Where’s Marchella’s Dad?

To continue what I started last post, I know you noticed a major omission.

My last post discussed the indictment for criminally negligent homicide of two child welfare workers in Brooklyn, New York.  Four-year-old Marchella Pierce had been abused over many months by her mother while her maternal grandmother looked on.  After beatings and deprivation of food and water while tied to a bed, Marchella eventually died.

Now the big news is the criminal indictment of the two child welfare workers involved in her case.

But what I left for a second post was the dad.  In a lengthy article in the Times, he was relegated to a single offhand reference in the next-to-last paragraph saying simply that he “was not involved in the family.”

I’d be interested to know why not.  Of course the pre-packaged answer, brought to you in living color by our anti-father culture, is that he didn’t care about his daughter, didn’t care that she was being bound, beaten and starved to death.  We all know he’s just an irresponsible deadbeat, right?

Well, of course about this individual dad, we know nothing.  Eight words at the bottom of an article don’t tell us much, and it may be that he fits every stereotype ever articulated about the supposedly degraded state of poor single fathers.

Paradoxically, though, the very fact that we don’t know anything about him may tell us a lot.  My guess is that it means that the Bedford-Stuyvesant office of New York’s Adminstration for Children and Families never attempted to find out who he is, where he is or if he’d be a good placement alternative to Mom.  If they did, a single statement by the mother or grandmother that “he’s not involved,” was enough for them to close that part of the case.

That’s one reason I think the NYT article is so light on information about him.  If it were in the file, I bet their reporter would have found it.  And since the caseworker is being accused of negligence, wouldn’t he be trumpeting to the world his efforts to find alternative placement for the little girl?  Surely he would.

So I’ll go on record as betting that no effort was ever made to identify him or figure out if he’d make a good father to Marchella.

The reasons I think that are numerous.  Mostly, studies show that child welfare agencies tend to prefer to ignore the dad, even when they know who and where he is.  The Urban Institute has a study that found that over half the time in which the father is known, no effort was made to contact him even though the mother had proven herself to be unfit.  Across the country, CPS agencies tend to prefer foster care to father care.

It’s not like that’s a protocol or a best practice, it’s just what they do.  In fact, here’s a lengthy publication by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that was written by one of the most reliable sociologists around, Dr. Bradford Wilcox of the University of Virginia.  It’s also peer-reviewed by some of the leading names in the sociology of the family like David Popenoe.

Its purpose is to educated CPS workers about the value of fathers to children, the necessity of connecting fathers to children and ways of doing so.  It was published in 2006.  I wonder if Damon Adams or Chereece Bell, who are now charged in the death of Marchella Pierce even know of its existence.  I wonder if they’ve received any training whatsoever in the necessity of finding the father in cases of unfit single mothers.

It’s there in black and white and promoted by the U.S. government.  Have they even heard of it?

My guess is ‘no.’  My guess is that fathers are at best an afterthought in the Bedford-Stuyvesant ACS.

And that’s too bad because persuasive social science shows us that even young, poor, minority fathers are passionately interested in playing an active role in their children’s lives.

Much evidence coming out of the ongoing Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing study speaks directly to the situation that killed Marchella Pierce.  Dr. Kathryn Edin at Harvard and many others have found that even poor, uneducated, unemployed minority fathers greet their newborns highly motivated to be part of their lives.  Indeed, they often see as their highest calling the protection of the vulnerable infant growing up in dangerous neighborhoods.

But over time their relationships with the mothers of their children erode.  Mothers move on to other partners and dads become less and less a presence in their children’s lives.  That’s partly a function of the concept of mother and child as a “package deal” in the words of sociologists who study the matter.

The “package deal” concept means that where mom goes, so goes the child.  And if Dad wants to be part of his child’s life, he’s got to be part of the mother’s life.  If she doesn’t want a relationship with him, he loses a relationship with his child.

I suspect that maternal gatekeeping is a kind of subset of the package deal idea.  Mothers who don’t want to share their child – not even with the father – have a relatively easy time in moving him out of the child’s life.  She sees herself and the child as a package and so does he.  Family court judges are likely to see the same thing.  So are child welfare workers as the Urban Institute study suggests.

So what the New York Timesis content to toss off as a father “not involved in the family” actually reflects a far more complex family dynamic than the preferred narrative of paternal irresponsibility and maternal nurturance.

You’d think that, given the facts of Marchella Pierce’s gruesome torture and death someone – the Times, the ACS, the DA, someone – might begin to question the validity of that narrative.  Indeed, year after year the same Department of Health and Human Services that encourages father involvement when mothers are unfit to parent publishes statistics showing that mothers commit twice the abuse and neglect of children that fathers do.

Marchella Pierce is now one of those statistics.

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