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
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
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
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
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