Making Family Policy with only Half the Family

GARLAND L. THOMPSON

November 02, 1991|By GARLAND L. THOMPSON | GARLAND L. THOMPSON,Editorial writer for The Sun.

Jack Kammer is worried. The president of the Greater Baltimore Commission for Men, Mr. Kammer seeks ''to bring awareness of male gender issues to social policy-making and to raise public awareness of the existence and consequences of anti-male bias and stereotyping of men and boys.'' What has him most worried just now is the ongoing public hearings on family law being held by the Governor's Task Force on Family Law.

The Task Force, meeting since February to rework Maryland's divorce law, has already held three of five public hearings. It met in Silver Spring October 2 with residents of Montgomery and Prince George's counties. On October 23, it met residents of Carroll, Howard and Harford counties in Ellicott City. The Baltimore County-Baltimore City hearing was held Wednesday at Towson State University. Mr. Kammer saw 17 women and 3 men testify at an afternoon session and 10 women and 5 men in the evening.

Hearings are set for Allegany, Frederick, Garrett and Washington counties Monday at Hagerstown Junior College, and for the Eastern Shore November 12, at Easton's Mayor and Council Building.

Mr. Kammer is troubled by the disparity between women and men testifying. But Towson's witnesses are representative of the hearings thus far: 40-45 people typically attend, said Task Force staffer Jay Caplan. It is difficult to see how such a small number can speak for Maryland's majority, however. Mr. Caplan said he has no budget for publicity, but relies on women's groups to get the word out. Women have a legitimate interest in hearings to examine such issues as revising the grounds for divorce; child support, spousal support and property distribution; custody and access to children; and whether Maryland should have a family court.

But so do men. Mr. Kammer's complaint about disparate witnesses is valid, but the low profile of hearings to affect every one of the state's 4 million citizens should trouble everyone. At the very least, public sessions could be spread around better. Baltimore has the state's largest court system, with lines of men and women awaiting paternity, child-support and custody hearings every day. It is not unreasonable to expect better opportunities for comment by these citizens, many from lower-income backgrounds.

Mr. Kammer notes that the speakers who have appeared gave almost rote recitations: mothers say support is inadequate, late or not forthcoming at all and urge draconian recovery measures. The few fathers say support orders are often unreasonable; that the new guidelines require too much from fathers; and that there is no enforcement of visitation rights. And though some fathers have joint or even full custody, antiquated social mores still guide judges to stack custody considerations in favor of mothers.

For too long, the fathers' arguments have been rejected out of hand. But the available evidence suggests giving better weight to the father's participation in the life of a family post-separation.

Census figures say that one half of American men charged with paying support pay what's ordered, another quarter pay some of it and the rest pay nothing. In Maryland, fewer than half of 260,000 families entitled to support get it. Of 123,000 families on welfare, 75 percent receive no support from absentee spouses, mostly dads.

But does anyone out there really believe those fathers whose kids are on welfare make much above minimum wage? Their children probably would need state help even if they did pay, and many of those fathers don't even have jobs. For those who do, another statistic speaks reams: Eight out of 10 fathers with visitation rights pay child support.

Mr. Kammer wrote a September commentary about the destructive results of treating fathers as merely paychecks to be chased, but it appears that even their financial support is greatly undervalued. Payments are often all a court considers, but the reality in many cases is that men provide in-kind support as well as playing a meaningful role in their children's lives. Enforcement regimes that required true accounting for the moneys provided and put teeth into visitation and shared-custody provisions could work wonders, instead of helping to divorce fathers from their children as the current system does.

No one should excuse abandoning a family. But real correction of the ills so many complain of cannot be had without real attention to the situation of the hundreds of thousands of fathers who act responsibly. The ''deadbeats,'' a minority even in figures from the most outspoken women's groups, cannot legitimately define the limits of what needs to be done.

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