Dads Against the Divorce Industry

DA*DI is devoted to reinstating the societal valuation of Marriage and the traditional, nuclear American Family, with particular emphasis on the essential role of FATHERS.

DA*DI offers contemporary reports and commentary on culture; its aberrations and its heroes.

Kathleen Parker: Making Sense of Things

Don't Throw the Book
At All Deadbeat Dads

Kathleen Parker

"You can't open a newspaper these days without reading about America's couple du jour: Deadbeat Dad and Welfare Mom. They're the bane of moral America, metaphor for our nation's declining families, political scapegoats for everything from the national deficit to teen violence.

The solution to our problems is crystal clear, to hear our leaders talk. Track down the deadbeats, make them pay up, and some 800,000 welfare moms and children magically will be freed from the shackles of poverty and dependency. President Clinton has promised as much along with his vow to track down fathers who've fallen behind in their child-support payments. Meanwhile, state attorney generals around the country are posting "wanted" fliers of deadbeat dads on courthouse walls and on the Internet, as well as garnishing wages, throwing fathers in jail and, in some cases, revoking driver's licenses.

Who are these dastardly deadbeats anyway? They're probably lolling around some Caribbean beach as we speak, sipping frozen daiquiris from pineapple shells while bikini-clad native girls massage their feet. Such is the stereotypical image that comes to mind as we ponder the irascible deadbeat dad - a man who has abandoned his family to pursue broader interests.

We need only recall Jeffrey Nichols - the $300,000-a-year precious metals expert who didn't support his kids - to feel smugly self-righteous in our pursuit of these scoundrels. The problem is, most deadbeats aren't like Nichols. Most are more like William Koontz, a Clarence, MO factory worker who earns $15,000 a year and owes $96,000 in back child support. Koontz's wages now are being garnished to the tune of $140 per week to reimburse the state of Florida for money it paid Koontz's ex-wife to support their two children. His new family, meanwhile, is on food stamps.

Those weary of government handouts are pleased to applaud government action that exacts greater responsibility from parents. Yet, there's the nagging sense that not all financially strapped dads are malicious or neglectful, and that these symbolic public lynchings in some cases may be unfair.

Gerald Rowles, head of DA*DI (Dads Against The Divorce Industry), analyzed Iowa's recently unveiled deadbeat dad poster comprised of men who habitually had disregarded court orders. Nine of the 11 are twentysomething, blue-collar construction or low-income workers earning annual salaries of about $16,000.

"My suspicion," says Rowles, "is that most of these guys don't even know that a court-order has been issued." Meanwhile, all have been found guilty in the public eye if not by a court with no consideration of possible extenuating circumstances.

No one's trying to raise the status of deadbeat dad to martyr, but the current political fervor radiates the indiscriminate heat of a lynch mob. The truth is that the vast majority of non-custodial fathers DO pay child support. Many who don't pay simply don't have the money. The federal government says 66 percent of non-payments are due to "financial inability."

In other cases, fathers don't pay because they've been alienated from their children, often not by choice. According to the Census Bureau 90 percent of fathers awarded joint custody pay their child support. Of those with visitation rights, 79 percent pay. Of those fathers with no visitation, only 45 percent meet their child-support obligations.

In other words, men who don't get to see their children tend to move on, a fact that may not be morally defensible, but which nonetheless is humanly understandable.

It seems that if we're really interested in protecting children rather than in seeking revenge or increasing political leverage, we might do better to stop slapping fathers' faces on wanted posters and focus on the underlying problem, which seems obvious:

For a variety of reasons, fathers increasingly feel disenfranchised from their children. It is nearly axiomatic that with disenfranchisement comes dereliction of duty. The solution to deadbeat dads isn't criminalizing fathers, but allowing them to be part of their children's lives. Tonight, in a nation where fatherlessness is recognized as one of our most serious social problems, 42 percent of all children will sleep in a house where their biological father does NOT live.

The wonder isn't that we have deadbeat dads, but that we don't have more.

Sure, some of the deadbeats are low-lifes who don't care about their kids. In every town and country, a certain percentage of men and women are irredeemable scumbags. But it's surely unfair and unproductive to label every father who falls behind in his child support payments a "deadbeat dad." It's also not a very nice message to send to his children, who, you can be certain, already have suffered enough."

Kathleen Parker's column is distributed by Tribune Media Services. She welcomes your views and suggestions. Mail: The Orlando Sentinel, MP-6, P.O. Box 2833, Orlando, FL 32803-2833.

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