same enforcement personnel who collect them. Such legislating by courts and enforcement agencies raises serious questions about the separation of powers and the constitutionality of the process. Where government officials develop an interest in hunting "delinquents," it is predictable that they will create delinquents to hunt. The more onerous the child-support levels, and the more defaults and arrearages, the more demand for coercive enforcement and for the personnel and powers required.
Private collection firms, such as Policy Studies, Inc., of Denver, are also involved in setting the levels of what they collect. Not only does an obvious conflict-of-interest arise in terms of the amount to be collected, but the firms can create precisely the "delinquents" and "deadbeats" they are hired to pursue and on which their business depends.
A presumption of guilt pervades the courts themselves, where "the burden of proof may be shifted to the defendant" according to a legal analysis by the National Council of State Legislatures. In clear violation of the Constitution, courts have held that "not all child support contempt proceedings classified as criminal are entitled to a jury trial," and "even indigent obligors are not necessarily entitled to a lawyer." Thus impoverished parents who lose their children through literally "no fault" of their own are the only citizens who when they are fortunate enough to be formally charged and tried at all, before being incarcerated must prove their innocence without counsel and without a jury of their peers.
Rather than confronting this appalling violation of both family integrity and constitutional rights, our elected leaders are cooking up fatherhood programs that may do more harm than good. 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."
In an attempt to soften its image, the National Child Support Enforcement Association declares, "Child support is more than money. Child support also is love, emotional support and responsibility." Yet there is something troubling about bureaucratic police taking it upon themselves to define and enforce a parent's love and emotional support of his own children. Is the state, with its armed agents and penal apparatus, mandated to punish fathers deemed to be delinquent on this as well?
There is nothing mutually exclusive about protecting the rights of parents 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. Requiring men to accept financial responsibility for their progeny has been a matter of public policy for centuries. Forcing fathers to "finance the filching of their own children," as attorney and author Jed Abraham puts it, is a prescription for social and political destruction. Yet this is the experiment on which we are now embarked.
It might not be necessary for government to promote fatherhood if only government would stop destroying it.
Stephen Baskerville teaches political science at Howard University in Washington, D.C.