April 10, 2004

Fatherhood Crisis

The current state of the Family Court system in this country, and the direction of government policy at all levels toward dealing with what is called the "fatherhood crisis", both cry out for major review and reform, according to Steven Baskerville, a professor at Howard University.

In his essay "Is There Really a Fatherhood Crisis?" , (via Arts & Letters Daily) Baskerville's premise is that government policies aimed at solving the problem, including those favored by elements of the right and the left, are at best misguided, and at worst counter-productive.

Virtually every major social pathology has been linked to fatherless children: violent crime, drug and alcohol abuse, truancy, unwed pregnancy, suicide, and psychological disorders—all correlating more strongly with fatherlessness than with any other single factor. Tragically, however, government policies intended to deal with the “fatherhood crisis” have been ineffective at best because the root cause is not child abandonment by fathers but policies that give mothers an incentive to initiate marital separation and divorce.

Baskerville examines the question of how much, if any role there should be for government in matters of family, fatherhood, or child rearing:

... little informed discussion has occurred about the appropriate role of public policy with respect to fatherhood and families. Marshalling federal agencies to “promote” something as private and personal as a parent’s relationship with his own children raises questions. The assumption that the government has a legitimate role in ameliorating the problem of fatherlessness also glides quickly over the more fundamental question of whether the government has had a role in creating the problem. What we see in the “fatherhood crisis” may be an optical illusion. What many are led to believe is a social problem may in reality be an exercise of power by the state.

Baskerville spends a little time on government programs to encourage "never-married" couple to marry, but unwed parenthood is after all, still parenthood. He concentrates on the fatherless children whose fathers had no choice in the matter. The objects of the involuntary divorce. First, there's the myth of widespread "abandonment" of children by their fathers:

In the largest federally funded study ever undertaken on the subject, Arizona State University psychologist Sanford Braver demonstrated that few married fathers voluntarily leave their children. Braver found that overwhelmingly it is mothers, not fathers, who are walking away from marriages. Moreover, most of these women do so not with legal grounds such as abuse or adultery but for reasons such as “not feeling loved or appreciated.” The forcibly divorced fathers were also found to pay virtually all child support when they are employed and when they are permitted to see the children they have allegedly abandoned .

Other studies have reached similar conclusions. Margaret Brinig and Douglas Allen found that women file for divorce in some 70 percent of cases. “Not only do they file more often, but . . . they are more likely to instigate separation.” Most significantly, the principal incentive is not grounds such as desertion, adultery, or violence, but control of the children. “We have found that who gets the children is by far the most important component in deciding who files for divorce”. One might interpret this statistic to mean that what we call divorce has become in effect a kind of legalized parental kidnapping.

A good deal of the state's "exercise of power" is wielded by an unbelievably "extra-legal" Family Court system. I have heard horror stories of fathers who have been denied all manner of rights relating to seeing their own children by a system that is institutionally tilted in favor of the custodial parent, usually the mother. But I was unprepared for what Baskerville says is the degree to which the Family Court system operates outside of, and often with utter contempt for Constitutional protections.

This is especially disturbing considering the high percentage of cases in which the father is accused of no crime, has not provided grounds for divorce and does not agree with the divorce action, but is thrown into the "system" anyway, with all that entails. The result is a self-perpetuating and largely unaccountable bureaucracy that has the effect of separating fathers from their children, supposedly the "problem" these governmental entities are supposed to be trying to alleviate. This excerpt demonstrates just some of what can happen (usually) to a man, when he enters the family court bureaucracy by virtue of his spouse walking in one day and saying "I want a divorce"...

...A father brought before these courts is likely to have only a few hours’ notice of a hearing that may last thirty minutes or less, during which he will lose all decisionmaking authority over his children, be told when and where he is authorized to see them, and ordered to begin paying child support. His name will be entered on a federal registry, his wages will immediately be garnished, and the government will have access to all his financial information.

No allegations of wrongdoing, either civil or criminal, are required. And no agreement to a divorce or separation is necessary. Yet from this point, if he tries to see his children outside the authorized times or fails to pay the child support (or courtordered attorneys’ fees), he will be subject to arrest.

A parent pulled into divorce court against his will also must submit to questioning about his private life, questioning that Abraham has characterized as an “interrogation.” He can be forced to surrender personal diaries, correspondence, financial records, and other documents normally protected by the Fourth Amendment. His personal habits, movements, conversations, writings, and purchases are subject to inquiry by the court. His home can be entered by government agents. His visits with his children can be monitored and restricted to a “supervised visitation center.” Anything he says to his spouse or children as well as to family counselors and personal therapists can be used against him in court, and his children can be used to inform on his compliance. Fathers are asked intimate questions about how they “feel” about their children, what they do with them, where they take them, how they kiss them, how they feed and bathe them, what they buy for them, and what they discuss with them. According to Abraham, fathers against whom no evidence of wrongdoing is presented are ordered to submit to “plethysmographs,” a physical-response test in which an electronic sheath is placed over the penis while the father is forced to watch pornographic films of children (1999, 148, 58). A parent who refuses to cooperate can be summarily incarcerated or ordered to undergo a psychiatric evaluation.

The parent from whom custody is removed no longer has any say in where the children reside, attend school, or worship. He has no necessary access to their school or medical records or any control over medications or drugs. He can be enjoined from taking his children to the doctor or dentist. He can be told what religious services he may (or must) attend with his children and what subjects he may discuss with them in private.

In family court, it is not unusual for a father earning $35,000 a year to amass $150,000 in attorney’s fees, according to Washington attorney William Dawes. Unlike any other debt, these fees may be collected by incarceration. In fact, unlike the inmates in a medieval debtors’ prison, he is punished even though he did not incur the debt voluntarily. One of the most astonishing practices of family courts is ordering fathers to pay the fees of attorneys, psychotherapists, and other officials they have not hired and summarily jailing them for not complying...

And speaking of being guilty until proven innocent, just the accusation of "abuse", which is itself subject to wildly subjective definition, is enough to trigger an added level of presumed criminality, suspension of civil rights and social stigmatization:

...A punitive quality seems to pervade the treatment of fathers in general throughout divorce court, but the presumption of guilt becomes explicit with accusations of spousal or child abuse. Fathers accused of abuse during divorce are seldom formally charged, tried, or convicted because there is usually no evidence against them; hence, they never receive due process of law or the opportunity to clear their names, let alone recover their children. Yet the accusation alone prohibits a father’s contact with his children and causes his name to be entered into a national database of sex offenders (Parke and Brott 1999, 49–50).

Although initial accusations do not necessarily result in the father’s arrest, they do confirm his status as a quasi-criminal whose movements are controlled by the court. This control takes the form of an ex parte restraining order, whose violation results in imprisonment. Orders separating fathers from their children for months, years, and even life are issued without the presentation of any evidence of wrongdoing. They are often issued at a hearing at which the father is not present and about which he may not even know, or they may be issued over the telephone or by fax with no hearing at all. A father receiving an order must vacate his residence immediately and make no further contact with his children.

The most serious effect of forcibly removing fathers after quasi-criminal accusations is the abuse of children it induces. Contrary to popular belief, it is not fathers, but mothers—especially single mothers—who are most likely to abuse children. An HHS study found that women ages twenty to forty-nine are almost twice as likely as men to be perpetrators of child maltreatment: “It is estimated that . . . almost twothirds [of child abusers] were females” (HHS 1998a, xi–xii). Given that male perpetrators are not necessarily fathers but more likely to be boyfriends and stepfathers, fathers emerge as the least likely child abusers.

This seems to me to be a policy issue of major importance that needs to be thoroughly and honestly debated. Not only are the governmental abuses of power staggering in themselves, but right now this system of judges, lawyers, agency bureaucrats and politicians are contributing to anything but a promotion of "fatherhood"...

the vast machinery devoted to divorce and custody litigation now has the power not only to seize children whose parents have done nothing legally wrong, but also to turn forcibly divorced parents into outlaws without any wrong action on their part and in ways they are powerless to avoid. What we are seeing today is nothing less than the criminalization of parents, most often the fathers. A father who is legally unimpeachable can be turned into a criminal by the regime of involuntary divorce.

Posted by dan at April 10, 2004 9:00 PM