PS: Political Science and Politics, vol. 35, no. 4 (December 2002).
The Politics of Fatherhood
By Stephen Baskerville, Howard University
Fatherhood 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, 1).
Fatherhood advocates insist that the crisis of fatherless children is "the most
destructive trend of our generation" (Blankenhorn 1995,
1). Virtually every major social pathology has been linked to fatherlessness: violent
crime, drug and alcohol abuse, truancy, teen pregnancy, suicideall 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).
Yet despite its salience in public policy debates and within psychology, sociology, and
law, fatherhood has received little attention from political scientists.
This 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.
What is neglected is the large governmental machinery that has arisen at the federal,
state, and local levelsand abroadto 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.
The conventional wisdomenunciated by political leaders, media commentators, and
scholars on both left and rightassumes 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).
The 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).
Conservatives, 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 liberationfrom domestication,
from civility, from responsible self-command."
All 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
Moreover, 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).
The 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."
Cases 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).
Also 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 Lein 1998).
So if 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
Part 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.
Family 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.
Thus 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).
Perhaps 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.
Family 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).
Like 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 customersin this case, the bar associations and divorcing parents who expect
custodythe 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, their fathers.
One 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 colleagues:
Your 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)
Professional 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 1984, 112).
The 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.
Such 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 firmswhich is
apparently considered legalbut 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.
The 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 their fathers.
Nearly 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
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
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.
Setting 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
The 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
support enforcement personnel and two were state legislators" (Akins
These 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, such as Policy Studies Incorporated (PSI), SupportKids,
and Lockheed Martin IMS.
These 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).
One year after joining HHS, and the same year the federal guidelines were created,
Williams started 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."
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.
Williams's 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 without trial.
The 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 and promotion.
What 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 farther 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). (See also
Parents' rights a demographic issue, by COLIN P.A. JONES, Special to
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