Marjorie Williams is right
to set the news about Jesse Jackson's extramarital offspring in the larger
context of fatherless children and the serious personal and social
pathologies that ensue from raising children without fathers [op-ed, Jan.
At the same time, we should be wary of generalizing about
"paternal abandonment" from the escapades of a few powerful men. Most of the
absent fathers our leaders excoriate so mercilessly are kept away not
by high-powered, globetrotting careers but by court orders. Contrary to
public perceptions (and government public relations), very few fathers
voluntarily abandon their children, and no scientific evidence has ever been
adduced to show that they do. Hard scientific data indicate that most missing
fathers are forcibly driven away.
This has been documented for
divorced fathers by scholars such as Sanford Braver, who has showed
conclusively that, particularly when children are involved, most divorces are
filed by mothers, not fathers. Legal researchers Margaret Brinig and Douglass
Allen further discovered that the single most important factor in determining
who files for divorce is expectation of getting custody of the children,
making divorce a tool for eliminating an unwanted spouse, usually (though not
always) the father.
This is more difficult to document for unmarried,
usually poorer and more often minority fathers. Yet while these fathers may
have less opportunity to bond with their children, there is no reason to
assume they love them any less. A study of low-income fathers in the north of
England found that "the most common reason given by the fathers for not
having more contact with their children was the mothers' reluctance to let
them." In American cities, a demonstration project by Public/Private Ventures
with young, low-income fathers found that most had only one child or children
by only one mother with whom there had been a serious relationship at the
time of pregnancy. Overwhelmingly these fathers visited their children in the
hospital and saw them at least once a week; many took them to the doctor.
Large percentages reported bathing, feeding, dressing and playing with their
children and providing informal child support in the form of cash or
purchased goods such as diapers.
The hard fact is that the gatekeepers
between fathers and their children are usually mothers. But more serious for
public policy is a massive governmental machine that can politicize and
criminalize ordinary family differences and that has its own bureaucratic
reasons for keeping fathers away. This machine -- consisting of judges,
lawyers, psychotherapists, child support enforcement agents, child protective
services and more -- effectively turns children into wards of the state, a
condition in which they can be seized not only from fathers but from mothers
The epidemic of child abuse and the horrifying stories we have
heard lately of government agencies failing to protect children are also
involved here. We know that child abuse takes place overwhelmingly in the
homes of single parents. A British study found children in single-parent
homes up to 33 times more likely to be abused when a live-in boyfriend or
stepfather is present.
Protecting children is more than a matter of
second-guessing the judge or striking a balance between the safety of
children and the rights of parents. The same courts and ancillary agencies
that can evict the father can then effectively seize control of the children
and cast themselves in the roles of protectors against the dangerous single
mother and her boyfriend.
Tackling the fatherhood crisis and connected
problems such as child abuse and child poverty will involve much more than
vague, feel-good programs to "promote fatherhood," which is all George W.
Bush has so far offered as governor and president. It will also involve
coming to grips with serious violations of civil rights: the rights of
children not to be separated from their fathers or mothers without just
Oddly, this glaring civil rights abuse -- which disproportionately
afflicts African Americans and other minorities -- has been ignored by the
civil rights leadership. As Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Cornel West argue in
their book, "The War Against Parents," the fatherhood crisis is the result
of bipartisan neglect.
As the Bush administration begins its term
searching for ways to connect with black America, fatherhood could be
precisely the issue on which we might admit that we all have failed and on
which we knuckle down to some serious bipartisan cooperation.
writer teaches political science at Howard University.
Responding to a Feb. 4 op-ed column by
Stephen Baskerville asserting that divorced and never-married fathers are
"forcibly driven away," David Blankenhorn said that men avoid responsibility
by blaming other people, especially women, for their problems [letters, Feb.
Not so. The U.S. court system, which also makes 2 1/2 million
mothers "visitors" in their own children's lives following divorce, is a
travesty. We need to reform the court system, substitute shared parenting
for sole-custody battles, encourage mediation and parent education and --
most important -- not take away a parent's right to be a parent without
a compelling state interest.
If we want to encourage responsibility by
parents, we must not treat them as Disneyland Dads or Disneyland Moms who are
allowed by court order to see their children only once every couple of
DAVID L. LEVY President Children's Rights
Blankenhorn takes fathers' rights advocate Stephen Bakerville to task for the
"victim psychology" by which men "blame others for their problems" [letters,
Feb. 15].Â What a hoot!Â When nearly 80 percent of divorces
are filed by women, often under the pretext of false charges of abuse that
can nonetheless have a man ejected from his home, who's blaming whom?Â
Women have huge incentives to be the complainant -- the victim -- in a
divorce: a virtual lock on custody and inflated support figures that in more
than 30 states are based on economically flawed guidelines.Â Mr.
Blankenhorn misperceives the problem.Â It's not that we have so many
noncustodial fathers in the first place, it's that they are a manufacturable
class of citizens in a society where one gender's victim status is more
politically correct than the other's.Â Good noncustodial fathers are
being destroyed by this imbalance.
Stephen Baskerville [op-ed, Feb. 4] trivializes
the work of thousands of individuals nationwide who are committed to ending
father absence when he describes fatherhood programs as "vague" and
Federal, state and local governments and community-based
organizations are increasingly focusing on the fact that 25 million children
live absent their fathers. These fatherhood programs are operating in prisons
and churches, in welfare offices and schools, in family-planning clinics and
maternity wards. They range from small, local efforts to aggressive statewide
One of the most impressive is in Texas, where, contrary to Mr.
Baskerville's assertion, then-Gov. George W. Bush created the Texas
Fatherhood Initiative (TFI). The TFI is mobilizing communities to combat the
problem of fatherlessness; running a successful public education campaign
highlighting the importance of fathers to the well-being of children; and
providing training and technical assistance to community-based
organizations interested in implementing a fatherhood outreach, support or
WADE F. HORN President National
Fatherhood Initiative Gaithersburg
Stephen Baskerville argues
that divorced and never-married fathers are "forcibly driven away" from their
children by mothers and the courts. This stance reflects a victim psychology
in which men avoid personal responsibility by blaming other people,
especially women, for their problems. Mr. Baskerville's assertion that "very
few fathers voluntarily abandon their children" reflects a fantasy world in
which all but a "very few" noncustodial fathers are good, and all but a "very
few" single mothers are bad.
I agree that some fathers get a raw deal,
and current custody laws, which favor mothers, may contribute to more women
filing for divorce. But the underlying societal crisis is not, as Mr.
Baskerville implies, that we mistreat noncustodial fathers but that we have
so many of them in the first place.
As long as the United States has a
33 percent rate of unwed childbearing and the highest divorce rate in the
world, we will have a profound crisis of fatherhood, no matter what ex-wives,
ex-girlfriends and the courts do and or do not do.
BLANKENHORN President Institute for American Values New