Why Is Daddy in Jail?
--for the crime of wanting to see his child.
by Stephen Baskerville
As it is, some twenty-three million American children now live in fatherless households, virtually half a generation. Nearly 2.5 million will join their ranks this year, according to the National Fatherhood Initiative. The crisis of fatherless children has been called "the most destructive trend of our generation" by David Blankenhorn, author of Fatherless America. Even Bill Clinton acknowledges that "the single biggest social problem in our society may be the growing absence of fathers from their children's homes," and Al Gore has declared in more accusatory terms that "absent fathers are behind most social woes." This opinion is shared by almost 80 percent of respondents to a 1996 Gallup poll.
Indeed, nothing else accounts for as many major social problems. Recent figures from the Department of Health and Human Services confirm that violent crime, drug and alcohol abuse, teenage pregnancy, emotional and behavioral disorders, teen suicide, poor school performance and truancy all correlate more strongly to fatherless homes than to any other single factor, surpassing both poverty and race. The overwhelming majority of prisoners, juvenile detention inmates, high school dropouts, pregnant teenagers, adolescent murderers, and rapists all come from fatherless homes.
The Washington Post, New York Times, and other major media bent over backwards to avoid mentioning that young Mitchell Johnson, instigator of the shootings in Jonesboro, Arkansas, had been taken from his father, whom he was said to be close to, and moved to another state. Even as the crisis of fatherhood gains selective recognition by policymakers and the media, however, attention is confined almost entirely to "the prodigal father" who has "abandoned" his children. Fathers now get it from both sides, since the conservative campaign for "responsible fatherhood" may unwittingly reinforce the vilification of fathers in the media and by politicians and feminists. The resulting message is that until proven otherwise, fathers are presumed to be irresponsible louts whose eagerness to desert their families accounts for all our social failures.
Yet Sanford L. Braver, in his recently published book, Divorced Dads: Shattering the Myths, shows that far from abandoning their children, most divorced fathers make heroic efforts against enormous obstacles to stay in touch with them.
Scapegoating fathers has predictably done little to alleviate any of the problems associated with father absence. Indeed, it cannot even solve the one problem in terms of which politicians most often proclaim their commitment to father "involvement": the collection of child support. With a massive army of some 59,000 enforcement agents (the Drug Enforcement Administration has about 7,500), the Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement perseveres in its losing battle to squeeze money out of ejected fathers who more often than not are unemployed, impoverished, imprisoned, disabled, or dead. The General Accounting Office found in 1992 that as many as 14 percent of fathers who owe child support are dead, and 66 percent "cannot afford to pay the amount ordered." Some 52 percent earn less than $6,200 a year, according to the Poverty Studies Institute at the University of Wisconsin.
Far more useful than trying to shake down fathers with no money would be to reform a legal system that forces so many fathers out of their children's lives in the first place. But in addition to wives and the judiciary, fathers must also contend with feminist groups, who loom as the most formidable opponents of joint custody laws and are now promoting legislation that would openly legitimate the current epidemic of maternal child-snatching. The purported justification is domestic violence. An article posted on the NOW web site asserts that preserving fathers' rights to the care and protection of their children "is dangerous for women and their children who are trying to leave or have left violent husbands/fathers."
This of course begs the question of why children can be taken virtually at whim from the vast majority of fathers by whom no violence is ever demonstrated or even alleged, nor why it should be any more dangerous trying to leave truly abusive spouses who can be prosecuted under existing laws and who are precluded from custody under presumptive joint custody statutes. Yet in the present climate such obvious questions are seldom asked. So successful is anti-father propaganda now that even mainstream feminist organizations regularly use the term "batterer" as essentially synonymous with "father." In political terms, a NOW resolution asserts that the political activities of fathers' groups constitute "using the abuse of power in order to control in the same fashion as do batterers."
Both domestic violence and child abuse are serious problems, but they are by no means sex-specific. Moreover, accusations of child or spousal abuse are a widespread method of winning sole custody. NOW claims that "false accusations by women are in fact rare" (and opposes penalties for making them), but saying this does not make it so. Statistically they are not rare at all. Overall, more than two-thirds of child abuse reports are unsubstantiated, according to the National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information, and the proportion becomes overwhelming when custody is an issue. But more tellingly, NOW itself would seem to be proving just how false they are with its own legislative agenda. By legitimizing child stealing under the guise of protecting victims of domestic violence, NOW is openly practicing on the political level precisely what it claims is not happening in the family courts: the use of "battering" as a red flag to separate children from fathers who are guilty of no such thing.
There is no evidence that fathers commit any more spousal or child abuse than mothers; in fact fathers in intact families are about the least frequent perpetrators of either. The National Family Violence Survey, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and developed by Murray Straus and Richard Gelles, estimates that men are slightly more likely than women to be victims of severe domestic violence. Nor can "the high rate of attacks by wives" be explained "largely as a response to or as a defense against assault by the partner," according to one of the survey's authors, Murray Straus, in a contribution to the 1996 book Domestic Violence.
More to the point, mothersespecially single mothersare much more likely than fathers to abuse children. According to a major 1996 study by the Department of Health and Human Services, women aged twenty to forty-nine are almost twice as likely as men to be perpetrators of child maltreatment. "It is estimated that...almost two-thirds [of child abusers] were females," the report states. 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.
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Copyright © 1999 Stephen Baskerville. All rights reserved.
Stephen Baskerville teaches political science at Howard University.
This article is reprinted from the Winter 1999 issue of The Women's Quarterly, a publication of the Independent Women's Forum (www.iwf.org). For information write firstname.lastname@example.org or call 800-224-6000.
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