Washington Post

The Real Crisis of Fatherhood

By Stephen Baskerville
The Washington Post
Sunday, February 4, 2001; Page B07

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. 24].

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 as well.

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 cause.

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.

The writer teaches political science at Howard University.

© 2001 The Washington Post