The Anti-Father Police State

Columnist Cathy Young is known for her even-handed attempts to cut through the pretensions of both the left and right. She has also shown considerable courage by delving into what for many journalists is a no-go zone: divorce and fathers’ rights.

So it is a little awkward to find myself cast as one of her combatants, with my own views and others’ whom I typify characterized as “extreme.” In the December issue of Reason magazine, Young sorts out, with her customary balance, a debate between proponents of Clinton-Bush family engineering schemes and those of us who take a more laissez-faire attitude toward government intervention in family life.

Actually, it is not my positions that are extreme but my “rhetoric” – specifically, the words I use to describe how government is systematically destroying families and fathers. “Political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible,” wrote George Orwell. “Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism.” If my language seems direct, it may be because euphemism currently obfuscates the most indefensible politics of our time.

That a writer as informed and astute as Young has difficulty grasping the larger trend at work here validates Orwell’s observation about the power of language. Clichés about “divorce” and “custody” do not begin to convey the civil liberties disaster taking place. We are facing questions of who has primary authority over children, their parents or the state, and whether the state’s penal apparatus can seize control over both the children and the private lives of citizens who have done nothing wrong. Rephrased, the question is, Is there any private sphere of life that remains off-limits to state intervention? Bryce Christensen of Southern Utah University (and not a fathers’ rights activist, extreme or otherwise) has characterized fatherhood policies as creating a “police state.”

Developments in only the last few days amount to government admissions of Christensen’s charge. Under pressure from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, judge has just freed some 100 prisoners who had been incarcerated without due process for allegedly failing to pay child support. The fathers were sentenced with no notice given of their hearings and no opportunity to obtain legal representation. Fathers relate that hearings typically last between 30 seconds and two minutes, during which they are sentenced to months in prison. ACLU lawyer Malia Brink says courts across Pennsylvania routinely jail such men for civil contempt without proper notice or in time for them to get lawyers. Lawrence County was apparently jailing fathers with no hearings at all. Nothing indicates that Pennsylvania is unusual. After a decade of hysteria over “deadbeat dads,” one hundred such prisoners in each of the America’s 3,500 counties is by no means unlikely.

Also last week, a federal appeals court finally ruled unconstitutional the Elizabeth Morgan Act, a textbook bill of attainder whereby Congress legislatively separated father and child and “branded” as “a criminal child abuser” a father against whom no evidence was ever presented. “Congress violated the constitutional prohibition against bills of attainder by singling out plaintiff for legislative punishment,” the court said. The very fact that a bill of attainder was used at all indicates something truly extreme is taking place. Bills of attainder are rare, draconian measures used for one purpose: to convict politically those who cannot be convicted with evidence.

So do these decisions demonstrate that justice eventually prevails? Hardly. In both cases, the damage is done. Foretich’s daughter has been irreparably robbed of her childhood and estranged from her father. Moreover, millions of fathers continue to be permanently separated from their children and presumed guilty, even when no evidence exists against them.

The Pennsylvania men will fare worse. For many, the incarceration has already cost them their jobs and thus their ability to pay future child support. As a result, they will be returned to the penal system, from which they are unlikely ever to escape. Permanently insolvent, they are farmed out to trash companies and similar concerns, where they work 14–16 hour days. Most of their earnings are confiscated for child support, the costs of their incarceration, and mandatory drug testing.

This gulag recalls the description of the Soviet forced-labor system, described by Carl Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski in their classic study of totalitarianism: “Not infrequently the secret police hired out its prisoners to local agencies for the purpose of carrying out some local project…. Elaborate contracts were drawn up…specifying all the details and setting the rates at which the secret police is to be paid. At the conclusion of their task, the prisoners, or more correctly the slaves, were returned to the custody of the secret police.”

New repressive measures against fathers are enacted almost daily. Last week, Staten Island joined a nationwide trend when it opened a new “integrated domestic violence court.” The purpose of these courts, says Chief Judge Judith Kaye, is not to dispense justice as such but to “make batterers and abusers take responsibility for their actions.” In other words, to declare men guilty.

Anyone who doubts this need only look to Canada, where domestic violence courts are already empowered to seize the property, including the homes, of men accused of domestic violence, even though they are not necessarily convicted or even formally charged. Moreover, they may do so “ex parte,” without the men being present to defend themselves. “This bill is classic police-state legislation,” writes Robert Martin, of the University of Western Ontario. Walter Fox, a Toronto lawyer, describes these courts as “pre-fascist,” and editor Dave Brown writes in the Ottawa Citizen, “Domestic violence courts…are designed to get around the protections of the Criminal Code. The burden of proof is reduced or removed, and there’s no presumption of innocence.”

Special courts to try special crimes that can only be committed by certain people are a familiar device totalitarian regimes adopted to replace established standards of justice with ideological justice. New courts created during the French Revolution led to the Reign of Terror and were consciously imitated in the Soviet Union. In Hitler’s dreaded Volksgerichte or “people's courts,” write Friedrich and Brzezinski, “only expediency in terms of National Socialist standards served as a basis for judgment.”

Even more astounding, legislation announced in Britain will require the police to consider fathers guilty of domestic violence, even after they have been acquitted in court. Fathers found “not guilty” are to be kept away from their children and treated as if they are guilty. As Melanie Phillips writes in the Daily Mail, “This measure will destroy the very concept of innocence itself.”

These are only the most recent developments. Young herself has written eloquently on the practice of extracting coerced confessions from fathers like Massachusetts minister Harry Stewart. In Warren County, Pennsylvania, fathers like Robert Pessia are told they will be jailed unless they sign confessions stating, “I have physically and emotionally battered my partner.” The father must then describe the violence, even if he insists he committed none. The documents require him to state, “I am responsible for the violence I used. My behavior was not provoked.” Again, the words of Friedrich and Brzezinski are apposite: “Confessions are the key to this psychic coercion. The inmate is subjected to a constant barrage of propaganda and ever-repeated demands that he u2018confess his sins,' that he u2018admit his shame.'”

G.K. Chesterton argued that the most enduring check on government tyranny is the family. Ideological correctness notwithstanding, little imagination is required to comprehend that the household member most likely to defend the family against the state is the father. Yet as Margaret Mead once pointed out, the father is also the family’s weakest link. The easiest and surest way to destroy the family, therefore, is to remove the father. Is it extreme to wonder if government is quietly engaged in a search-and-destroy operation against the principal obstacle to the expansion of its power?

December 23, 2003