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The Federal Bureau of Marriage?

Liberty Magazine, July 2003
The Federal Bureau of Marriage?
by Stephen Baskerville

The Ministry of Love

All the cliches about custody battles obfuscate serious questions about the use of divorce to extend state power into private life.

The moment a divorce petition is filed, every family member surrenders his or her personal life to the scrutiny and control of public officials. Without children, the consequences are usually minimal. Divorce becomes socially destructive only when it involves children, and the same is true of its politics: once government takes control of children it can subject parents to an inquisition into their personal lives.

When divorce required a showing of fault, such intrusions came only after convincing a court of law that one party broke the rules. No-fault divorce dispenses with this. One parent, almost always the father, immediately loses custody. From that point, unauthorized contact with his children renders that parent subject to arrest. Few stop to think about what is happening here. A court has summoned a citizen who was minding his own business and taken away his children.

Not only is unauthorized contact with his children now a crime, but other aspects of his private life, such as his movements and finances, also become subject to criminal penalties. What amounts to a customized criminal code is wrapped around the father by the court, subjecting him to arrest for behavior that is legal for any other citizen, such as attending a soccer game where his children are present. This is all without being accused, let alone convicted, of a crime.

A father summoned to divorce court typically has a few hours notice of a hearing that may last a few minutes, and at which he may be permitted to speak a few seconds. Yet during this hearing he will lose all rights over his children, receive a schedule of a few days a month when he may see them, and be ordered to pay child support. By law, his name is immediately entered on a federal register, his wages are garnished, and the government has access to his financial information, private papers, and home.

That parent no longer has any say in where his children reside, worship, or attend school or daycare. He has no necessary access to their school or medical records, nor any control over what medications or drugs are administered to them. He can be enjoined from taking them to a doctor or dentist and told what religious services he may (or must) attend with them, and what subjects he may discuss with them in private.

He is also subject to questioning about his personal life that attorney Jed Abraham, in From Courtship to Courtroom, has termed an "interrogation." Fathers are asked how they

Whatever pieties these practitioners voice, the fact remains that their livelihood depends on a steady supply of such fatherless children.

feel about their children, what they do with them, where they take them, how they kiss them, how they feed and bathe them, what they buy for them, and what they say to them. A father's habits, conversations, writings, and purchases are all subject to examination and control. His visits with his children can be monitored and restricted to a "supervised visitation center." Anything he says to his spouse or children can be used against him in court. Family counselors and personal therapists can be subpoenaed to testify. His children can be compelled to inform on him.

Child support is under the purview of the Administration for Children and Families, the same division of Health and Human Services that is promoting healthy marriages. As heavy-handed methods become conspicuous, the ACF has devised public relations campaigns that emphasize its gentler, therapeutic side. This allows the state machinery to penetrate deeper into private lives. David Ross, head of the Office of Child Support Enforcement in the Clinton administration, proudly changed the mission statement of his office to include enforcing emotional support. "Child support Is more than money," says the National Child Support Enforcement Association. "Child support is also love, emotional support, and responsibility." Love and emotional support thus become enforceable mandates.

Ronald Mincy and Hillard Pouncy of the Brookings Institution describe a program in which fathers are required to deal with their feelings about their children. At one point, says director Gerry Hamilton, "clients must write their own obituaries as they would be written by their children. This exercise is very moving. This helps non-custodial fathers understand why contact with their children is so important."

Even as the government drives fathers away from their children, it portrays itself as bringing them back. With the slogan "They're Your Kids. Be Their Dad!" ACF sponsors media advertisements with actors depicting fathers abandoning their children for no apparent reason: "When Vanessa's daddy walks out the door today, he's never coming back." The truth is that most fathers are absent because the government makes sure they stay absent. "It's hard to stay close to your kids when you don't live with them," the ad continues, "but you can do it."

An Administration for Children and Families campaign makes clear that the relationship it most wishes to foster is between fathers and federal agents. Activities funded by ACF include helping low-income fathers learn to interact more effectively with the child support enforcement system. Programs to promote responsible fatherhood likewise disperse grants to local governments and groups to reunite fathers with their children. Yet to reunite them, one must first separate them, whereupon they can be reunited on the government's terms.

Next Part: The Feds and Families
Other Parts:

This article originally appeared in the July 2003 issue of Liberty, PO Box 1181, Port Townsend, WA 98368. Annual subscription US$29.50. Copyright 2003, Liberty, all rights reserved.

Index to more of Stephen Baskerville's articles

Stephen Baskerville's website

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Posted 2003 07 08