On Nov. 10, 1999, the House passed the Fathers Count Act of 1999 by a vote of 328 to 93. Sponsored by Rep. Nancy Johnson, R-Conn., H.R. 3073 would provide $155 million in grants for programs that promote marriage and "responsible fatherhood." Written at the behest of such groups as the Children's Rights Council (CRC, a men's custody organization), activists in the so-called men's rights movement and right-wing religious organizations, the legislation is ardently supported by the Republican leadership with the help of Vice President Al Gore.
Women's Rights Advocates Question Bill's Strategy
NOW, NOW/LDEF and a variety of domestic violence and child welfare groups questioned the Fathers Count Act's approach, citing the dangers of domestic violence, the pressing needs of custodial mothers and the bill's unconstitutional gender discriminatory language.
The ostensible goals of H.R. 3073 are to teach parenting skills to poor, non-custodial fathers and to enhance their employability so they may obtain jobs and meet child support obligations. Other services offered would include: anger management training, family planning information, tips on relationship skills and money management techniques, plus encouragment for fathers to spend more time visiting their children.
Backers of the bill have exploited the image of the impoverished, unemployed African-American dad to gain support for "fatherhood" programs. It is a false image, however, as four-fifths of non-custodial dads who must pay child support are white and are not impoverished. Some $50 billion in unpaid child support is owed by non-custodial parents to 30 million dependent children, according to the Association for Children for Enforcement of Support, Inc. (ACES).
What About the Moms?
Approximately 84 percent of all children living in single-parent families are cared for by their mothers. NOW has argued that the grant money might be better used to improve the condition of the custodial parents rather than dead-beat dads. Custodial parents, however, take second seat in eligibility for services in this legislation.
While some of the objectives of the Fathers Count Act may be worthwhile, a number of the men's groups that have spoken out in favor of H.R. 3073 have a record of aiding non-custodial dads in reducing their child support obligations and taking away custody from moms, often after extensive litigation, biased expert witness testimony and violation of due process.
Women's rights groups have also argued that the Fathers Count Act's promotion of marriage as a solution to poverty, with no exception for cases of family violence, is inappropriate governmental policy. Right-wing religious groups have an agenda of promoting marriage without regard for the welfare of women and children (and such groups would be eligible to receive funds under this bill). Numerous studies have shown that family violence is a major factor in divorce and in keeping women poor; five major recent studies have documented that up to one-third of welfare recipients are currently experiencing abuse in their lives. A much higher proportion of poor women have faced domestic violence at some point in their lives.
Where Will the Money Go?
Several provisions of H.R. 3073 are so narrowly defined that the only organizations qualifying for $5 million grants are certain men's custody organizations, such as Wade Horn's Fatherhood Institute and the Institute for American Values, whose president, David Blankenhorn, is a leader in the National Fatherhood Initiative. Horn relies on discredited research which he says proves that the absence of fathers alone causes social ills such as teen suicide, poverty, high crime rates, low SAT scores and juvenile delinquency. And Blankenhorn endorses marriage as a cure for domestic violence.
The men's custody groups have been successful in promoting a glossed-over message due in part to their deliberate association with the very few responsible men's parenting organizations which exist. More important is their reliance on a former CRC board member who is currently a key Ways and Means Committee staff member. Ron Haskins, counsel for the Human Resources Subcommittee, is reported in a 1998 CRC newsletter to have promised he would win $2 billion in federal funding for their programs.
NOW's Message to Legislators: Don't Be Fooled
Key members of the Clinton administration and Vice President Gore appear to have been fooled by the men's custody groups. Otherwise progressive social policy organizations are supporting the measure without knowledge of the true political agenda of its backers or of the daily reality that confronts thousands of custodial mothers dealing with abusive and controlling ex-spouses who do not want to pay child support.
The power of men's custody groups has grown in recent years as a backlash to tougher enforcement of child support orders and through their use of the Internet to network. Some web sites openly advertise that they will help non-custodial parents reduce or completely eliminate their child support responsibilities. Other sites spew a continuous line of anger and hatred toward women.
The Fathers Count Act will be taken up in the Senate in February according to committee staffers. Senators Evan Bayh, D-Ind., and Pete Domenici, R-N.M., have introduced a similar (and equally misguided) bill, S. 1364. In addition, the House Ways and Means Human Resources Subcommittee plans to undertake a fundamental overhaul of child support enforcement programs early next year.
For a dissection of the assertions of men's custody groups see www.feminista.com and www.gate.net for profiles of men's rights leaders. Contact your Senators and urge them to vote against the Fathers Count Act. Senate e-mail addresses are at www.senate.gov or call 202-224-3121.