Orlando Sentinel

Protests of good dads deserve a hearing

Kathleen Parker
Columnist
Published in The Orlando Sentinel on December 10, 1999.

Think Boston Tea Party. Now fast forward 226 years to the Lincoln Memorial's Reflecting Pool, where, on Nov. 7, dads from throughout the country tossed their divorce and child-custody decrees.

These men are self-anointed revolutionaries, who, in cities throughout the nation, are waging war to make divorce fairer. They want changes in how children and child support are awarded; they want to stop the communications-media messages that paint all men as potential batterers and deadbeats; they want their children back.

One can hardly blame them. In 80 percent of divorces -- the majority of which are initiated by women -- mothers get the couple's children, while fathers, relegated to visitor status, get only a monthly child-support bill. Failure to produce child support, regardless of circumstances, can land a man in jail these days. No one seems to care much about the effect of incarceration on the man's earning potential -- future employers don't scramble to hire felons -- or on the man's children, who once knew this inmate as "Dad."

What is known but rarely reported is that many of the men we call "deadbeats" are either unemployed, underemployed, broke, in jail or in drug rehab. A University of Wisconsin study found, for instance, that more than half of nonpaying, unmarried fathers earned less than $6,155 per year.

It's difficult to get a handle on the true figures concerning child-support payments. U.S. Census Bureau reports are based only on mothers' reporting. The popular understanding that $34 billion is owed in back child support, meanwhile, was based on estimates of what would be owed if all mothers were granted an award and if all fathers earned the median income.

That's a lot of "ifs" and flies in the face of reality. A 1995 U.S. Census Bureau Statistical Brief, for instance, showed that during one year (1992), only 12 percent of custodial mothers due child support got none. Of 56 percent who were awarded payment, 37 percent received all or some. Forty-four percent of women with children were awarded nothing, most because they were either never-married or the "fathers" were poor.

No one excuses men who abandon their children -- and there are enough to cause concern -- but the trickle-down attitude born of ubiquitous messages about "deadbeat dads" feeds the anger of good men who really do want to be fathers.

Meanwhile, deadbeat mothers -- who, in fact, pay less often than non-custodial fathers -- are rarely pursued with the same draconian fervor as men are. When a deadbeat mother was arraigned in a New York federal court a few weeks ago, men's networks left rubber on the Information Highway as they scrambled for their message boards.

If equal treatment of deadbeats is rare, so, too, is a balanced story about the fabled batterer-husband. Especially irritating to fathers' groups is the sequel to the 1994 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) under consideration by Congress this fall. On the surface, one would be hard-pressed to find fault with a law that purports to help battered women and children. But the new VAWA -- which would offer a variety of social services to battered women and require employers to make special arrangements for women who claim abuse -- would do so at great risk to fairness and that quaint judicial notion of "innocent until proven guilty." As written, the VAWA would require no evidence of abuse and presume the accused man's guilt when extending services to women. Other language in the legislation would have the effect of precluding shared parenting should a woman accuse a spouse of abuse, again without evidence.

Father-activists, some of whom say they have been falsely accused in their own divorces, are outraged by this broad-stroke assumption of men's evil. Even if you don't believe any of their stories, the potential for systematic abuse under the new VAWA is obvious. Common sense suggests that at least some of these men are telling the truth.

Meanwhile, numerous independent studies, as well as Justice Department figures, show that women initiate violence as often as men do within the home, though more women die or are seriously injured in the process. As for the murder of offspring, mothers account for 55 percent of killers, according to the 1994 U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report: Murder in Families.

Such statistics don't take bad men off the hook -- or minimize the horror of battered women -- but they should give pause to those who instinctively embrace the stereotypes of the deadbeat dad/battering father-husband/woman-as-victim. Such are the stereotypes that drive men wild these days {spcostr} and put them on the road to Washington last month.

Not all these angry fellows are saints or paragons of truth. In fact, some of the scarier fringe-clingers within the fatherhood movement won't be satisfied until repeal of the 19th Amendment. You know, the one that gave women the vote.

Still, the protests of many good fathers deserve a fair hearing. Our nation is suffering a crisis of fatherlessness, with all the accompanying social pathologies that plague America's youth. Any policies we pursue should be for the purpose of strengthening families and reinvigorating the institution of fatherhood, rather than further fueling gender hostilities.

This is a special column by Kathleen Parker, whose columns usually appear Sunday in the Sentinel's Insight section and Wednesday in the Living section. E-mail: kparker@kparker.com

[Posted 12/09/1999 7:20 PM EST]

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