The Feds and Families
Looking at the marriage initiative, left-liberals ask why a conservative administration
is involving the federal government in something as private as the family. There is irony
in these liberals defending the family against the government. Yet many Democrats are
certain to go along, because all politicians tend to go along with programs that bring
money. Domestic violence programs, for example, enjoy strong bipartisan support, because
they distribute federal money to states and localities. Attorney General John Ashcroft and
Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson are strong advocates of federal
measures on domestic violence. It is not only public officials. We can look forward to
nonprofit groups, churches, counseling programs, and marriage-saving schemes coalescing
into a marriage-program lobby.
Joe Laconte describes in First Things how governments have established offices
to broker agreements between social service agencies and congregations. One project
creates one of the nation's most ambitious mentoring programs for at-risk children.
Churches receiving federal payments to serve as father substitutes will not eagerly
surrender that job to real fathers who arc likely to do a better job of it. Health and
Human Services and the United Methodist Church are seeking to link the 2,200 YMCAs in the
United States with the child support offices in their communities. At the very time
churches are relinquishing their role as guardians of what is supposedly a sacred
covenant, they arc being recruited as government informers.
Secretary Thompson recently announced $2.2 million in grants to faith-based groups to
improve the financial and emotional well being of children. Deputy Health Secretary Wade
Horn, head of the Administration for Children and Families, says the grants reach out to
those who need help in acquiring the skills necessary to build relationships.
Yet only 25 percent of the funds will promote marriage: the remaining three-fourths is
for enforcing child support.
Most fathers are absent because the
government makes sure they stay absent.
Child-support programs would seem to be at cross-purposes to the
promotion of marriage, because child support subsidizes divorce. Yet the Marriage
Coalition in Cleveland, an ostensibly faith-based organization which claims to be saving
marriages, will receive $200,000 to help collect child support.
A major extension of government power over private life is taking place here. One
federal ruling holds that parenting is a right "far more precious than property
rights" which "undeniably warrants deference and . . . protection." Yet
such apparently unequivocal principles are ignored by courts administering no-fault
divorce. The common law has also long recognized, in the words of former Supreme Court
Justice Byron White, a "realm of family life which the state cannot enter." Yet
current divorce law gives officials the power to intervene In homes at the mere request of
one parent, not because the other parent is suspected of a legally recognized offense, but
because of ordinary family differences.
Prior to the divorce revolution, legal authority over children had been recognized to
reside with their parents until the parents had done something to forfeit it. "For
centuries it has been a canon of law that parents speak for their minor children,"
observed former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart. "So deeply embedded in our
traditions is this principle of the law the Constitution itself may compel a state to
respect it." Yet the state has now institutionalized precisely the opposite
principle: that "the child's best interest is perceived as being independent of the
parents," in the words of a major child support enforcement contractor, "and a
court review is held to be necessary to protect the child's interests."
This phrase, the child's best interest, sounds deceptively benign. Yet it gives the
government the power to define this interest over the objections of parents who have done
nothing to forfeit their rights. "Such a criterion is dangerous because it renders
the claims of all parents to their natural children tenuous," writes Robyn Blumner of
the American Civil Liberties Union.
Many accept this practice on the assumption that a judge must decide what is best for
children when the parents cannot agree. But empowering one parent to turn control of
children over to state officials because of routine family disagreements eliminates
private life and invites collusion between officials and that parent.