Charity Workers and Local Law Enforcement
The Beginnings of American Child Support Policy
In taking up my work over eight years ago, I found everything comparatively easy to dispose of except these married vagabonds, who hid behind the wife and flock of little children. I consulted the law, and found there was plenty of law; but the application was not such as to remedy the evil. Such men are often willing to enter a jail, and be well fed and kept warm, and, as a general thing, have nothing to do but read trashy literature, leaving their families to starve or be supported by towns or by benevolent people. I awoke one morning with a determination to see what I could do toward making the law a means to an end. I visited the judge of our city court, and laid my plan before him. I said to him: “I find that in your administration of justice in this court, from time to time, you suspend judgment in the cases of certain men. I want these men to understand that the next time they are presented to this court for non-support of their families, instead of giving them from thirty to sixty days, you will give them the full penalty of the law, and then allow me to give them an opportunity to choose between two things.”
“Go ahead, ” said the judge, “and we will see what we can accomplish.” The first case to come up was a Scotchman. I had seen him in the prisoner's dock time and again. He had a wife and four little children, was a skilled workman, and able to earn three dollars a day. He expected to get his usual thirty days. His wife would get two dollars and half a week in coal, and they would try to work the Charity Organization Society for some help. The man was proved guilty, and it was then the opportunity to try my experiment. I walked over to him, and said: “Dave, you are here again; and I will engage that you will get six months this time.” He changed color: he did not like that.
“Now, ” I said, “wouldn't you like to turn around and be a better man, support yourself respectably and take care of your family?”
“What can a fellow do, ” he asked, “when everyone hates him?”