Monday, March 06, 2006


The Epidemic No One is Talking About

By Matt Wingard

“The statistics don’t lie. We are in a crisis of major proportions, and the casualties–both parents and children–are increasing at an alarming rate.” --Will Glennon, Fathering

Take a look at some of the trends that characterize the sad state of children in our country today. Out-of-wedlock births are rising. As of 2004, more than 31% of all children in this country are living in single parent homes. Rates of child abuse, juvenile crime, teen suicide, and school violence all remain at alarming and unacceptable levels. Mental health claims among the young are increasing and too many children live in poverty. Even annual student achievement fails to significantly improve.

Many so called “experts” (usually television pundits) claim there is no “magic bullet” to all these ills plaguing our society. The truth, however, is that a single social injustice may, in fact, bear significant responsibility for our problems. Our society openly discriminates against a large segment of the population and we may not fully realize the corrosive effect this subtle bigotry is having on our individual safety and our pocket books.

The problem: society has given up on fatherhood; and too many fathers have given up on society, on themselves, and their children.

Truthfully, we may never completely eliminate the social ills listed above. But we can all agree that the statistical levels are too high and are for the most part preventable. Most troubled children grow up in broken homes. This year, three out of every 10 babies in Oregon and across the country will be born out-of-wedlock. Statistically, divorce will add a fourth child to those already living with only one parent. These children are at higher risk of depression, suicide, early sexual involvement, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, criminal involvement, living in poverty, and falling behind in school. But look deeper into the statistics and a startling picture emerges.

According to the 2000 Census, 24 million American children do not currently live with both of their biological parents. Of these, 55% live with their mother only, 14.4% live with their father only, and 25% live with other relatives (such as grandparents). In more than 85% of these homes, the child’s biological father is missing. Roughly half of these 24 million children have either never stepped foot in their father’s home, or they haven’t seen him in more than a year. This fact has direct financial costs to every taxpayer.

As individuals, we are not personally responsible for the fact that some children grow up in single-parent homes, although we bear the financial cost as taxpayers. But we are directly responsible for the fact that most children grow up without a father. We have, through our words and deeds, fostered a fatherless society.

Make no mistake about it: the best physical, emotional, and spiritual situation for a child is to be raised by his or her married mother and father. But for children who do not receive this gift from their parents, the evidence still insists that children need an active, involved, and loving father. Fathers matter. No one doubts that children who grow up without a mother are at risk. However, the main reason society is not impacted by motherless children is because so very few children grow up without a mother.

Children need mothers. No one in their right mind would challenge the notion that mothers are essential to raising healthy children. But an unfortunately large number of people believe that fathers are either less important in the lives of healthy children or not necessary at all. This sentiment has entrenched itself in our society.

WARNING: The next sentence you read could be shocking and uncomfortable, so please prepare yourself. Fathers make a unique and positive impact on childhood development. Please read that sentence again. Do you believe it? Ninety percent of Americans say they agree with that statement, but public policy in this country says they do not. Are you one of them?

Ask yourself this question: Without being given any other information, if you were forced to give a child only one parent, which would you chose– a mother or a father? How about a thousand children? Would you give any of them a father? Would you choose a father even half the time? If we asked a thousand random people in this country that question, what percentage do you think would choose a father? Most of us don’t recognize this bias that we carry in our own hearts.

Research has shown that fathers (more than mothers) directly affect certain elements of a child’s development including: cognitive development; sex-role development; social development; and criminal tendency. A high level of paternal involvement has been associated with lower levels of delinquency and better psychological well-being. Paternal involvement is also the single most important factor in a child’s development of empathy and self-esteem.

Most importantly of all is a father’s affect on future fathers. Men who experience a positive relationship with a father who cared and sacrificed for them are more likely to be responsible fathers themselves.

Fatherlessness is directly related to higher crime levels:

--A U.S. Bureau of Justice study of juveniles in state detentions found that 70% grew up in single or no parent situations.

--The likelihood that a young male will engage in criminal activity doubles if he is raised without a father.

--One study of adolescents charged with murder found that 72% grew up without their fathers.

--A study of men accused of rape found that 60% grew up without their biological fathers.

--A larger percentage of children who grow up in single-mother households versus single-father households will end up in adult prison.

Science is extremely conclusive on this point: The one human being most capable of curbing the anti-social aggression of a boy is his biological father.

Fatherlessness is also directly related to early sexual activity, educational success and mental health:

--Daughters of single-parents are twice as likely to have a teenage pregnancy, a premarital birth, or to dissolve their own marriages.

--Teenage girls without fathers tend to have sex earlier than girls who grow up with both parents.

--Adolescent girls reared without fathers are much more likely to be sexually active compared to girls raised in two-parent families.

Studies have shown a girl’s sense of her own femininity and her competence in math are linked to a close, warm relationship with her father. And adolescent girls who spend less time with their father suffer vastly increased depression rates.

These statistics do not indicate that custody should be awarded to fathers more often than mothers. What they irrefutably indicated is that a child’s complete and healthy development requires the influence of both a mother and a father. They cannot substitute for each other. One or the other is not enough. Healthy children require both parents. The point is that fathers should be treated equally to mothers. Equal Treatment-- a fundamental constitutional right. And yet fathers’ rights are not fully recognized or protected by the courts today.

Our courts reflect our values. Fathers are openly discriminated against in the courts of law and in the court of public opinion. Aside from the men and their children who suffer personally, society as a whole is paying a high cost for this discrimination.

In his book Father and Families, author Henry Biller writes “Children with an involved father are exposed to more varied social experiences and are more intellectually advanced than those who only have contact with their mother. Infants with two involved parents can cope better with being alone with strangers and also seem to attend more effectively to novel and complex stimuli. Well-fathered children have a greater breadth of positive social experiences than those exclusively reared by their mothers.” In the face of all this evidence, why does society persist in believing that children need mothers more than fathers?

If you listen to the media today, you might be surprised to learn that a large number of divorced or never-married fathers try hard to be involved in their children’s lives-- even in the face of nearly insurmountable obstacles. As a former television reporter, I can assure you this fact is not something the media reports very often.

Depending on state law, fathers succeed in custody battles 5%-20% of the time. As a result, most fathers find themselves in the role of the non-custodial parent. Non-custodial parents have no champion. Custodial parents can enlist the full force of the state to collect child support free of charge. Non-custodial parents must petition the courts for visitation with their children-- an action that will cost them thousands of their own dollars.

In reality, legal visitation orders are not enforceable. That is to say, custodial parents can deny visitation at any time, for any reason, without any real likelihood that they will be held accountable. The police will not enforce a legal visitation order. Lawyers routinely tell their clients that denial of visitation must be documented for at least three months before a judge will agree to hear the case. Even then the action often results in the judge simply verbally reminding the custodial parent that they must honor the visitation order. Bear in mind that each trip to court costs the non-custodial parent thousands of dollars. Many fathers stop trying.

No one denies that awarding custody to one parent creates a power imbalance. People who have power use that power. In their book Surviving the Breakup, researchers Judith Wallerstein and Joan Berlin Kelly found that only half of divorced mothers value the absent father’s continued contact with his children. One-fifth saw no value in continued contact whatsoever and actively tried to sabotage the meetings by sending the children away just before the father’s arrival, by insisting that the child was ill or had pressing homework to do, by making a scene, or by leaving the children with the husband and disappearing.

The next time you hear media reports about so called “Deadbeat Dads,” consider the frustration that you might feel if you were physically prevented from seeing your biological child on a regular basis. Consider the frustration that you might feel as your legal bills mounted from $8,000 to $20,000 and beyond. It is quite common for men to spend more than $60,000 trying to see their children– if they can afford the fight (this in addition to paying child support).

Consider the frustration that you might feel knowing that a simple verbal claim of child abuse can sever your relationship with your children for at least six months. I know an experienced family attorney in Portland who no longer accepts fathers with daughters as clients. He told me that invariably a sex-abuse charge leveled by the mother will permanently end the fathers’ visitation. When it comes to children you are not innocent until proven guilty. A child’s safety, even in the face of a baseless accusation, is considered paramount in family court. This attorney told me the emotional strain that resulted from watching these men lose contact with their children was too much for him to bear, so he will not take their cases.

Society persists in believing that men are more dangerous to children than women. Consider this fact from a study done 12 years ago that I guarantee you has not changed significantly. In 1994, there were 7,197 reported cases of child abuse in Oregon. Fathers were listed as the alleged perpetrator in 22-percent of the cases. Mothers were listed as the perpetrator in nearly 44-percent of the cases. That year was not unusual.

Consider the frustration you might feel if all medical, mental health, educational and social decisions on behalf of your children were made without your consent or even your input. Many fathers are forced to watch their children being placed on ADHD drugs against their will. Consider the frustration that you would feel if your children moved further away from you without your consent.

There is a direct connection between access to children and payment of child support. Over 90% of fathers who have joint custody of their children pay child support. Among fathers with no visitation, only 43% pay child support. And yet only 17 states permit a judge to overrule an unwilling mother and decide that joint custody is in a child’s best interest. Oregon and Washington are not among them.

Once we recognize the lack of value we have placed on fatherhood, should we really be surprised by the level of fatherlessness in America today? Are we encouraging men to take responsibility for the children they create? And what messages do we send little girls and boys about the role men play in raising children?

Everyone knows a man who has faced this discrimination. Maybe he is our own father, son, brother, friend, co-worker, husband, boyfriend, or neighbor. Fatherlessness is an epidemic and father discrimination is the most popular bigotry practiced in America today. And our bias affects all the relatives on the father’s side of the family whether they are male or female. Paternal grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins can only impact the lives of children when the father has access to his children.

And yet there is no growing backlash against this bigotry. Where demonstrations do occur they aren’t getting noticed. Ten years ago I petitioned the Oregon State Legislature to pass a law giving judges the right to award joint custody. A young female legislator from Portland named Kate Brown wrote me a polite letter telling me she was killing the bill.

Next time you notice a kid without a dad, or see a TV news story about a juvenile criminal, or a child being put on drugs to calm wild behavior, remember there may very well be a father out there desperately trying to be let in on his child’s life. Until society addresses these injustices, taxpayers will keep paying for the results.

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At 8:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Matt I can't tell you how much I agree with your comments about children needing BOTH parents, mother and father. I believe that we can see where our society began to show signs of cracking and pealing. In the 60's when the generation touted free love, peace and if it feels good do it. These are the parents and grandparents who fell into this black hole of this belief. I think that when a society looses its moral guidance (what ever it may be) and are left with no strong guidance of right and wrong this starts the downfall of the family. When the family falls the infructure of that society falls. I believe that the fall of the family affects the country’s econmics.


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