Politics & Policy

Government as Family Therapist

A dangerous cycle.

Something’s gone wrong when liberals can criticize a conservative administration for imposing big government on the family. Something’s especially gone wrong when the administration is then defended — by other liberals.

Bush administration proposals to promote “healthy marriages” have generally met with derision from the left, but a PBS documentary has already lent a sympathetic ear, and many Democrats are certain to go along.

#ad#Government as family therapy was an idea that in fact originated with the Clintons, who saw it as an opportunity for politicizing children and extending government into the deepest recesses of private life. “Children have been an obsession for this administration,” wrote sympathetic columnist Richard Cohen. The marriage initiative extends Clinton-era programs for promoting fatherhood, such as one led by Al Gore on “Nurturing Fatherhood.”

Politicians often spend money to avoid confronting problems. Yet marshaling the government to strengthen families seems especially pointless when it is government that weakened the family in the first place.

The government’s new interest in protecting marriage is ostensibly targeted at poor families, which have been ravaged by decades of welfare policies that drove fathers out of homes and made them redundant by taking over most paternal functions.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is now aiming to rebuild the families it has destroyed by introducing “marriage education.” Workshops will impart “relationship skills” and introduce methods of “conflict resolution.” “Anger management” and “child behavior management” are among the tools of family engineering already in use (and in dispute) in the private sector which have received the HHS imprimatur.

These schemes mushroomed during the 1990s along with middle-class divorce, which their promoters have no interest in bringing under control.

That the efficacy of these programs in actually preserving families is unproven may be less significant than the implications of having them mandated by the government. Putting more psychotherapists, social workers, attorneys, and (most recently) churches on the federal payroll will simply expand the patronage machine that governs family law.

From a public-policy standpoint, there is one reason why marriage has deteriorated: Thirty years ago, with no public discussion, “no-fault” divorce laws effectively abolished marriage as a legal contract. Anyone can now rip up a marriage agreement for any reason without accepting any liability for the consequences. Today, many divorces are enacted over the objection of one spouse. Almost all divorces involving children are initiated by the mother, who can expect to get not only the children but the cash that comes with them. The fathers then become criminally liable for financing, at extortionate levels, children they seldom or never see — even if they did nothing to bring about the divorce.

If the government is serious about reviving marriage, it must bite the bullet and roll back no-fault divorce. “Educating” people to put their trust in what has become a fraudulent contract will merely expand the gravy train of educators and other divorce practitioners who benefit from the deception.

Despite protests to the contrary, no government really wants to reverse the rise in single-parent homes. Governments throughout America are filling their coffers with federal money for everything from child-support enforcement to child protection to domestic violence programs — all of which proceed from broken homes. Hypocritical programs to preach the importance of marriage and fatherhood will merely result in new rosters of clients.

More ominously, Clinton-initiated fatherhood programs have already created a blend of psychotherapy with law enforcement, in one of the most dishonest and destructive policies ever foisted on the public: child-support enforcement. Welfare created this “gulag,” as attorney Jed Abraham calls it in From Courtship to Courtroom: What Divorce Law is Doing to Marriage; no-fault divorce extended it to the middle class, where the money and political power are concentrated.

Recently, the Washington Times reported on a therapeutic child-support program in which penal officers inculcate “life skills and relationship” therapy, and fathers are forced to denounce themselves to government officials. Forced confessions and self-criticism are also a feature of federally funded domestic-violence programs.

Government claims of a child-support problem are almost entirely manufactured. No evidence indicates that large numbers of fathers are abandoning their children; the government has no compiled data to back its claims that they are not paying support; and no study has ever justified the expanding federalization of enforcement since 1975. Two federally funded studies have concluded that nonpayment has never been a serious problem. No public outcry ever demanded that government take action, nor has any public discussion of this alleged problem ever been held. The initiative has been taken throughout by government officials, who in doing so have vastly expanded their power.

Bryce Christensen of the Howard Center for Family, Religion, and Society charges that “the advocates of ever-more-aggressive measures for collecting child support have trampled on the prerogatives of local government, have moved us a dangerous step closer to a police state, and have violated the rights of innocent and often impoverished fathers.”

To soften its image, the child-support bureaucracy now markets itself as therapy. David Ross, Clinton’s child-support director, appended the office mission statement to include “emotional support.” “Child support is more than money,” says the National Child Support Enforcement Association. “Child support is also love, emotional support, and responsibility.” Love and emotional support are thus made bureaucratic mandates, to be enforced by government agents.

HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson has inherited the nastier features of the Clintons’ policies. Under a program started by Donna Shalala called “Project Save Our Children,” Thompson recently announced mass arrests of the “most wanted deadbeat parents.” Among “the worst of the worst” is James Circle, earning all of $39,000 and ordered to pay $350 a week for one child — about two-thirds of his likely take-home pay.

“More notable than any one arrest,” says HHS, is the “message” that federal agents are being mobilized. In other words, the aim is not to prosecute individual lawbreakers but to spread fear among a target population. No government warns bank robbers or drug dealers that they are being watched. HHS knows it is pursuing law-abiding citizens.

In January, HHS announced $2.2 million in grants to faith-based groups to “improve the financial and emotional well being of children.” Assistant Secretary Wade Horn says the grants “reach out to those who need help in acquiring the skills necessary to build relationships.” Yet only 25 percent of the funds will promote marriage; the rest will deputize private groups to collect child support, though the therapy and the policing are often indistinguishable. The Marriage Coalition, a “faith-based organization” in Cleveland, will receive $200,000 to aid the feds with child support.

The two facets of the program are at cross purposes; each creates a problem for the other to solve. Christensen points out a “linkage between aggressive child-support policies and the erosion of wedlock.” By subsidizing divorce, “child-support laws have combined with no-fault jurisprudence to convert wedlock into a snare for many guiltless men.”

Here we see the culmination of a government perpetual-growth machine that has been building for decades: Destroy the family through welfare and no-fault divorce; then evict and criminalize the fathers; then institutionalize the children as state wards through various “services” to relieve single mothers. This is precisely the loss of freedom through the erosion of the family that conservatives have long been warning against. Now their own leaders are implementing it.

Stephen Baskerville is a professor of political science at Howard University.

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