is rapidly becoming the number one
social policy issue in America. President
Bill Clinton stated in 1995 that "the
single biggest social problem in our
society may be the growing absence
of fathers from their children's homes,
because it contributes to so many
other social problems." In 1997,
Congress created task forces to promote
fatherhood, and in 1998 the governors'
and mayors' conferences followed.
President George W. Bush recently
unveiled a $315 million dollar package
for "responsible fatherhood."
Nonprofit organizations such as the
National Fatherhood Initiative were
formed in the mid-1990s. Fatherhood
was seen as the most serious social
problem by almost 80% of respondents
to a 1996 Gallup poll (NFI 1996
advocates insist that the crisis of
fatherless children is "the most
destructive trend of our generation"
1 ). Virtually every major
social pathology has been linked to
fatherlessness: violent crime, drug
and alcohol abuse, truancy, teen pregnancy,
suicide all correlate more strongly
to fatherlessness than to any other
single factor. The majority of prisoners,
juvenile detention inmates, high school
dropouts, pregnant teenagers, adolescent
murderers, and rapists all come from
fatherless homes (Daniels 1998; NFI
1996). The connection is so strong
that controlling for fatherlessness
erases the relationships between race
and crime and between low income and
crime (Kamarck and Galston 1990).
despite its salience in public policy
debates and within psychology, sociology,
and law, fatherhood has received little
attention from political scientists.
neglect is not a minor omission. Arguably
it is what has left the phenomenon
unexplained. For despite a decade
of attention, little attempt has been
made to account for where the fatherhood
crisis comes from in the first place.
While it doubtless has a number of
contributing social and economic causes
that stretch back decades, there is
evidence that the critical dimensions
it has assumed in the last decade
proceed at least in part from public
policy, and that the problem should
be seen less as sociological or psychological
and more as political.
is neglected is the large governmental
machinery that has arisen at the federal,
state, and local levels and abroad
to address family issues. Extensive
executive-branch agencies administer
not only welfare but child protection,
child-support enforcement, and other
quasi-police functions. Yet the linchpin
of this machinery is the judiciary:
the little-understood system of family
courts, which have arisen during the
last 40 years. Like the fatherhood
problem itself, this apparatus is
most highly developed in the Anglophone
countries, with the marked political
role the common law tradition bestows
upon the judiciary and with their
more extensive history of divorce
(Riley 1991). The organization varies,
but virtually every state and democratic
country now has special courts and
civil service agencies for family
issues (DiFonzo 1997). Fatherlessness
and the judicialbureaucratic machinery
connected with it have grown up together
as increasingly worldwide phenomena.
conventional wisdom enunciated by
political leaders, media commentators,
and scholars on both left and right
assumes the problem stems from paternal
abandonment. Clinton said the fathers
pursued by his administration "have
chosen to abandon their children"
(Clinton 1992). David Blankenhorn
writes that "the principal cause
of fatherlessness is paternal choice...the
rising rate of paternal abandonment"
(Blankenhorn 1995, 2223).
little work by political scientists
perpetuates this assumption. "Husbands
abandon wives and children with no
looking back," writes Cynthia
Daniels (1998, 2). "Millions
of men walk out on their children,"
says Robert Griswold (1998, 19).
who have done most to call attention
to fatherlessness, also accept this
explanation. Lionel Tiger writes that
men "are abandoning women...It
supplies much of the 50 percent divorce
rate...Perhaps this helps explain
the single-mother rate of over 30%
of births across the industrial world"
(Tiger 1999, 5758). Leon Kass blames
feminism for "male liberation
from domestication, from civility,
from responsible self-command."
this may seem intuitively correct,
but is it true? In fact, no government
or academic study has ever shown that
large numbers of fathers are voluntarily
abandoning their children.
those studies that have addressed
the question have arrived at a rather
different conclusion. In the largest
federally funded study ever undertaken
on the subject, psychologist Sanford
Braver found that the "deadbeat
dad" who walks out on his family
and evades child support "does
not exist in significant numbers."
Braver found at least two-thirds of
divorces are initiated by women. Moreover,
few of these divorces involve legal
grounds, such as desertion, adultery,
or violence (Braver 1998). Other studies
have found much higher proportions,
with one concluding that "who
gets the children is by far the most
important component in deciding who
files for divorce" (Brinig and
Allen 2000, 12627, 129, 158).
importance of this finding cannot
be overestimated. Policymakers clearly
assume the contrary, imposing punitive
measures on allegedly dissolute fathers.
"Children should not have to
suffer twice for the decisions of
their parents to divorce," Republican
Senator Mike DeWine stated in June
1998, "once when they decide
to divorce, and again when one of
the parents evades the financial responsibility
to care for them."
of unmarried fathers, usually younger
and poorer, are more difficult to
document. Yet here too the evidence
contrasts with the stereotype. One
study of low-income fathers ages 16-25
found that 63% had only one child;
82% had children by only one mother;
50% had been in a serious relationship
with the mother at the time of pregnancy;
only 3% knew the mother of their child
"only a little"; 75% visited
their child in the hospital; 70% saw
their children at least once a week;
50% took their child to the doctor
and large percentages reported bathing,
feeding, dressing, and playing with
their children; and 85% provided informal
child support in the form of cash
or purchased goods such as diapers,
clothing, and toys (Wilson 1997).
A study of low-income fathers in 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...
Most of the men were proud to be seen
as competent carers and displayed
a knowledge of child-care issues"
(Speak et al. 1999).
challenging the deadbeat stereotype,
a Rutgers-Texas study found that many
fathers state governments want to
track down for child support are so
destitute that their lives focus on
finding the next job, the next meal,
or next night's shelter. "They
struggle with irregular, low-wage
employment," the authors write.
"But economically and emotionally
marginal as many of these fathers
were, they...continue to make contributions
to their children's households and
to maintain at least a relationship
with those children" (Edin and
fathers are not abandoning their children
in record numbers, why are so many
children without fathers? Some 40%
of the nation's children and 60% of
African-American children live in
homes where their fathers are not
present (Popenoe 1993).
of the answer may be found by examining
the governmental institutions that
regulate the relationships between
parents and their children. The first
point of contact between most parents
and the state is again the family
court and the bureaucratic machinery
that surrounds it.
courts are a little-studied institution,
yet they possess powers unlike any
other governmental body. Unlike other
courts, they are usually closed to
the public, generally leave no record
of their proceedings, and keep few
statistics on their decisions, so
information is difficult to obtain.
In some ways they are closer to administrative
agencies than courts; one prominent
judge describes them as a "social
service delivery system." Uniquely,
their mandate is not even to administer
justice as such but to determine "the
best interest of the child."
Because this may involve no transgression
by litigants, family courts would
appear to be the only courts that
can summon and impose their orders
on citizens accused of no legal infraction.
while family courts sit lowest in
the judicial hierarchy, paradoxically
they are regarded as the most powerful.
"The family court is the most
powerful branch of the judiciary,"
according to Robert Page, presiding
judge of the family part of the Superior
Court of New Jersey. By their own
assessment, "The power of family
court judges is almost unlimited"
(Page 1993, 11).
most startling is that by some accounts
they claim to be exempt from the U.S.
Constitution. Family courts describe
themselves as courts of "equity"
or "chancery" rather than
"law," implying they are
not necessarily bound by due process,
and the rules of evidence are not
as stringent as in criminal courts.
As one father reports being told by
the chief investigator for the administrator
of the courts in New Jersey, investigating
a complaint in 1998: "The provisions
of the U.S. Constitution do not apply
in domestic relations cases since
they are determined in a court of
equity rather than court of law."
A connected rule, known as the "domestic
relations exception," prevents
federal courts exercising constitutional
review over family law cases.
courts handle matters such as divorce,
custody, child support, child protection,
domestic violence, and juvenile crime.
Their workload is determined by the
existence of these problems, all of
which are directly connected with
fatherless homes. Recalling Dickens'
observation that "the one great
principle of the law is to make business
for itself," it may not be overly
cynical to suggest that family courts
and their entourage have developed
a vested interest in separating children
from their parents. Though mothers
and parents in intact families can
also find their children confiscated
(a trend that seems to be increasing),
the process most often begins with
the removal of the father, the weakest
link in the family chain (Mead 1969,
198). The children then become effectively
wards of the state, where they can
be seized from their mothers as well,
often on accusations of child abuse
(Hewlett and West 1998; Wexler 1990).
other state court judges, family court
judges are elected or appointed and
promoted by commissions dominated
by lawyers and other professionals
(Jacob 1964; Tarr 1999, 6170). They
are political positions, in other
words, answerable to the bar associations
who effectively appoint them or finance
their election campaigns and who naturally
have an interest in maximizing the
volume of litigation (Corsi 1984,
10714; Watson and Downing 1969, 98,
336). While family courts, like all
courts, complain of being overburdened,
it is clearly in their interest to
be overburdened, since judicial powers
and salaries, like any other, are
determined by demand. "Judges
and staff work on matters that are
emotionally and physically draining
due to the quantity and quality of
the disputes presented," Judge
Page explains. "They should be
given every consideration for salary
and the other 'perks' or other emoluments
of their high office." If the
judiciary is viewed in part as a business,
then the more satisfied the customers
in this case, the bar associations
and divorcing parents who expect custody
the more customers will be attracted.
"With improved services more
persons will come before the court
seeking their availability,"
writes Judge Page. "As the court
does a better job more persons will
be attracted to it as a method of
dispute resolution" (Page 1993,
1920). The more attractive the courts
make divorce settlements, the more
their business and the more children
will be removed from, in most cases,
tool at their disposal is restraining
orders, which exclude fathers (or
mothers) from their children for months,
years, and even life. These orders
are routinely issued during divorce
proceedings, usually without any evidence
of wrongdoing. Elaine Epstein, former
president of the Massachusetts Women's
Bar Association, has written that
restraining orders are doled out "like
candy." "Restraining orders
and orders to vacate are granted to
virtually all who apply," and
"the facts have become irrelevant,"
she found. "In virtually all
cases, no notice, meaningful hearing,
or impartial weighing of evidence
is to be had" (Epstein 1993,
1). The rationale was revealed during
a judges' training seminar, when municipal
court judge Richard Russell told his
job is not to become concerned about
the constitutional rights of the man
that you're violating as you grant
a restraining order. Throw him out
on the street, give him the clothes
on his back, and tell him, see ya
around...We don't have to worry about
the rights. "(Bleemer 1995, 1)
associations and "revolving doors"
connect family courts to executive
branch agencies that handle child
protection and child support enforcement.
These agencies likewise can be said
to have a interest in removing children
from their fathers. Judges also wield
substantial powers of patronage, whereby
lucrative positions "are generally
passed out to the judge's political
cronies or to persons who can help
his private practice" (Jacob
links connecting these professionals
and agencies with the courts can be
glimpsed from those documented cases
that cross the line into illegality.
One investigation uncovered a "slush
fund" operated by Los Angeles
family court judges into which attorneys
and other "court-appointed professionals"
contributed. The professionals included
court monitors, who received up to
$240 a day to watch fathers accused
of spousal or child abuse while they
are with their children, raising the
question of whether the payments resulted
not simply in certain individuals
receiving appointments in preference
to others but in the function itself
being created in the first place (O'Meara
1999). What appears to be involved
is not simply individual bribery to
favor particular individuals or cases
but a kind of systemic, institutional
bribery leading to innocent fathers
being monitored. This fund may be
exceptional, in that it was exposed.
But it may be exceptional only in
degree, given that court officials
have more subtle methods of rewarding
judges who send business their way.
connections extend to the legislative
branch, where the available documentation
relates mostly to criminal cases,
which may nevertheless constitute
the tip of a larger, quasi-legal iceberg.
In March 2000 four Arkansas legislators,
including the most powerful member
of the Arkansas Senate, were convicted
on federal charges of racketeering
for taking kickbacks and arranging
government contracts for personal
benefit, mostly connected with child
custody and child support. One scheme
ostensibly provided legal counsel
to children, a practice that extends
the patronage of judges by bringing
in additional attorneys, often at
litigants' expense though in this
case with state funds voted for by
lawmakers. Columnist John Brummett
of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette wrote
on April 29, 1999, that "no child
was served by that $3 million scam
to set up a program ostensibly providing
legal representation to children in
custody cases, but actually providing
a gravy train to selected legislators
and pals who were rushing around to
set up corporations and send big checks
to each other." The program "not
only sailed through the legislature
without extended comment or eligibility
restriction," as is often the
case with legislation promoted for
children, "but got its insider
contracts expeditiously approved at
the Arkansas Supreme Court."
The offense for which the senators
were indicted was not the diverting
of contracts to their own firms
which is apparently considered legal
but receiving personal kickbacks
and the cover-up. The underlying point
here is that such opportunities only
become available once children are
removed from their parents.
largest component of government fatherhood
policies is child-support enforcement.
Here too the courts, civil services
agencies, and private firms have a
stake in separating children from
60,000 agents now enforce child support
throughout the United States, about
13 times the number in the Drug Enforcement
Administration worldwide. This does
not include the rapidly growing number
of private enforcement companies.
Though theoretically part of the executive
branch, public agencies maintain close
relationships with family courts.
David Gray Ross, head of the federal
Office of Child Support Enforcement
(OCSE) in the Clinton administration,
began his career as a family court
judge before moving on to higher courts
and a stint in a state legislature.
"He was honored as 'Judge of
the Year of America' by the National
Reciprocal Family Support Enforcement
Association in 1983 and as 'Family
Court Judge of the Nation' by the
National Child Support Enforcement
Association [NCSEA] in 1989."
That these groups bestow honors upon
judges (and a federal government web
site would boast about it) indicates
their financial interest in family
court decisions, primarily the one
removing children from their fathers
that sets the process in motion and
then the punitive child-support award
that necessitates their services.
NCSEA's Internet site lists its members
as "state and local agencies,
judges, court masters, hearing officers,
district attorneys, government and
private attorneys, social workers,
caseworkers, advocates, and other
child support professionals,"
as well as "corporations that
partner with government to enforce
child support," In other words,
it includes officials from at least
two branches of government plus the
private sector, who all have a financial
interest in having children separated
from their fathers.
child support levels is likewise a
political process dominated largely
by collection personnel. About half
the states use guidelines devised
by courts and executive-branch enforcement
agencies that interpret and enforce
them (Morgan 1998, table 1-2). Such
legislating by courts and enforcement
agencies raises questions about the
separation of powers and thus the
constitutionality of the process.
The method of formulating child support
guidelines, according to a Georgia
district attorney, "violates
both substantive due process and equal
protection guarantees of the Constitutions
of the United States and the State
of Georgia" (Akins 2000).
review process is likewise controlled
largely by enforcement personnel.
Virginia completed its review in 1999
with a commission consisting of one
part-time member representing fathers
and 11 full-time lawyers, judges,
child-support enforcement agents,
and representatives of other organizations
who have a vested interest in both
removing children from their fathers
and making the fathers' support obligations
as burdensome as possible (Koplen
1999). Georgia commissions have comprised
"individuals who are unqualified
to assess the economic validity of
the guidelines, or who arguably have
an interest in maintaining the status
quo, or both," Williams Akins
writes. Of the 11 members in 1998,
"Two were members of the judiciary,
two represented custodial parent advocacy
groups, four were either present or
former child support enforcement personnel
and two were state legislators"
ethical conflicts extend to the private
sector, where an obvious financial
interest exists in creating fatherless
children. Child-support enforcement
is now a multi-billion dollar enterprise,
with claimed arrearages of up to $68
billion and growing (HHS 2001). Privatization
has created a large industry of firms
with a stake in pursuing parents,
Policy Studies Incorporated (PSI),
SupportKids, and Lockheed Martin
IMS [LM IMS sold to
Affiliated Computer Services (ACS)
firms are also involved in setting
the levels of what they collect and
so can create the very delinquents
on which their business depends. From
1983 to 1990,
Robert Williams, now president of
PSI, was a paid consultant with
the Department of Health and Human
Services (HHS), where he helped establish
uniform guidelines for the states
with a grant from the National Center
for State Courts. During this time,
a federally driven approach led to
significantly increased obligations.
When the Family Support Act of 1988
required states to implement child-support
guidelines (and gave them only a few
months of legislative time to do so
or lose millions in federal funds),
most opted for Williams' guidelines,
the model being devised by the agency
overlooking the program (Akins 2000;
Rogers and Bieniewicz 2000).
year after joining HHS, and the same
year the federal guidelines were created,
PSI, which targeted privatization
opportunities with those he had consulted.
In 1996, his company had the greatest
number of child-support-enforcement
contracts of any of the private companies
that held state contracts (Johnston
1999). Company promotional literature
reports that PSI operates 31 privatized
service locations in 15 states. The
Denver Business Journal reported
on 27 June 1997, that
PSI had grown "by leaps and
bounds because of the national crackdown
on 'deadbeat dads,'" even before
welfare reform legislation took effect,
by which the company "stands
to profit even more."
significant than the profiteering
is the level of obligation.
PSI has a vested interest not
only in making the child-support levels
as high as possible to increase its
absolute collection, but also in making
them so high that they create arrearages
and "delinquents." Only
by creating a level of obligation
high enough to create hardship, can
the guidelines create a large enough
pool of defaulters to ensure demand
for collection services. Like his
public sector counterparts, Williams's
business depends on creating as many
deadbeat dads as possible.
model sharply raised obligations and
has been widely criticized. Economist
Mark Rogers has charged that it resulted
in "excessive burdens" based
on a "flawed economic foundation."
Williams himself has stated, "There
is no consensus among economists on
the most valid theoretical model to
use in deriving estimates of child-rearing
expenditures," and, "Use
of alternative models yields widely
divergent estimates of the percentages
of parental income or consumption
allocated to the children." Donald
Bieniewicz, member of an advisory
panel to OCSE, comments: "This
is a shocking vote of 'no confidence'
in the...guideline by its author"
(Bieniewicz 1999, 2; Rogers 1999;
Williams 1994, 104105). Yet on the
basis of this guideline, parents are
being arrested and jailed, usually
politics of fatherhood is difficult
to classify according to existing
political vocabularies. It possesses
similarities to a patronage machine,
wherein judgeships themselves are
distributed (Glick 1978, 510). The
judge in turn sits at the center of
a distribution system where he or
she is in a position to reward friends
and punish enemies. Yet the patronage
wielded in family court appears to
be less partisan and more pecuniary
(cp. Ashman 1973, 242; Jacob 1984,
112; Stumpf and Culver 1992, 49).
The judge who sits at the center of
the machine is not necessarily in
command of it, and a judge who fails
to see to the interests of the attorneys
and other professionals can be punished
when the time comes for reappointment
is unprecedented is the commodity
in contention. Children serve as the
tool or even weapon in disputes among
contending parties, not only parents
but government officials. Control
of children brings control over adults
and confers power and financial rewards
on those who can successfully claim
to be acting in the children's interest
(Brinig and Allen 2000, 133, 156).
The politics of fatherhood may thus
be seen as part of a larger politics
of children which is only beginning
to receive scrutiny (Hewlett and West
1998; Mack 1997; MacLeod 1997). An
extensive literature already examines
family politics and lays the groundwork
for political scientists to go further
in understanding the developing role
of the state in family relationships
(Binion 1991; Dewar 2000; Elshtain
1989; Houlgate 1998; Okin 1991). What
must now be explored is what happens
when specific state institutions step
in to assume control over children
and, in the name of their well-being
or that of the larger society, regulate
their relationships with their parents.
Government fatherhood programs exist
in Canada, Britain, Australia, and
New Zealand. In June 1997 the German
magazine Der Spiegel ran a cover story
on "The Fatherless Society."
The problem is increasing in countries
with such traditional family morality
as Japan and India (e.g., Bhadra Sinha,
"No Time For Each Other,"
The Times of India, 3 December 2000).
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Stephen Baskerville teaches political
science at Howard University and is
Not Peace But a Sword: The Political
Theology of the English Revolution
of Political Science
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