Ahem. It is time to talk about a group too many people havedecided shouldn't be talked about at all, except in condemnatory terms.
That group is fathers. We in America don't often talk about realistic measures to strengthen fathers' roles in the family whose disintegration we decry. That's because fathers are seen merely as economic workhorses. And even those who do their best are treated to less respect than they deserve. ''You're the exception,'' goes the refrain. ''If only those other men were more like you . . .''
Real talk about fathers is pertinent as the nation bears down on the problem of child-support in the new, mobile era of rapid break-up of marriages, rapid job changes and the rapid rise in never-married mothers and never-married fathers. Changes in state laws mandated by congressional shifts in Aid to Families with Dependent Children and other welfare programs, have dramatically boosted child-support payments. Census Bureau figures show that by 1987, three years after the congressional effort began, child-support collections had grown 32 percent over the total of two years earlier. Average amounts improved almost 16 percent, too.
But is a father only an economic unit? We have vast bureaucracies struggling to educate fathers to their financial responsibilities, located in family-court systems across the land. We have heightened claims by academicians such as Lenore Weitzman, author of ''The Divorce Revolution,'' that ''men [in comparison to ex-wives and children] are usually much better off and have a higher standard of living as a result of divorce.''
We have laws, prosecutors and judges in every state able to convert the civil responsibility to pay child support to a criminal matter and send ''deadbeats'' to the pokey, to the cheers of some women's groups. In California, district attorneys are required by law to report non-payment of child-support orders to credit bureaus.
Beginning in 1994, such non-payment will become increasingly difficult to achieve. Federal law mandates automatic wage withholding for all new support orders, regardless of whether a ,, custodial parent requests public-agency enforcement assistance. A panoply of other federal incentives, standards and requirements will continue to boost payment rates.
Despite that, a new set of mandates is urgently requested by a federal advisory commission. Half of all women owed child support get full amounts, the panel said. A fourth get part, while the last fourth get nothing. Sock it to those deadbeats. Attack. Attack. Attack.
It seems unpopular to say it, but many of those children living ipoverty, cast before the eyes of an appalled public, are there because their fathers have been thrown out of the vaunted American economy. David Miller, a public defender in Oklahoma, noted in a Sunday Oklahoman interview that most of his clients are in court because they have suffered substantial declines in financial condition, not the gains Professor Weitzman claims.
''I have a lot of people who were self-employed, who were in the roofing business, or construction contractors and now they are broke. . . . I have clients who were executive officers with large companies, and now they are unemployed.'' Their child-support obligations continue to grow because a minimum-wage non-custodial parent cannot afford to go to court to get the support order modified. The state-paid workers who assist mothers in bringing cases are not there to help fathers.
Counseling services that might help a struggling father cope with the whole range of duties, options and connections that go with fathering a child are sadly lacking in state after state. Fathers are required to pay, even if already doing so, and any complaints they may have about what happens to the money they pay are irrelevant. No bureaucracy exists to enforce visitation orders like the one which confronts them over support payments, and pleas for help there go ignored.
Intervention, when a custodial mother seeks to drive a father away from his children, now that the adult relationship has withered? Forget it, unless he can afford to fight it out in court. Even then, the social services that might help resolve the conflict and make the children's lives easier are lacking.
In the current climate, what matters is figuring out how to geand keep those children off welfare, disguised in the most moralistic, stigmatizing, man-demonizing terms available. It is long past time that changed; the human wreckage it causes is all too obvious and, though it would take real work, actually quite preventable.
Garland L. Thompson write editorials for The Sun.