Family Alliance Foundation


Fatherhood Project >

During the past decade, family issues such as marriage and fatherhood have rocketed to the top of the domestic-policy agenda. The past two presidential administrations, along with numerous local governments, have responded to the continuing crisis of the family by devising measures to involve governmental machinery directly in the management of what had previously been considered private family life. The Bush administration has proposed $300 million annually to “promote responsible fatherhood” and for federal promotion of “healthy marriages.” Earlier, President Bill Clinton created a “Presidential Fatherhood Initiative,” and Vice President Al Gore chaired a federal staff conference on “nurturing fatherhood.” Congress has established bipartisan task forces on fatherhood promotion and issued a resolution affirming the importance of fathers. Almost 80 percent of the respondents to a 1996 Gallup poll saw fatherhood as the most serious social problem today (NCF 1996).

A generation of fatherhood advocates has emerged who insist that fatherlessness is the most critical social issue of our time. In Fatherless America, David Blankenhorn calls the crisis of fatherless children “the most destructive trend of our generation” (1995, 1). Their case is powerful. Virtually every major social pathology has been linked to fatherless children: violent crime, drug and alcohol abuse, truancy, unwed pregnancy, suicide, and psychological disorders—all correlating more strongly with fatherlessness than with any other single factor, surpassing even race and poverty. The majority of prisoners, juvenile detention inmates, high school dropouts, pregnant teenagers, adolescent murderers, and rapists come from fatherless homes (Daniels 1998, passim). Children from affluent but broken families are much more likely to get into trouble than children from poor but intact ones, and white children from separated families are at higher risk than black children in intact families (McLanahan 1998, 88). The connection between single-parent households and crime is so strong that controlling for this factor erases the relationship between race and crime as well as between low income and crime (Kamarck and Galston 1990, 14).

Given these seemingly irrefutable findings, a case might be made that both liberals and conservatives should rethink their priorities. Rather than spending more on antipoverty programs, as the left advocates, or on ever harsher law enforcement, beloved of the right, both sides should get together and help restore fatherhood as a solution to social ills. On its surface, the government’s fatherhood campaign seems to make good sense. As currently conceived, however, it may be having precisely the opposite effect of that advertised.

The policymakers’ discovery of fatherhood has a disturbing side. In August 2002, Health and Human Services (HHS) secretary Tommy Thompson announced mass arrests of parents he says have disobeyed government orders, calling them the “most wanted deadbeat parents.” The roundups were carried out under a program started by the Clinton administration called Project Save Our Children. The Clinton years saw repeated and increasingly harsh measures against “deadbeat dads.” The 1998 Deadbeat Parents Punishment Act was accompanied by a “child support crackdown . . . to identify, analyze, and investigate [parents] for criminal prosecution.” HHS secretary Donna Shalala announced the Federal Case Registry to monitor almost 20 million parents, whether or not they had child-support arrearages, and the Directory of New Hires database, which records the name of every newly hired individual in the country (HHS 1998b).

Amid all this attention, little informed discussion has occurred about the appropriate role of public policy with respect to fatherhood and families. Marshalling federal agencies to “promote” something as private and personal as a parent’s relationship with his own children raises questions. The assumption that the government has a legitimate role in ameliorating the problem of fatherlessness also glides quickly over the more fundamental question of whether the government has had a role in creating the problem. What we see in the “fatherhood crisis” may be an optical illusion. What many are led to believe is a social problem may in reality be an exercise of power by the state.

The conventional wisdom—enunciated by political leaders, media commentators, and scholars—assumes that the problem stems from paternal abandonment. Clinton claimed that the fathers pursued by his administration “have chosen to abandon their children” (1992). Blankenhorn writes, “Today, the principal cause of fatherlessness is paternal choice . . . the rising rate of paternal abandonment” (1995, 22–23). David Popenoe, author of the essay “Life Without Father,” writes that fathers “choose to relinquish” the responsibilities of fatherhood (1998, 34). Yet none of these policymakers or writers cites any evidence for this claim; in fact, no government or academic study has ever shown that large numbers of fathers are abandoning their children. Moreover, studies that answer the question directly have arrived at a different conclusion.

In the largest federally funded study ever undertaken on the subject, Arizona State University psychologist Sanford Braver demonstrated that few married fathers voluntarily leave their children. Braver found that overwhelmingly it is mothers, not fathers, who are walking away from marriages. Moreover, most of these women do so not with legal grounds such as abuse or adultery but for reasons such as “not feeling loved or appreciated.” The forcibly divorced fathers were also found to pay virtually all child support when they are employed and when they are permitted to see the children they have allegedly abandoned (1998, chap. 7).

Other studies have reached similar conclusions. Margaret Brinig and Douglas Allen found that women file for divorce in some 70 percent of cases. “Not only do they file more often, but . . . they are more likely to instigate separation.” Most significantly, the principal incentive is not grounds such as desertion, adultery, or violence, but control of the children. “We have found that who gets the children is by far the most important component in deciding who files for divorce” (2000, 126–27, 129, 158, emphasis in original). One might interpret this statistic to mean that what we call divorce has become in effect a kind of legalized parental kidnapping.

Moreover, the vast machinery devoted to divorce and custody litigation now has the power not only to seize children whose parents have done nothing legally wrong, but also to turn forcibly divorced parents into outlaws without any wrong action on their part and in ways they are powerless to avoid. What we are seeing today is nothing less than the criminalization of parents, most often the fathers. A father who is legally unimpeachable can be turned into a criminal by the regime of involuntary divorce.

Partly responsible is “no-fault” divorce, or what marriage advocate Maggie Gallagher terms “unilateral” divorce, which allows one spouse to abrogate the marriage contract without incurring any liability for the consequences (1996, 143–52). “In all other areas of contract law those who break a contract are expected to compensate their partner or partners,” writes researcher Robert Whelan, “but under a system of ‘no fault’ divorce, this essential element of contract law is abrogated” (1995, 3). When children are involved, their separation from one parent is then enforced by the state, with criminal penalties against that parent for literally “no fault” of his own.

We do not know precisely how many are affected. Approximately 1.5 million divorces are granted annually in the United States. Some studies predict 65 percent of marriages will end in divorce. Some 80 percent of divorces are unilateral, and the figure may be higher when children are involved in approximately three-fifths of divorces. All told, more than a million children become victims of divorce each year (Furstenberg and Cherlin 1991, 22; Gallagher 1996, 5, 9, 22, 84–86; Martin and Bumpass 1989). These figures imply that at least 700,000 parents are involuntarily divorced each year, and control of their children is taken over by the government. For all we can be certain, all 12–20 million parents now being pursued as quasi-criminals by the federal government have been separated involuntarily from their children through no legal fault of their own (HHS 1998b; OCSEA 2001). 

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of this point, which contradicts the assumptions of policymakers who call for repeated crackdowns on allegedly dissolute fathers. “Children should not have to suffer twice for the decisions of their parents to divorce,” Senator Mike DeWine declared in June 1998, “once when they decide to divorce, and again when one of the parents evades the financial responsibility to care for them” (Congressional Record, June 5, 1998, S5734). Yet most fathers and noncustodial mothers make no such decision.

Punitive measures imposed on noncustodial parents might be justifiable if, as is popularly believed (and as government statements strongly imply), those parents were deserting their families, giving legitimate grounds for divorce or even agreeing to it. Parents who dissolve marriages arguably give the state an interest in ensuring the well-being of their children. It is not clear, however, what compelling public interest justifies removing children from parents who do not act to dissolve their marriages.

Some reply that even fathers whose children are taken from them through no fault or agreement of their own are still obliged to support them financially and to obey other court orders. That all parents have a legal and moral responsibility to care and provide for their children is not at issue. The question not being asked, however, is why parents charged with no civil or criminal wrongdoing must surrender to the government the right to rear their own children. Requiring an unimpeachable parent “to finance the filching of his own children,” as attorney Jed Abraham puts it (1999, 151), encourages government officials to seize control of the children, property, and persons of as many citizens as they can, thereby increasing their jurisdiction and the demand for their services. 

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