Life, Liberty, etc. ________________________________
Final - for publication 11/19/01 by Conn. Law Tribune
Fatherless in America By Martha A. Dean ________________________________ Norm Pattis’s recent column in The Connecticut Law Tribune on the importance of his reconnection with his now aged and long-absent father was tender and personal, but what did it have to do with the law? Quite a bit, actually. There is now widespread agreement across the political spectrum that many of the societal problems experienced in America over the past forty years are tied intimately to the breakdown in the traditional American family -- and in particular to the absence of fathers from family life. Contrary to what some feminists and gay activists appear to have suggested in the past, fathers are critical to our children’s proper development. The demise of the traditional American family has strained both our legal system and our legal order in ways previously unimaginable. The statistics bear witness to more than a social problem -- fatherlessness is a legal problem. It appears to be a significant contributing factor to lawlessness. “From the wild Irish slums of the 19th century Eastern Seaboard to the riot-torn suburbs of Los Angeles, there is one unmistakable lesson in American history:...” said Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1965, “...A community that allows a large number of men to grow up in broken families,... never acquiring any stable relationship to male authority, never acquiring any rational expectations about the future -- that community asks for and gets chaos... crime, violence, unrest, unrestrained lashing out at the whole social structure -- these are not only to be expected, they are very nearly inevitable.” Yet, since 1965, the problem of fatherlessness has only worsened. The breakup of the American family is now called -- with credibility -- “the greatest social problem in America.” It is estimated that more than 7.5 million American children grow up fatherless. Significantly, 60% of rapists, 72% of adolescent murderers, and 70% of long-term prison inmates were raised without involved fathers. Studies show that the proportion of single parent households, rather than a community’s income or poverty level, is the strongest predictor of violent crime and burglary. The likelihood that a young male will engage in criminal activity doubles if he is raised without a father and triples if he lives in a neighborhood with a high concentration of families without fathers in the home. Children without fathers are more than five times more likely to live in poverty, compared to children living with both parents. Fatherless children are twice as likely to drop out of school. It has been known for some time that children without a second parent (generally, without a father) are more likely to have significant emotional problems, to suffer in school, to commit suicide, and to parent children as single parents themselves. Fifty years ago, single parenthood was virtually unheard of. Yet, just in Colorado, there
has been a 36 % increase over the past 15 years in the number of births to single, female-headed households. Interestingly, a study released in 2000 by the University of Maryland revealed that high risk children who have fathers in their lives -- both white and minority children -- score higher on basic learning skills tests, have higher self esteem and show fewer signs of depression than such children without fathers. As the State of Colorado’s Initiative on Responsible Fatherhood recognizes, the absence of fathers from family life is both complex and intimately tied to the incentives and disincentives provided through our laws, social programs and legal system. States that merely beat the drum in favor of rounding up so-called “dead beat dads” to obtain support payments reflect a narrow and incomplete approach to a broad and tangled societal problem. While such an approach might, if successful, reduce the drain on the public purse, it ignores the legal incentives that weigh against the father’s provision of support and the often hostile legal system that many times denies to fathers the rights of a parent. Norm Pattis’s achievements and involvement as a father are a testament to the good people who raised and mentored him and to his own personal strength. As General Colin Powell remarked, “On many tours of duty, I’ve witnessed and been deeply moved by the heroic courage of young American men ... fighting far from home. Yet just as inspiring, are the heroes I encountered while touring [here in the U.S.]. I saw ... men young and old, ... [engaged] with their... kids. I know heroes when I see them. And at a time when almost 40% of all American children live without their fathers -- these men are American heroes.” So, too, is Norm Pattis. Despite what he has told us in his columns about the pain of his fatherless past, he has summoned the courage to bring his own disconnected father into his family and to be a good father himself. Such seemingly small and personal steps are the foundation of the large societal movement necessary to overcome our country’s current crisis.