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Re$pon$ible Fatherhood

Divorce Industry Punishes Criticism, Corrupts Gov't.

The Secretary of Health and Human Resources of the Commonwealth of Virginia has informed me that, because of "opinions" and "criticisms" of government officials I expressed in an article (Appetite for family destruction) published in the Washington Times and other respected newspapers, my appointment to a government panel has been rescinded. "Upon reviewing your opinions published in the June 17, 2001, Washington Times, we question whether you would be able to work effectively with other Panel members," Secretary Louis Rossiter writes. Astoundingly, he adds, "I find it difficult to see how you could effectively participate along with representatives of other groups that very likely have different perspectives than yours."

The federal and state statutes specifically require that such panels represent a variety of different interests and perspectives. That is precisely the purpose of the panel, to represent different points of view (but apparently not too different). If the Secretary doubts that my "opinions" are representative of non-custodial parents, an official of his department told me that I was recommended for the position by more custodial parents than any other candidate.

Ironically, the article for which I have been dismissed was less on child support as such than on government ethics in Virginia. The article charged that free government and constitutional rights have been corrupted by the child support system. Secretary Rossiter has proven my charges by his action, which shows that the corrupting influence of child support enforcement now reaches to the highest level of Virginia government.

The other irony is that the article that provoked my dismissal was mostly a summary of the minority report written by Barry Koplen when he served on a similar panel in 1999. This report was published by the Panel itself - in other words, by the government of Virginia. All I did was remind readers of Barry Koplen's experience.

In the final line I am thanked for my willingness to participate, "even if in a context counter to the Panel's purpose." This would seem to validate Barry's suggestion that the Panel's conclusions are effectively determined before the process has begun.

The article was reprinted in the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star and is under consideration for publication at other Virginia newspapers.

Stephen Baskerville, PhD Department of Political Science
Howard University
Washington, DC 20059

View the letter from Virgina Secretary of Health and Human Resources recinding Baskerville's appointment, PDF file.

Professor's good sense gets him kicked off Virginia child-support panel

Appetite for family destruction

Washington Times, 17 June 2001,
Commentary section (Forum), p. B5.

By Stephen Baskerville

A little-noticed commission is beginning work in Virginia that has major implications nationwide for both families and governmental ethics. Every four years, each state is required to review its guidelines for child support. In Virginia the outcome may be less remarkable than the process.

The last review in 1999 was a classic case of the foxes guarding the hen house. The review panel was selected by the director of the state's Division of Child Support Enforcement (DCSE), and at least 10 of the 12 members derived income from the divorce system: two judges, four lawyers, a feminist, an enforcement official, two custodial parents, and a legislator. All these people have a stake in encouraging divorce and criminalizing fathers and therefore in making child support as onerous as possible. "By virtue of the Director of DCSE deciding its make-up, conflict-of-interest concerns are both evident and also reflective of much larger improprieties."

The words are from the minority report of Barry Koplen, the lone representative of parents paying court-ordered child support. A full-time clothier, Mr. Koplen was appointed only after fundamental decisions had already been taken and by his own account had neither the time nor the expertise to attend to his duties. Yet he was told he would serve or no one would.

Mr. Koplen set about to educate himself on the intricacies of the child-support industry. The result was a scathing indictment of how powerful interests can hijack the machinery of government not simply to line their pockets but to seize children and used them as weapons against law-abiding parents. Mr. Koplen accused the commission of nothing less than "criminal wrongdoing" in jailing parents "without due process of law." He discovered a political underworld where government officials are feathering their nests and violating citizens' rights while cynically proclaiming their concern for children. "This is frightening in its disregard for due process," Mr. Koplen wrote. "The violation of constitutional rights [is] perpetrated by both our courts and the DCSE."

The review process was hardly better than the system itself: "conducted in a manner so questionable as to cast doubt on its credibility," said Mr. Koplen. "We had been asked to blind ourselves to the illegal incarceration of thousands of citizens in our state, to the harassment and pursuit of parents by attorneys on loan to DCSE." By controlling this panel, judges, lawyers, and plainclothes police are making the same laws they adjudicate and enforce.

Perhaps most questionable is that the system used in the Old Dominion (and some 30 other states) is largely the creation of one man, who also happens to preside over the nation's largest private child support contractor. Robert Williams created Policy Studies Inc., to compound the ethical conflict, while working as a paid consultant to the Department of Health and Human Services, which in turn imposed his system on the states. "His company's participation in child support guideline determination and the profit it derives from its child support collection division points to an obvious conflict of interest," Mr. Koplen noted. "His proposal's higher numbers meant more collections" for his company.

So why should we care about punitive burdens on divorced fathers? If they don't want to pay child support perhaps they shouldn't have gotten divorced.

That is precisely the point: Most noncustodial parents are divorced involuntarily and without legal grounds. The same interests represented on the review panels can force divorce on the parents whose property they then confiscate - for the children, of course. This makes unilateral divorce very lucrative for all concerned. High guidelines, Mr. Koplen points out, "create an irresistible incentive to divorce for the party most likely to be rewarded with child custody and child support." Coerced child support, along with forced attorneys' fees, is the financial fuel of the divorce machinery.

Academic studies by Sanford Braver, Margaret Brinig and Douglas Allen, and others confirm that the parent expecting custody usually files for divorce. Divorcing parents can then plunder their spouses by an assortment of charges that are "punitive and inappropriate," as Koplen puts it, and which render them subject to "incarceration and criminalization." This "civil rights nightmare" is perpetrated under the guise of providing for children by the very people who are forcibly destroying their homes. The divorce industry, in short, has turned children into cash cows.

Similar chicanery operates in other states. "The commissions appointed to review the guidelines have been composed . . . of individuals who are unqualified to assess the economic validity of the guidelines, or who have an interest in maintaining the status quo, or both," writes William Akins, a Georgia district attorney writing in the Georgia Law Journal.

This time around the eyes of the nation will be on Virginia to see if it will continue to enrich the divorce industry by engineering thedestruction of its children's homes.

Stephen Baskerville, PhD Department of Political Science
Howard University
Washington, DC 20059

The author teaches political science at Howard University, and is a member of the Virginia Child Support Guideline Review Panel (when the article was published).

The Criminalization of Fatherhood
Family Court Most Powerful Branch of the Judiciary

Media Bypass, vol. 8, no. 8, August 2000, pp. 30-31.

By Stephen Baskerville

Fatherhood is now the rage: presidential initiatives, federal staff conferences, congressional task forces and resolutions, federal grants, new nonprofit organizations, and media reports now "promote" fatherhood.

Yet the nationís discovery of fatherhood also has a darker side: law enforcement initiatives targeting "deadbeat dads," federal registers monitoring millions of parents, databases and information gathering on American citizens accused of nothing, new cadres of armed, plainclothes police, and endless "crackdowns" on allegedly dissolute parents.

Campaigning for president, Al Gore calls for incarcerating more fathers.

What we are seeing today in fact is nothing less than the criminalization of fatherhood: criminal penalties imposed on citizens who have committed no act but are made outlaws through the actions of others. This phenomenon proceeds largely from involuntary divorce and is affected by family courts.

Family courts are the arm of the state that routinely reaches farthest into the private lives of individuals and families. "The family court is the most powerful branch of the judiciary," writes Robert W. Page, Presiding Judge of the New Jersey Family Court. By their own assessment, "the power of family court judges is almost unlimited." One father was told by a New Jersey judicial investigator: "The provisions of the US Constitution do not apply in domestic relations cases."

A father brought before these courts - in the absence of any civil or criminal wrongdoing - will immediately have his movements, finances, personal habits, conversations, purchases, and contact with his children all subject to inquiry and control by the court. He must submit to questioning about his private life that author Jed Abraham has termed an "interrogation." He must surrender personal papers, diaries, correspondence, and financial records. His home can be entered at any time. His visits with his children can be monitored by court officials and restricted to a "supervised visitation center," for which he must pay an hourly fee and where he and his children will be observed and overheard throughout their time together. Anything he says to his spouse or children, as well as family counselors and personal therapists, can be used against him in court, and his children can be used to inform on him.

Fathers are questioned about how they "feel" about their children, what they do with them, where they take them, how they kiss them, how they feed and bathe them, what they buy for them and what they discuss with them. He will forced, on pain of incarceration, to pay for lawyers and psychotherapists he has not hired. His name will be entered on a federal registry, his wages will be garnished, and the federal government will have access to all his financial records. If he refuses to cooperate he can be summarily incarcerated or ordered into a psychiatric examination.

Henceforth, that parent has no say in where the children reside, attend school or daycare, worship, or visit the doctor and dentist. He has no right to see their school or medical records nor any control over what medications or drugs are administered to them. He can be enjoined from taking his children to a physician when ill. He can be told what religious services he may (or must) attend, what he may do with them, and what subjects he may discuss with them in private. And he can be forced to pay two-thirds or more of his income as "child support."

If for any reason the father falls more than $5,000 behind in owed child support, he becomes a felon. If he moves to another state while he is in arrears, perhaps to find work, he becomes a felon. It is possible he can even become an instant felon from the time his children are taken. If his ordered child support is high enough, and if it is backdated far enough, he will be and instant felon and subject to immediate arrest.

A presumption of guilt pervades child support enforcement where "the burden of proof may be shifted to the defendant" according to one ruling. In clear violation of the Constitution it has been held that "not all child support contempt proceedings classified as criminal are entitled to a jury trial," and "even indigent obligors are not necessarily entitled to a lawyer."

Setting child support is a political process conducted by interest groups involved in collection but from which parents who pay the support are excluded. Such legislating by courts and enforcement agencies raises serious questions about the separation of powers and the constitutionality of the process. Where officials in all branches and at all levels of government develop a financial interest in hunting "delinquents," it is predictable that they will create delinquents to hunt. Obviously the more onerous the child support levels, and the more defaults and arrearages created, the more demand for coercive enforcement and for the personnel and powers required.

Private collection firms also set the levels of what they collect. Not only does an obvious conflict-of-interest arise in terms of the amount to be collected, but the firms can create precisely the "delinquents" and "deadbeats" they are hired to pursue and on which their business depends.

In Los Angeles former Deputy District Attorney Jackie Myers told the Los Angeles Times she left office in 1996 because "we were being told to do unethical, very unethical things."

Myers is not alone. "I got a call from a homeless shelter and was told that I had put a man and . . . his four children out on the street because I had put an enforcement order . . . for 50% of his income," ex-Deputy District Attorney Elisa Baker recalled. "That was the first time I was in touch with the ramifications of what I was doing."

Men are now forced to support children who are acknowledged not to be theirs biologically. Stepfathers are ordered to pay support for stepchildren. Grandparents and second wives are pursued by child support prosecutors. Minor boys statutorily and forcibly raped by adult women must pay child support to the criminals who raped them.

A presumption of guilt also pervades allegations of domestic violence made during custody proceedings, where a fatherís contact with his children is criminalized through restraining orders that are routinely issued with no evidence of wrongdoing whatever - orders that cannot protect anyone because they criminalize not violence (which of course is already criminal) but a fatherís contact with his own children.

Family law is now criminalizing rights as basic as free speech. In many jurisdictions it is now a crime to publicly criticize family court judges, and fathers have been jailed for doing so. In a paper funded by the Justice Department, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, an association of ostensibly impartial judges who sit on actual cases, attacks fathersí groups for their political opinions and activities.

No figures are available on how many fathers are incarcerated for "family crimes." Informal estimates put as much as one-third of the nationís jail population consisting of fathers on contempt-of-court charges. Some jurisdictions now propose creating forced labor camps specifically for fathers to relieve overcrowded jails. Not since the fall of the Weimar Republic has a democracy treated millions of its own citizens in this fashion.

About the author: Stephen Baskerville teaches political science at Howard University.

Stephen Baskerville
Department of Political Science
Howard University
Washington, DC 20059

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