Saturday, May 15, 1999
WHY IS DADDY IN JAIL?by Stephen Baskerville
Bruce is a father who came home one day to find his belongings on the street, the locks on his doors changed, and his wife's new boyfriend already moved in. Angry and bewildered, Bruce kicked in the door and began shouting. His wife called the police, who arrived and took Bruce away in handcuffs. She then got a restraining order preventing any contact with his three children. When his son was hospitalized with an illness, Bruce was not allowed to visit. Eventually he was allowed to see his children at a supervised visitation center, for which he must pay an hourly fee, with his wife and her boyfriend present in the next room. He pays half his salary to his wife and her boyfriend in child support.
Bruce's experience is increasingly common among fathers. In fact, it is now epidemic. Enormous numbers of fathers who are accused of no wrongdoing are losing their children, plundered for everything they have, publicly vilified, and then incarcerated without trial.
The astounding fact is that, with the exception of convicted criminals, no one today has fewer rights than fathers. Even accused criminals have the right to due process of law, to know the charges against them, to a lawyer, and to a trial. A father can be deprived of his children, his home and life savings, and his freedom with none of these constitutional protections.
How has this startling situation come about, and why does no one seem to know about it? A combination of changes in divorce law, feminist and media vilification, and the usual machinations of the legal profession has left fathers with no protection against the confiscation of their children. It has also left them the targets of what may be the most massive witch hunt in this country’s history.
Under the guise of pursuing deadbeat parents, we are now seeing mass incarcerations without trial, without charge, and without counsel, while the media and civil libertarians look the other way. We also have the spectacle of the highest officials in the land -- including the president, the attorney general and major cabinet secretaries, and leading members of Congress from both parties -- using their office as a platform to publicly attack private citizens who have been convicted of nothing and who have no opportunity to reply. We also have government officials freely entering the homes of citizens who are accused of nothing and simply helping themselves to whatever they want -- including children, life savings, and private papers and effects.
All this is now the norm for fathers whose only offense is to have had their children taken away. They need not be accused, let alone convicted, of any wrongdoing; they need not have given any grounds for divorce; they need not even have agreed to one.
But surely these are "deadbeat dads" who have abandoned their children? Not at all. According to the largest federally-funded study ever on divorced fathers, psychologist Sanford Braver of Arizona State University has shown conclusively that two-thirds of divorces are filed by mothers, who have virtual certainty of getting the children and a large portion of the fathers income, regardless of any fault on their part. Far from abandoning their children, 90 percent of deserted fathers pay court-ordered child support (unemployment being the main reason for nonpayment), and most make heroic efforts to stay in contact with children from whom they are forcibly separated by the police.
And these are fathers who are accused of nothing. Those who face trumped-up charges of child abuse must in addition prove their innocence before they can hope to see their children. Yet it is now well-established that most child abuse takes place in the homes of single mothers. A recent study by the Department of Health and Human Services found that almost two-thirds of child abusers were females. Given that male perpetrators are not necessarily fathers but much more likely to be boyfriends and stepfathers, fathers emerge as the least likely child abusers. From the perspective of the father it would appear that the real abusers have thrown him out of the family so they can abuse his children with impunity.
David Gray Ross, head of federal child support enforcement, has a huge sign over his door proclaiming "Children first" and tells a television reporter, "We really are looking out for the children." It is very easy for Mr. Ross and his plainclothes agents to pose as the defenders of wronged women and children; the smug self-righteousness of judges, lawyers, and child support enforcers is a source of constant humiliation to ejected fathers. Yet we should bear in mind that their chivalry costs them nothing. On the contrary, we now have a sizable portion of the population making quite a handsome living in the business of hunting down fathers.
If we take a moment to glance at what it now costs fathers to stay in contact with children who have been removed from their care and protection through no fault of their own, and who must now risk almost certain financial destruction, public excoriation, and indefinite incarceration, we might discover that it is not so simple to say precisely who are the villains and who are the heroes.
The writer teaches political science at Howard University. This column is adapted from an article in the Winter 1999 issue of The Women's Quarterly.
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