But how about enforcing parents' visitation rights? It's fine to enforce child-support payments

June 17, 1994|By Joe Otterbein

EARLY on Friday, May 13, Baltimore sheriff's deputies arrested 71 men and nine women at their homes, jobs or other places, on warrants of failure to pay court-ordered child support. This media-covered spectacle sent a message to others who are behind in child-support payments: The state's Office of Child Support Enforcement will not tolerate those who fail to support their children.

All well and good. This ought to help the children of deadbeat parents receive the support they deserve.

But unfortunately, there are still many children of divorced parents -- in Baltimore and the nation -- who are being robbed of something no less important than financial support. These children and their noncustodial parents -- mostly fathers, but increasingly mothers -- are deprived of time together.

What such parents and children need is an Office of Visitation Enforcement. There is no such office that would set in motion a police sweep of parents who refuse to allow visitation -- many even in violation of court orders.

Parents, usually mothers who have custody, often decide for themselves if the noncustodial parents will be allowed to see and sometimes even talk to their children. Unlike those scofflaws who don't pay support, the custodial parents who void visitation rights know it's unlikely the police will come looking for them.

On Sunday, many hard-working men who pay child support and taxes will observe Father's Day alone, longing for their children. Few realize the large number of fathers who are kept from their children. There are many reports about deadbeat dads but almost none about the many heartless mothers who try to keep children from their fathers.

Such fathers are in the worst position politically, demonized by -- both Democrats and Republicans as lazy and irresponsible; they have no one to defend them from the mothers who are so clearly wrong. Liberals don't want to offend the feminists. Conservatives don't want to be viewed as being sympathetic to men, whom they perceive as being mostly urban blacks.

Worst of all is what happens to the children. Many of them wonder what they did wrong to lose their fathers' affection. Sometimes they are told that their mother's boyfriend or new husband will be their new father. This stranger, the mother says, loves them and is to be loved because he shares their home.

Such children -- especially the very young -- will soon forget their natural father. Someone else has entered their life and they may, after a while, learn to think of this new man as Dad.

What such a stepfather doesn't realize is that he may one day, too, have to battle the same woman for visitation of his children. For now, he will side with the mother against the man who comes to the door demanding to see his children.

He may begin to believe that he loves the child more, that he is the real father.

He, too, in time, may feel the hurt when the courts and others tell him that because it has been so long since he has had contact with them, they no longer view him as their father. The reason for his absence will not likely matter to the court -- even if the mother never allowed him to see them.

To win custody of a child after a period of little or no visitation also is unlikely. The courts will often say that it would be wrong to take the child away.

We need to realize that men are needed by their children to help them become happy, responsible adults. Many of the problems that plague our society are the direct result of the lack of contact young people have with men they can look up to as role models.

We should not allow those who do pay child support to suffer just because being a father is not considered as important as being a mother. Love is at least as important as money; it should be valued as much by our legal system.

Joe Otterbein writes from Baltimore.

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