"Easter Bunny. Tooth Fairy. Daddy. Eventually kids stop believing in things they don't see."
"Each Night Millions of Kids Go To Sleep Starving. For Attention from Their Dads."
"Dear Daddy, My Mommy Can't Be My Daddy Too."
Bus stop ads with pictures of small African American children delivering these biting messages to their absent fathers can be seen all over Los Angeles County. They are part of a nationwide campaign to reduce fatherlessness in the African-American community. The campaign is sponsored by the National Fatherhood Initiative, an influential Maryland-based nonprofit organization which has had ties with both the Clinton and Bush administrations.
While the NFI's goal is laudable, fathers bear only part of the responsibility for black fatherlessness. Among the major factors the NFI campaign completely ignores is the fact that mothers often drive fathers out of their children's lives.
According to the Children's Rights Council, a Washington-based advocacy group, more than five million American children each year have their access to their noncustodial parents interfered with or blocked by custodial parents.
While child support orders are often enforced with great zeal, courts are slow to take effective measures to enforce visitation orders. It is difficult for low-income men to afford attorneys to fight for enforcement, particularly since they are already struggling with stiff child support obligations. As a result, many African-American men have become what prominent divorce researcher Sanford Braver calls "fathers without children."
Another problem for fathers is that domestic violence restraining order policies, which were set up to help genuinely abused women, are instead often used as weapons in custody battles. According to family law attorney Lisa Scott of the civil rights group Taking Action Against Bias in the System, most courts grant restraining orders to practically any woman who applies, and domestic violence accusations are very effective at depriving fathers of custody and visitation rights after divorce. She says:
"Most restraining orders do not even involve an allegation of physical violence. For most judges, the woman saying she 'feels afraid' of her husband is enough. Men have no way to defend themselves against these accusations. How do you argue against a feeling?"
James, a young African-American father in Los Angeles, was recently served with a restraining order in an attempt to drive him out of his three year-old daughter's life. James had been his little girl's primary caregiver for the first two and a half years of her life. He says:
"The charges in the order are completely false. I've seen many friends and acquaintances get hit by these restraining orders. They tell me that they never hit her, never touched her, never threatened her, and I used to say to myself 'yeah, right.' Now I see what's really happening."
Another major problem for California fathers is move-aways. Until last month's California Supreme Court decision in the LaMusga move-away case, custodial mothers had wide latitude to move their children hundreds or thousands of miles away from the children's fathers. Low-income fathers' child support obligations often chain them to their jobs while they are powerless to prevent their children from being moved far away from them. Because salaries, the cost of living, and child support obligations are high in California, custodial mothers frequently move to other states where the support paid by the father under California guidelines provides a better standard of living.
Many African-American fathers see the NFI's bus stop campaign as a slap in the face. Richard, a Los Angeles father of two, says:
"I did the best I could as a father, but the moment I wasn't convenient anymore I was gone. The courts didn't care about my kids having time with me, all they cared about was my money, and I don't even have much. Every time I see one of those 'Dear Daddy' posters at the bus stop I think 'what do you mean 'Dear Daddy?' Don't you mean 'Dear Mommy?' You tell daddy to be daddy, why don't you tell mommy to let daddy be daddy?'"
This column first appeared in the Daily Breeze [Los Angeles] (5/25/04).