Los Angeles, CA–“There are cretins, there are cowards, there are rats that walk like men. And then there is Larry Patterson Jr…an officer tried to pull Patterson over last week…Patterson sped away…[and] crashed into another car. He did not hang around to exchange insurance information. Instead, he bailed.
“But he left something behind.
“Namely, his passenger. More to the point, his daughter. She was found wedged between the rear windshield and the deck behind the back seats. She is 5 months old…despite not being secured in a car seat, [she] came through the accident without injury.
“Her name is Larissa, perhaps in honor of her 19-year-old father. Speaking of that paragon of moral virtue, he was found four blocks away at a McDonald’s, windshield glass still in his hair…It is incomprehensible that a man, even a 19-year-old man, could be so disconnected from his own humanity, so disconnected from the humanity of his infant daughter, that he would do what Patterson allegedly did.
“Yet, looked at another way, what happened on that Orlando street is unique only in degree.
“We’ve spent years bemoaning the cancer of father absence that corrodes our communities from within, years decrying the selfishness and the lack of social sanction that allow so many men to abandon their children, to harden themselves against their cries of need.
“So what Patterson (allegedly) did is only the thing writ large, only the thing exaggerated, only the thing made visceral and manifest in the hard reality of two cars tangled and mangled in the middle of the street and a baby, manhandled by the laws of physics, crying for the man whose job, whose prime directive in life, should have been to protect her. The man who ran instead.
“If Patterson did what they say, he is contemptible. But also contemptible is the man who abandons his child in less spectacular ways, who leaves his child not in imminent danger, but in ongoing danger, who doesn’t flee an accident scene, but flees, nonetheless.”–syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts Jr.
My new column “Leonard Pitts” Column Unfair to Black Fathers, Ignores Reasons for Father Absence” (The Southern Illinoisan & others, 3-6-08) criticizes Pitts’ (pictured) recent syndicated column Children bear the burden when fathers walk out, which I quoted above.
We argue that while some black fathers walk away, others have been driven out of their children’s lives, and the family law system does little to protect their loving bonds with their children.
To write a Letter to the Editor about the piece and the issue, click here. To write to Leonard Pitts, click on lpitts@MiamiHerald.com.
The column, co-authored with family law attorney Jeffery M. Leving, is below.
Leonard Pitts” Column Unfair to Black Fathers, Ignores Reasons for Father Absence
By Jeffery M. Leving and Glenn Sacks
Leonard Pitts Jr.”s recent column “Man crashes car leaves 5-month-old in backseat’ excoriates “selfish’ African American fathers who “abandon their children [and] harden themselves against their cries of need.’ Pitts cites Larry Patterson, Jr., a 19-year-old black father who, after police tried to pull him over, allegedly sped away, smashed his car, and escaped, leaving his infant daughter in the backseat. Patterson is “unique only in degree,’ Pitts writes–for black men today, it”s “Every man for himself.’
Pitts” generalization is unfair. He is correct that some African-American fathers have behaved irresponsibly. However, he fails to see that many black fathers have been driven away by shortsighted, angry mothers and a family law system which does little to protect fathers’ loving bonds with their children.
When citing the reasons for father absence, Pitts mentions “divorce’ only in passing. Yet divorce and the breakups of unmarried couples are major causes of African-American fatherlessness.
Despite the stereotype of the feckless and irresponsible male, research shows that the vast majority of divorces are initiated by women, not by men. Even for unmarried couples, it”s doubtful that many dads wake up in the morning and say to themselves, “My child loves me and needs me, my girlfriend loves me and needs me–I”m outta here.’ Yes, some mothers have good reasons for these breakups. Yet, as Jonetta Rose Barras, the African-American author of Whatever Happened to Daddy’s Little Girl, explains, many black fathers are simply being “kicked to the curb.’
When a divorced or separated mother does not want her children”s father around anymore, she can usually push him out, particularly if the father does not earn enough money to pay for legal representation. Courts tilt heavily towards mothers in awarding custody, and enforce fathers” visitation rights indifferently. In most states, mothers are free to move their children hundreds or thousands of miles away from their fathers, often permanently destroying the fathers” bonds with their children.
The system which allows women to easily obtain domestic violence restraining/protection orders was set up to help battered women. However, many mothers instead employ them to get rid of inconvenient husbands or boyfriends. The Family Law Executive Committee of the California State Bar and family law professionals in various states have recently noted that these orders are often issued with little or no evidence or due process. Once in force, a father can be arrested and jailed for violating the order if he visits or even calls his kids. The orders begin as temporary, but are sometimes extended for years at a time.
With divorce or separation comes child support. The Urban League”s 2006 report on the state of black America concluded that the child support system and its abuses often drive African-American men out of their children”s lives, and either underground or into crime.
Half of uneducated African American men ages 25-34 are non-custodial fathers. Many of them are still a part of their children”s lives. Yet the child support they struggle to pay usually does not go to their children, but instead goes to the state to reimburse the cost of public assistance, including welfare, for the mother and children.
Some fathers even live with their children and their children”s mothers, yet their wages are still garnisheed to pay child support to the state, greatly contributing to the breakdown of these fragile families. Democratic Party presidential candidate Hillary Clinton recently acknowledged this problem in her Youth Opportunity Agenda.
The benefits that involved black fathers–even divorced or separated ones–can provide their children are substantial. For example, a recent study of low-income African-American and Hispanic families by Boston College found that when nonresident fathers are involved in their adolescent children”s lives, the incidence of substance abuse, violence, crime, and truancy decreases markedly. The study’s lead author, professor Rebekah Levine Coley, says the study found involved nonresident fathers to be “an important protective factor for adolescents.”
There are many reasons why some black fathers aren”t there for their kids. Sadly, there’s nothing we can do to make the Larry Pattersons of the world into good fathers. But there’s a lot we can do to help keep many decent, loving African-American dads in their children”s lives.
This article first appeared in The Southern Illinoisan (3-6-08).
Jeffery M. Leving is one of America’s most prominent family law attorneys and the author of the book Divorce Wars. His website is www.dadsrights.com.
Glenn Sacks” columns on men’s and fathers’ issues have appeared in dozens of the largest newspapers in the United States. He invites readers to visit his website at www.GlennSacks.com.