Scott Colom: The epidemic of absent fathers

January 18, 2012 10:31:00 AM

Scott Colom - [email protected]


This time every year, the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday invokes memories of King's "I have a dream" speech. King's description of an integrated America, one where we are all judged "by the content of our character rather than the color of our skin," beautifully explains why people were willing to put so much effort and energy into the civil rights movement. The speech symbolizes why people were willing to organize meetings, speeches, boycotts, protests, marches, and voter registration drives. It outlined the purpose of the campaign for civil rights.  


Today, when people discuss the dream speech, they often wonder what King would say about his dream if he were still alive. Would he consider it still a dream? The question I find more interesting and less discussed, however, is whether King would have new dreams. If King could spend time in our world, and observe our problems, what would his vision be for our future; what would be his goals? 


Whenever I think about the current problems facing Mississippi and our country, one always stands out more than most: absent fathers. The alarming statistics about single parent households are well documented. The 2009 U.S. Census Bureau showed over 24 million children live apart from their biological father; that's one out of every third child. In the African American community, the number is almost two out of three. 


The National Fatherhood Initiative, a non-profit dedicated to ending this trend, says "children who live absent their biological father are, on average, at least two to three times more likely to be poor, to use drugs, to experience educational, health, emotional and behavioral problems, to be victims of child abuse, and to engage in criminal behavior than their peers who live with their married, biological (or adoptive) parents." 


Unlike most statistics, though, these are personal. Even as the child of two wonderful parents, I've witnessed the impact of absent fathers. Growing up, many of my black friends didn't know their fathers. Several of them dropped out of high school or got pregnant or got into criminal trouble. And, while these decisions are inexcusable and shouldn't be solely blamed on absent fathers, I know my father was a big reason I didn't make similar mistakes. Even my successful friends, ones who often survived because of the heroic effort of a single mother, are still haunted by their father's absence. They regularly complain about how the lack of fatherly guidance, attention, and love negatively impacts them. 


In private, everyone agrees on the magnitude of the problem. Yet, publicly it's still taboo. Nobody wants to be considered patronizing or negative or worst, racist. Plus, it's easier to ignore the problem, to decide illegitimacy is too widespread and complicated and, therefore, any attempt to decrease it a waste of time and energy. 


In every big moment in history, people overcame similar complacency and cynicism. This is the same complacency civil rights protesters ignored when they marched through water hoses and dogs; the same cynicism teenagers were willing to risk arrest and death to defeat; the same complacency and cynicism King dreamed we could overcome. 


Accordingly, if King were alive today, I believe confronting the high percentage of illegitimacy would be a big part of his dream. I believe he would dream of a day where every child had a strong relationship with both parents, regardless of income level, marital status, or race. He would dream of a country where providing child support is not the only legal requirement to be a father, a country where visitation rights were equally important. He would dream of a Mississippi where fathers don't blame unemployment or uncooperative mothers for their failure to be father, a Mississippi where being a father isn't a choice. 


Of course, without work, this is only wishful thinking. Without people talking about the problem, without people offering ideas and solutions, without people mobilizing others, and without tireless hours of dedication, no campaign is successful. The question we have to ask ourselves is whether trying to make sure each child has two parents worth this type of campaign. I think so.  


Scott Colom is a local attorney. His e-mail address is [email protected]

Scott Colom is a local attorney.