Academic journal article Boston University Law Review

Forgotten Fathers

Academic journal article Boston University Law Review

Forgotten Fathers

Article excerpt


I met with John recently, a client I have known for several years. I have tried to help him with several legal issues by providing pro bono assistance. John grew up in foster care after both his parents died and moved from place to place - group homes, foster families, relatives, facilities for troubled youth, and sometimes on runaway. He was never in the same home for more than six months.

His mother died first. Then he met his father for the first time, and John hoped to go live with him. Unfortunately for John, his father was killed shortly after their meeting. He also learned he had an older brother, and steps were taken for John to possibly move in with him. But then his brother died of an overdose. In foster care, John was labeled as having borderline personality disorder. And he was medicated. A lot.

So I met with John at a diner to catch up and answer some of his questions. John has a tough exterior - tattoos up and down his bulky arms - but then he calls me "Mr. Dan, " almost timidly. He is unemployed, having struggled with finding and keeping part-time jobs doing labor or other tasks. He talks at times of being a mechanic. He loves cars, yet he has no driver's license. He has a criminal history, and though it is minor, it haunts his record. He is often homeless, or couch surfing. He dropped out of high school. He has no health insurance.

And he is a father.

John has a two-year-old son. He was living with the boy's mother but recently moved out. She has a child-support order against him, which she was forced to initiate because she receives public assistance. The child support is therefore owed to the state, not to her. While John was living with the mother and his son, the child support continued to accrue and it caused arguments. John wanted to stop the child support, but the mother needed the public assistance and John's employment was sporadic at best. She could not risk letting them know he was living with her because she was afraid to lose the public assistance.

So now they are apart. He sees her and his son, but he talks of frustrations. He would like to see his son more. He still really likes the mother, but they argue about the child support. He is a few thousand dollars behind on the child support now. He could potentially catch up, but it is not easy for him to find work with all the barriers he faces.

As he sat across from me we talked a bit about parenting and kids. I discussed my own children, and how hard it is - but also how amazing. We talked about how he now has the chance to be the parent he never had. He liked this idea. Briefly, there was a spark in his eyes.

It faded faster than it arrived.

John thinks the whole world is against him. He is frustrated often, and jaded always. As we left the diner, he crossed the street and we started off in different directions. I watched him walk away, and I had a sinking feeling.

I do not know if I can help him.


Poor fathers like John are largely forgotten, written off as a subset of the unworthy poor. These fathers struggle with poverty - often with near hopelessness - within multiple systems in which they are either entangled or overlooked, such as child-support and welfare programs, family courts, the criminal justice system, housing programs, and the healthcare, education, and foster-care systems. For these impoverished fathers, the "end of men" is often not simply a question for purposes of discussion but a fact that is all too real.2

In the instances in which poor fathers are not forgotten, they are targeted as causes of poverty rather than as possible victims themselves - or more accurately they fall somewhere along the false dichotomy between pure blame and pure sympathy.3 The poor fathers are lumped together in monolithic descriptions that become constants in equations attempting to understand and solve societal ills.4

If a continuously evolving factor is treated as a known constant rather than an undetermined variable, the math will inevitably be wrong. …

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