Who Says Justice Is Blind to Gender?

GARLAND L. THOMPSON

April 18, 1992|By GARLAND L. THOMPSON

"Judges, lawyers being observed for hint of gender bias.''Interesting concept. Louis Reuter wishes the volunteers had been around in 1991 when he got his divorce.

Mr. Reuter, a truck driver from Whitehall, broke up with his wife in 1989, with the typical emotional heat that makes divorce so painful. At one point, he was ordered to pay child support, but he is the one who kept the kids. He won a master's decision for support for his two children, Keith Allen, now 13, and Adam Joseph, now 8, in June of 1990. His wife, employed at an insurance office in Hunt Valley, wound up not paying, however, and his efforts to get help from the Department of Social Services came to nought.

A March 1991 letter from a female officer of the Baltimore County Circuit Court's Support and Custody Division told him that ''A copy of [the] Report of Master is in our file. His recommendation was $45.00 per week. However someone filed exceptions to the Master's Recommendation. In checking the Courts' file in your case on October 5, 1990, I found that the exceptions had not been heard and no Order of Court was ever signed by the Judge. If the exceptions were heard or an Order was signed, this office is not aware of same.

''This office opened an account to process moneys received from [your wife] and these were paid out to you. However, unless you can furnish us with a signed Order of Court, there is no way we can enforce support for the children.''

That's not the experience the average father sued for child support has. Mysterious ''exceptions'' don't protect him from being called a deadbeat, lambasted by society as the reason kids live in poverty and cast up as a horrible example justifying increased penalties for non-payment. Volunteers looking for gender bias might help.

In any case, in January 1991, Mr. Reuter got a final decree of divorce, signed by Judge Barbara Kerr Howe. Its provisions are interesting, too. Among other things, it provided that ''the Defendant, Louis Reuter, be and he is hereby awarded the care and custody of the two minor children of the parties;'' That the plaintiff had visitation rights and was responsible for transportation ''to and from where the children are at that time for exercising her visitations; and it is further

''ORDERED, that child support payments from the Plaintiff to Defendant in the amount of Forty-five dollars ($45.00) per week be and the same is hereby terminated for a period of three (3) years commencing October 18, 1990, in consideration of Plaintiff's waiver of alimony and monetary award. At the expiration of the three-year period, Defendant may re-petition the Court for child support, at which time the child support ordered, if any, shall be determined at that time based upon each party's financial circumstances and income at that time.''

Let's get this straight. Mr. Reuter gets to keep the kids but waives any help supporting their needs in exchange for not having to support a woman who can work to support herself? Fathers are told they must pay child support or else when they don't keep the kids; how come it's different for dad as care-giver?

Finally, Mr. Reuter was ordered to quit all attempts, civil or criminal, to reclaim moneys he believes his ex-wife scarfed up unfairly. That rubbed hot salt in his wounds; quarrels over money he says broke the pair up in the first place.

Mr. Reuter now thinks his youngest son has a learning disability. The boy suffered meningitis in 1989, while the couple was still together. Mr. Reuter has serious questions about the length of time it took him to convince his wife the child needed a doctor, but he couldn't get anybody to listen to him at child protective services. He's paying a heavy mortgage and he doesn't have money for the extra help he thinks his son needs. So in desperation, he wrote Judge Howe.

On Feb. 21, 1991, she wrote back that his ''agreement'' to waive child support was ironclad, but to ''please note that you still reserve the right to re-petition this Court for child support after a period of three (3) years has passed from October 18, 1990. I strongly advise you to exercise this option as soon as the three-year period has expired.''

Among other things, the letter told Mr. Reuter the judge was ''unable to foresee the complications that you now encounter without an expression of dissatisfaction on your part during the hearing,'' but that she wished ''you and your children well and have great faith in your ability to provide for your family. I believe that the greatest obstacle to your family's happiness has been removed and am confident that your family will thrive and prosper in the coming years. . . .''

Mr. Reuter, who's struggling with the bills, isn't quite so sure. He wonders why the agencies whose officers express such protective feelings for children in news reports about ''deadbeat dads'' had so little zeal when he showed up, a father fighting for his kids. It's about time guys like him got better answers.

Garland L. Thompson writes editorials for The Sun.

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