Why Is Daddy in Jail?

–for the crime of wanting to see his child.

by Stephen Baskerville

Someday Hollywood will make a movie of this: A father is sentenced to prison for wanting to take his son to a ballgame. Up against him is his ex-wife, the legal system, and various women’s groups, all declaring him a deadbeat and a batterer, all of it untrue. But as a result, he’s in a cell while his ex and her new boyfriend take little Johnny to a Mets game.

Improbable? Only in the sense that Hollywood would ever make such a movie. Unfortunately it’s an all too real scenario that is taking place everyday across the country.

The case of a man we’ll call Alan is fairly typical. Without warning Alan came home one day to find his apartment cleaned out. His wife and two-year-old girl were gone. Shortly afterwards Alan was summoned to court and as a “defendant,” was ordered to stay away from his daughter most of the time and to begin making child support payments. His two-hour, thrice-weekly visits with his daughter were supervised and she was not allowed to stay with him overnight, since his wife alleged that he was dangerous and would kidnap her. The accusations eventually proved groundless, and the supervision terminated. After a year Alan was permitted one overnight visit with his daughter per week. His wife, meanwhile, was never charged with making false accusations nor has the fabrication counted against her in the custody proceedings. Various experts testified that Alan is no danger whatever to his daughter and that he is a devoted and loving father. All these findings were ignored by the courts. More than four years after his wife left, the child remains with her. He has spent a $160,000 inheritance on legal fees, not counting about 40 percent of his income for child support, and now lives hand-to-mouth.

Then there’s Bruce, who was a truck driver in Boston and who came home one day to find his things 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. (He did not strike anyone.) His wife called the police, who arrived and took Bruce away in handcuffs. She got a restraining order preventing any contact with his three children. When his son was hospitalized with an illness, he was not allowed to visit. Eventually Bruce was allowed to see his children at a supervised visitation center with his wife and her boyfriend present in the next room.

Another man, Tom, tells of how he was living with his wife in California, where they were raising their three children as vegetarians like themselves. He thought she was content until one day, when she told him she wanted to move back to her native Virginia. He agreed to the move. After establishing residency in Virginia, however, she left with the children, and he was hauled into court.

Then, after an injury left him without an adequate income he found himself in jail for failure to pay child support. Eventually he relocated in the Washington area to find work. Tom now drives three hours each way to get his children from his wife’s place in Virginia, twice every other weekend. His ex-wife subsequently gave up her vegetarianism and obtained a court order preventing him from discussing diet with his children. His children are used as informers to monitor his compliance, and their relationship is now strained.

Tom now belongs to a fathers’ group that meets in Arlington, Virginia. Almost every member has a similarly painful story. Some have not seen their children in years. The children of a few will no longer speak to them. Others regularly drive hundreds of miles to visit their children in hotels or visitation centers. Several with no previous criminal records have spent time in jail.

The group is currently involved with the case of Michael Mahoney, a father in an Arlington jail awaiting sentencing for criminal contempt. Mahoney has already lost his job, his home, his savings, his freedom, and most recently his health (he has developed congestive heart failure, severe stomach ulcers, sleep apnea, and has undergone brain surgery for subdural hematoma). His private life has also been exposed to public view and he himself vilified on “Geraldo” and at least one other nationally televised talk show.

And these fathers are angry. Alan describes the system as a legal “child-kidnapping and extortion racket.” Even more though, they are in shock. Like virtually all men in their position, none realized that such a thing could happen until it did.

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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 info@iwf.org or call 800-224-6000.