An Englishwoman in Washington

The US courts have ordered that a 'deadbeat dad' will face jail if he has any more children. And this is supposed to encourage responsible parenting?

Helen Searls

Topics Politics

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The US courts have sunk to a new low in their campaign to coerce parents into responsible behaviour.

In July 2001 the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld a decision of a lower family court ordering a father of nine not to father any more children while on five years probation. The court ruled that David Oakley, who currently owes $25,000 in child support, is barred from procreation unless he can prove to the court that he can financially provide for all of his children. He faces up to eight years in jail if he fails to comply.

This extraordinary ruling caused little outcry among politicians or the national media, and it certainly has not become a cause célèbre within Washington’s trendy political elite. While Oakley’s lawyers and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) expressed dismay at the ruling, elsewhere there has been little reaction to the decision.

In fact, some greeted it as ‘great news for responsible people’. The judge in the case seemed to sum up popular sentiment when he described Oakley as ‘a man who has shown himself time and again to be totally and completely irresponsible’.

It should come as no surprise, of course, that this ruling caused so few objections. Fathers who fail to pay child support – or ‘deadbeat dads’, as they are more commonly called – have long been a target of politicians, the media and family courts. It is now probably the case that deadbeat dads rank just above paedophiles in the public imagination. No restriction is considered too severe for such social outcasts.

In an attempt to collect unpaid child support the courts have routinely booted (clamped) cars, revoked driving licenses and seized bank assets. Moreover, the courts and authorities now wage public campaigns of humiliation against deadbeat dads. Not only have states issued ‘Wanted’ posters of parents who fail to pay child support – the state of Virginia announced in 2000 that it would immobilise their cars with pink and powder-blue car boots (clamps).

But it is not only deadbeat fathers who are the subjects of the courts’ wrath. In recent years state courts have gone to extraordinary lengths in an attempt to instil responsible behaviour into all kinds of parents. In summer 2000 a 32-year-old mother in Champaign, Illinois, had her son removed from her home because the boy was still breast-feeding at the age of five. The judge in that case cited the ‘enormous potential for emotional harm’ as her reason for the order. More recently, a couple in New Mexico had their child put into protective care because the courts decided that the child was unduly obese.

The policing of parental behaviour has now become so routine that most cases fail to even get reported. As I know from first-hand experience, all parents are under close surveillance in the USA today. Parents are routinely reprimanded, reported to child welfare, fined and even jailed for leaving sleeping children in their car seats or strollers outside stores. Parental judgement and authority seems to count for very little when it comes to judging who knows best for the nation’s children.

The Wisconsin ruling may seem crazy and extreme. What, for example, are Oakley’s future partners meant to do if they do become pregnant? Choose between having an abortion or sending the father of their child to jail for the next eight years? But this decision simply draws out the logical conclusion of America’s national obsession with responsible parenting. If parents cannot be persuaded or coerced into acting responsibly, then why, campaign advocates argue, should they be allowed to become parents at all?

The same state legislatures that have only just been forced to apologise for the forcible sterilisation of blacks and mentally disabled people may now be able to begin the practice again – but this time with the full backing of Washington’s liberal political elite.

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Topics Politics


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