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Unconsciously and imperceptibly, the point of view about the treatment of desertion has been changing during the past fifteen years. The case worker’s attention used to be focussed on the danger of increasing the desertion rate by a policy of too sympathetic care for deserters’ families. Little study was made of individual causes, and in so far as there was a general policy of treatment it was to insist, wherever a desertion law existed, that the deserted wife go at once to court and institute proceedings against her husband. He was often not seen by the social worker until he appeared in court. The policy toward the family meantime was to reduce its size by commitment of the children until their mother could support herself unaided; or, if relief was given, to give smaller amounts than to a widow or the wife of a man in hospital. As soon as the man had been placed under court order or had returned home, old records generally show that the social worker’s efforts were relaxed, and often the final entry is, “Case closed family self-supporting.”

There were excellent reasons underlying much of the practice. Few laws were at that time in existence or at all adequately enforced, and any man who desired was at liberty, so far as the community was concerned, to walk off and leave his family at any time. The multiplicity of sources of relief in the large communities and the absence of anything resembling investigation constituted almost an invitation to men to desert. It did not occur to the charitable public to draw any line between the widow and the deserted wife, or indeed to inquire which of these two a woman was, so long as she was a good mother and “seemed worthy.” No wonder that the pioneering social agencies, busy forging tools out of the very ore, took a rigid stand on such a question of social policy as this. Although their deterrents failed to eradicate the evil of desertion or indeed to touch its sources, there is little doubt that they did lessen its volume by creating a wholesome respect for the power of the law in the mind of the would-be deserter and by fostering in his wife a disposition to stand up for her rights. The more lenient and more constructive policies now in force have been made possible in part by these changes of attitude. The very fact that the collusive desertion, once fairly common, is now seldom met with, illustrates the salutary effects of the earlier methods of treatment.

But the fact remains that no marked change has been seen in the desertion rate, that successive desertions have not been prevented in individual cases. Hardly any statistical figure in the work of family social agencies shows so little fluctuation from year to year and between different cities, as the percentage of deserted families. It generally forms from ten to fifteen per cent of the work of any such society.

Gradually, therefore, the repressive features of the earlier treatment have been abandoned, and there has come about a realization of the complexity of causes that bring about family breakdowns. In particular, the relation of sex maladjustments to failure in marriage have received the serious attention of the social worker. On the question of court intervention there has been almost a right-about face; the best social practitioners now say, unhesitatingly and unequivocally, that they take cases into court only as a matter of last resort, after case work methods have been tried and have failed. In no other case where court action is undertaken by one individual against another does the relation between them remain unchanged. One could not conceive of a business partnership failing to be annulled by one partner who brought suit against another; yet we expect the marriage relation to survive this. As a matter of fact, such is its vitality that it often does. But many times the result of court action is only to deaden once and for all the tiny spark from which marital happiness might have been rekindled. As long as it survives, both man and wife feel in their inmost hearts that, no matter what his offense, to “take him to court” is treason against the intangible bonds that still hold between them. No matter how far apart they have drifted, or how unforgivable has been the deserter’s offense, something irrevocable does happen to the fabric of marriage, a few poor shreds of which may still exist between the two, when his wife appears in a court of law to make complaint against him. It is an instinctive realization that she is abandoning hope which underlies many a woman’s reluctance to “take a stand against her husband.” Many social workers (including some probation officers and court workers) now feel that such a stand should be urged only in the full conviction that the protection of the woman and children demands it, and that there is nothing else to be done.

This must not, however, be interpreted as a criticism of the laws concerning desertion or of the courts which administer them. If they were not there in the background, ready to be taken advantage of when all else fails, the social worker’s hands would be tied, and the possibility of a rich and flexible treatment of desertion problems would be lost to her. It is precisely because they had no such recourse that the case workers of an earlier day had to adopt a policy which now seems rigid. It is because they were instrumental in securing better laws and specialized courts that the latter day social worker can push forward her own technique of dealing with homes that are disintegrating.

Another great change in emphasis has been upon the question of interviewing the man, and of being sure that his side, or what he thinks is his side, has been thoroughly understood. Social workers are under conviction of sin in the matter of dealing too exclusively with the woman of the family; in desertion cases it is more than desirable, it is vitally necessary to have dealings with the man. Many social workers feel that, at all events with a first desertion, they would rather take the risk of having the man vanish a second time after having been found, than have him arrested before an attempt to talk the matter out with him. More stringent measures, they believe, can be resorted to later but the man must first be convinced that he will be listened to patiently and with the intent to deal fairly. The case worker knows that the power of the human mind to “rationalize” anti-social conduct is infinite; and that, besides the few “justifiable deserters,” there are many who have succeeded in convincing themselves that their action is warrantable. A deserter who could allege nothing else against his wife, averred that he had placed under the bed two matches, crossed, and a week later found them in the same position, proving his contention that she was slovenly and did not keep the rooms clean.

The man who, aided by a sore conscience, has worked himself into such a state of mind as this must be permitted to talk himself out before he can be made to see the true state of affairs. In the minds of both man and woman there is likely to be found a superstructure of suspicion, jealousy, misinterpretation and distrust, built upon the basic fact of their incompatibility, which has to be pulled down before the true causes can be probed. To arrest a man in this state of mind is in his eyes simply to “take sides” against him. Eventually he may have to be arrested, but, in the case worker’s experience, the chances of success are ten to one if the man can be induced to take some voluntary step toward reconciliation without the intervention of the law. In many instances a real interview with the man, while not exonerating him, would have thrown new light on the woman’s statements.

A family social work society writes: A young woman with her mother and little boy were referred for aid by a medical social department because her husband had deserted and she was unable to work. The doctors feared that her breakdown would result in insanity, so they asked that her wishes be respected in not seeing the man’s family. She recovered, but it was later found that her husband, while not doing all that he might for her, had been living at home a good deal of the time and did not know that his family was in receipt of aid.

Some years ago a charity organization society, which maintained a special bureau for treatment of desertion cases, was asked by a Mrs. Clara Williams to help her find her husband, John, who had left her some years previously and was living with another woman, so that she might force him to contribute to the support of herself and her two children. Mrs. Williams was a motherly appearing person who kept a clean, neat home, and seemed to take excellent care of her children. She was voluble concerning her husband’s misdeeds and very bitter toward him, which seemed only natural. The fact of the other household was corroborated from other sources, and Mr. Williams’ work references indicated that he had been quarrelsome and difficult for his employers to get along with, although a competent workman. The problem seemed to the desertion agent a perfectly clear and uncomplicated one and he proceeded to handle it according to the formula. Some very clever detective work followed, in the course of which the man was traced from one suburban city to another, and his present place of employment found in the city where his wife lived, although he lived just across the border of another state. The warrant was served upon the man as he stepped from the train on his way to work, and he appeared in the domestic relations court. He did not deny the desertion but made some attempt to bring counter charges against his wife. When questioned about his present mode of living he became silent and refused to testify further. He was placed under bond, which was furnished by the relatives of the woman with whom he was living, to pay his wife $6.00 a week. No probation was thought necessary and the case was closed, both the court and the charity organization society crediting themselves with a case successfully handled and terminated.

About a year later Mrs. Williams again applied, stating that her husband’s bond had lapsed, his payment had ceased, and that she had no knowledge of his whereabouts. Although her home and children were still immaculate she failed to satisfy the social worker who this time visited her home with the plausible story which she had told before. The children’s health was not good and they seemed unnaturally repressed and unhappy. Ugly reports that Mrs. Williams drank came to the society. The school teacher deplored the effect which the morbid nature of Mrs. Williams was having on her youngest child a daughter just entering adolescence. The son, a boy a little older, was listless and unsatisfactory at his work, and defiant and secretive toward any attempt to get to know him better. He spent many nights away from home and was evidently not on good terms with his mother. As soon as Mrs. Williams saw that real information was desired she began indulging in fits of rage in which she displayed such an exaggerated ego as to cause some doubts as to her mentality. Baffled at every turn the case worker decided to interview the man, if possible, to see if through him any clue to the situation might be gained. The first step was to gain the confidence of a former fellow-workman and friend of his who now maintained his own small shop. This was done after several visits, the deserting husband consenting to an evening meeting in his friend’s shop.

A most illuminating interview followed. Mr. Williams was found to be an intelligent though melancholy and self-centered man. The couple had married somewhat late in life, it being Mrs. Williams’ second marriage. She had been strongly influenced by her mother to marry him and had never had any real affection for him. It became very evident from his story that the strongly developed egotism of both the husband and wife had made a real marriage impossible between them, and the visitor became convinced of the genuineness of Mr. Williams’ protestations that he endured the constant abuse and ill-treatment of his wife as long as it had been possible to do so. As her drinking habits took more hold upon her and he had realized that the break was coming he had endeavored to place the children in homes, and had once had his wife taken into court. There her plausible story and good appearance resulted in the case being dismissed with a reprimand to the husband. He then left home, but continued to send her money at intervals, although as he got older he was able to earn less at his trade. Socialism was his religion, and it was his preaching of this doctrine in season and out to his fellow workmen which had earned him the ill-will of his employers. He defended his present mode of living, vigorously putting up a strong argument that it was a real marriage, whereas the other had only been a sham. He spoke in terms of affection of the woman who was giving him the only real home he had ever known, and only wished that the state of public opinion would permit his taking his young daughter into his home. The boy, he realized, had grown entirely away from him and they could never mean anything to each other. It was his habit to make frequent trips back to the region where his family lived in order that he might stand on the corner and watch his children go by. He gave readily much information about his own and his wife’s past connections, including the addresses of many of her relatives whose existence she had denied, and he successfully proved that her claims as to his lapsed payments were false by producing the entire series of post office receipts covering his remittances to her and extending down to the very week of the interview.

There have been striking changes not only in the treatment of the deserter but in that of his family. Writing in 1910, Miss Breed deprecates the habit of fostering the deserter’s “easy-going conviction that his family will get along somehow without him” by giving relief. She approves offering full support in an institution, but is reluctant to recommend any form of aid in the home, even from relatives. It is better, she feels, to give entire support to some of the children in foster homes, leaving the mother only those she can care for.

Much can be said for even so stringent a policy as this. An unstable home, with a worthless father an intermittent member of the household, is as bad an environment as children can have its very fluctuations making for nervous instability and a wrong point of view later on. There is a possibility that other would-be deserters may be deterred by temporarily breaking up the home, and that an occasional absconding father may be brought back. But the fact remains that social workers have, in practice, departed far from this point of view. Out of more than twenty-five case workers of experience who were interviewed or written to in preparation for this book, only one believed there had not been a decided change toward a policy of more liberal relief.

One district secretary told of a woman who had more than once taken back a disreputable husband whom she always professed to dislike. Aid was given sparingly and intermittently during his absences; but finally the woman in a burst of frankness told the secretary that she had never felt confident the society would stand behind her. Each time the man came back with money in his hand, she cheated herself into believing that he meant “a new leaf.” A budget was worked out with her, and a promise given of an adequate income as long as she kept her husband away. She has faithfully kept her side of the bargain for over three years.

The extension in many states of “state aid to mothers” to cover deserted wives is an indication of this changed view. In most states, however, some safeguards are set up; the wife must take out a warrant, and a given number of years must elapse during which the man shall not have been heard from, before state aid can be granted to the wife.

Finally, it is more clearly recognized than formerly that the time to “close the case” is not just after the man’s return.

A case supervisor speaks of “the strong temptation to close our records as soon as relief becomes unnecessary. The man’s return to the family is often the critical point at which there is need of skilful and sympathetic friendship. These cases cry out for continued treatment. We need to think more humanely about all the unsettling elements in our urban civilization and to see that all the nice individual adjustments that as case workers we can make are made. If the man’s work gives him no opportunity for self-expression, what attempt are we making to give him such opportunities outside his work, to connect him with a trade union, with clubs and with fraternities? How much are we thinking about cures for inebriates, psychoanalysis, vocational guidance, recreation?”

Briefly, then, changes in the social worker’s attitude toward treatment have meant less emphasis on punitive and repressive measures, more consideration of the man’s point of view, less tendency to press court action, at least in the beginning, fewer commitments of children, a more liberal relief policy (partly as a preventive of “forced reconciliations"), and lastly, longer supervision after the man has resumed support of his family.