Read CHAPTER IV - FINDING THE DESERTING HUSBAND of Broken Homes A Study of Family Desertion and its Social Treatment, free online book, by Joanna C. Colcord, on

A few years ago a young Jewish woman reported to the National Desertion Bureau that her husband had left her and their children.

The couple had never got on well, and the man seemed to have been a melancholy and impractical fellow. The usual methods of the Bureau brought no results in finding the missing husband. Then the wife was more carefully questioned, and urged to tell all that she could recall or had heard about her husband’s early life, his tastes and peculiarities. Among other things the Bureau learned that the man’s father had died in America years ago, having come here to make a home for the family left behind in Russia. The boy had grown up in ignorance of the place of his father’s death and burial, and, as the eldest son, he felt it his duty to find his father’s grave. Filled with this idea he came to America as soon as he was grown and landed in New York, but his few poor clues availed him little against the difficulties of poverty and a new and complex environment. In the end he gave up the search, married, and settled down on the east side. After the sudden quarrel which led to his leaving home, his wife thought it possible that his old obsession might have reawakened. The Bureau, supplied with the clues in question, had little difficulty in discovering the father’s burial place in St. Louis; and the cemetery authorities promised to send word if the missing husband should appear. Sure enough, a short time afterward he arrived, and, after visiting the grave, returned, not unwillingly, and took up his family duties again under the supervision of a probation officer.

The flexibility of method and the readiness to see and utilize new resources which are displayed in the foregoing account are great assets to the one who must institute search for a missing husband and father.

The thing that sets desertion cases apart in a class of peculiar technical difficulty for the case worker is not simply that the man is away from his family. There is no man to deal with in a widow’s family, but widows’ families present comparatively simple problems. The deserter, though absent, is still not only a potential but also a real factor in the family situation. The plans of the family are often made with one eye to his return; he is the unseen but plainly felt obstacle to much that the social worker wants to accomplish. The children look forward to his reappearance with dread or with joy (for many deserters have a way with them, decidedly, and are welcome visitors to their children). In short, he is usually at the key point in the situation. No plan can safely be made that leaves him out, but there’s the rub! you cannot include him at once for he is not to be reached, certainly not at the outset. The discovery of the deserter’s whereabouts is not only the first but the most urgent of the problems that confront the worker who tries to deal with a deserted family. Unless he can be found the whole plan rests upon shifting sand.

A prompt and vigorous effort to find the absentee is therefore a first requisite in dealing with family desertion. Unfortunately, many case workers, having started bravely and exhausted the first crop of clues, become discouraged and fall back on the supposition that the man is permanently out of the scene, and that it only remains to make plans for the family. Numberless case histories attest the unwisdom of this assumption. It is not making an extreme statement to say that, as long as the family remains under active care or until the missing man is proved to be dead, the effort to find him should not be abandoned. Mr. Carstens, in discussing this point, says:

To carry on this search persistently is the great safeguard. It is rare when in the course of a few months the true state of affairs will not have been revealed, though it may have been quite hidden at the start.

This is not to say that time must be spent unprofitably in going over the same ground, or that out-of-town agencies must be badgered to reinvestigate old clues. But the frame of mind that pigeonholes the whole matter as having been attended to must be shunned by the social worker, who should be always on the alert for new clues and prompt to follow them up. An example of a vigorous and persistent search for a deserter is taken from the files of the National Desertion Bureau.

Adolph R. deserted his wife and their six little children on September 1, 1912. He was traced to Philadelphia, but had left there the day before the tidings reached New York. Information was obtained from fellow-employes which led to the belief that he had gone to Tampa, Florida. Inquiry was directed to the rabbi in that city, but again the information was disheartening, since it disclosed the fact that once more R. had “left the day before.” The rabbi telegraphed that the deserter had evidently gone to Lakewood, Florida, and that he could be found in that place. Immediately the Bureau dispatched a telegram to its representative there, only to find that R. had merely passed through Lakewood en route to Bartow, Florida. When the inquiry reached Bartow it was learned that R. had left a few days before, and that he was on his way to Memphis, Tennessee. The Jewish Charities of Memphis made investigation at the cigar factories of that city, but reported that no person bearing the name of R. or resembling him had been seen in their city. No further clue to his whereabouts could be secured.

Months later R. applied to the Jewish Charities of Louisville for
transportation to New York, making an entirely false statement about
his family.

This statement was telegraphed to the Bureau and no time was lost in securing a warrant. Louisville was notified by wire to arrest, but again a telegram came: “Adolph R. left city. Learned from Cigarmakers’ Union headquarters he went to Cincinnati. Wire Joe Rapp, 1316 Walnut Street, Cincinnati Union Headquarters. Man said he was going to Cincinnati or Indianapolis. Man joined union Richmond, Va., November 19, 1911, and reports to union in all cities.” The Desertion Bureau immediately telegraphed to Cincinnati and Indianapolis. The United Jewish Charities of Cincinnati working together with the labor union lost little time in effecting his arrest.

Many theories about family desertion have suffered a change in recent years. One of these relates to the “collusive desertion.” Social workers in training used formerly to be taught that the first place to look for the deserter was around the corner, where he could slip back into the house and partake of charitable bounty or, at the very least, keep close watch of his family and return if any serious danger threatened them. Although the collusive desertion seems to have been a frequent happening in the past, there is almost unanimous testimony from case workers at the present time that it is not common. “I don’t come across an instance once a year,” said one case worker.

Another, after searching her memory, recalled what seemed to her one instance of real collusion. A woman, pregnant and seeming to be in great destitution, applied to a family social work society in a small city for help. Careful search did not discover the man’s whereabouts he seemed to have disappeared without leaving a trace, and his wife professed ignorance. Some two weeks after this the visitor, calling late, met a man on the stairs who proved to be the missing husband. Times were hard and he was out of a job, so he had taken to the attic of their house, and had kept so strictly incommunicado that not only the society but the neighbors had been deceived.

Out of twenty or more case workers in different cities whose experience was sought on this point, nearly all felt that the warnings against possible collusion which used to be given to young workers no longer needed to be emphasized. Testimony in the other direction is, however, advanced by the National Desertion Bureau, which found that about 10 per cent of the applications made in 1910 to the United Hebrew Charities of New York for relief because of desertion were collusive.

It should be said, however, that one form of collusion is common to the experience of case workers that of the wife who knows where her husband is, or has a very good idea, but does not want him to return and so keeps her knowledge to herself. “In two of our regular allowance families,” writes the case supervisor of a family agency, “we discovered one quite incidentally, one after the allowance had been discontinued for other reasons that the wife had had reports regarding the man which we might have followed up had we known of them earlier. It could hardly be called collusion it was mere indifference.” A probation officer writes:

“At the present time we have under investigation a family where the man has been away from home for two years and his whereabouts during the last year have been known to his wife. He has been living in a suburb of the city and working steadily during that time. The woman has received adequate aid from public and private organizations. She has been content to accept that rather than notify the authorities and have her husband required to meet the responsibility. The man on his part was aware that his family was being supported, and while there was no agreement between the parties regarding it, nevertheless the arrangement apparently met with mutual approval.”

To guard against this and similar omissions on the woman’s part, more than one agency which deals with family desertion requires the deserted wife to sign an affidavit that she has given all the information she possesses.

Although in practice the possibility of a collusive desertion is not the first and most important thing to keep in mind, it is frequent enough not to be entirely forgotten. And for yet other reasons it is well to keep a watchful eye upon the neighborhood in which the family is living for reports about the man. Often obscure impulses seem to bring him back; jealousy of the wife or a desire to show himself in a spirit of bravado, or even sometimes a fugitive affection for the children he has abandoned may cause him to appear in the neighborhood. “The deserter, like the murderer, harks back to the scene of his misdeeds” was the generalization of one district secretary.

Even when he does not appear in the flesh the deserter may seek news of his family. “One deserter was found through the Attendance Department [of the public school system] to which he wrote after a three years’ absence asking the address of one of the children of whom he was especially fond.”

There is little in the literature of the subject covering methods of discovering deserters, nor do case workers generally appear to have developed a special technique. The decided reaction against detective methods which has been apparent in the profession during later years may help to explain this fact. Most social workers feel a subconscious sense of injustice in having to do this work at all, since it is properly a function of the police. Prosecutors and police officials generally take very little interest in following up deserters, and have little idea of giving any treatment to the deserter who has been found other than arraignment and conviction. It is difficult for the probation officer or the family case worker to hold up the machinery of the law, once it has been started, and to do this long enough to find out whether some other form of treatment best suits the case. For these reasons the social worker usually prefers to do or else is forced to do the work of the detective in desertion cases up to the point where arrest is in his judgment necessary.

A probation officer in D found that he could not work through the local police in searching for a certain deserter, because the missing man’s political affiliations made them friendly to him. The probation officer knew in a general way that the man was likely to be in the city of S in the same state, so he secured a warrant and sent it with such slight clues as were at hand, to a probation officer of that city who was successful in the search. Avoiding the usual procedure, the warrant was served by the police in S . “Several instances of this kind have occurred lately,” writes the probation officer at D .

The necessity of doing the detective’s work raises at once the question of how far the social worker can afford to adopt the detective’s methods. If reformation of the man is the end sought it would seem an axiom that he must be given from the first every reason to believe that the social worker will play fair. “We are very careful never to break a promise we have made to a man,” says an agency which deals with many deserters. The same agency, as illustration of its own methods in seeking deserting men, instances the case of a man who was being shielded by his sister, but was discovered by an officer who scraped acquaintance with her little boy and asked innocently, “Where’s your uncle Jack now?” In another case the officer learned of a man’s whereabouts through his relatives by representing himself as a lawyer’s clerk calling about a legacy which had been left the man. In still another case, reported by a different agency, a man who had deserted his family was known to be receiving mail through the general delivery of another city. It was ascertained that he was writing to a woman in his home town. A letter was sent to him in care of General Delivery asking him to meet the writer (who was represented to be the young woman with whom he was corresponding). The wife was sent to that city and she and the local probation officer met the man and served the warrant.

There is, of course, something to be said in favor of the use of such methods. The protection of the weak and helpless may justify, in certain circumstances, any subterfuge. But the detective who arrests the criminal in ways like these is seeking his punishment and nothing else. There is no thought in that case of establishing personal relations and effecting the long, slow process of reformation. When social workers use such methods it should be in the full realization that they are foregoing any future advantage of straight dealing with the man. To capture a man by a trick is to declare war on him; and, in his mind, the social worker and the policeman then stand in the same place, “I’d have him there to meet you,” said a deserter’s chum to a woman visitor, “if I wasn’t sure, in spite of your straight talk, you’d have a bull waiting behind a tree."

If it is a first desertion, or if there is room for doubt whether an accident may have befallen the man, police and hospital records should be looked up.

A woman with four children applied to a charity organization society, saying her husband had disappeared. There was a rumor that someone had seen him fall off the dock while intoxicated, but no attempt had been made to confirm this and the family was treated as a deserted family for some months, until the man’s body was found in the river and identified.

If there have been previous desertions, it is extremely important to secure their history. The reasons that moved the man once are likely to do so again, and he is apt to return to his former haunts and be seen by former friends and acquaintances.

The deserting man, unless he elopes with another woman, generally goes to some cheap lodging house or, if of foreign birth, he may seek out the quarter where those of his nationality reside and become a lodger in a family in which his native tongue is spoken. Hence, a canvass of the lodging houses armed with a photograph if possible is a desirable first step. All of the social worker’s casual acquaintance with the foreign quarters of his city comes into play in the search. If the man is in the city some “landsmann,” some “paesano” has seen him, and knows where he is to be found. It may even narrow down to finding the particular house on the particular street where the immigrants from a particular village in Sicily or Galicia have their abode. The pool-rooms and saloons of the district can often be made to yield information, especially if a man visitor can canvass them. In dealing in this way with mere acquaintances of the man, it is usually not necessary for the social worker to tell who he himself is or to state the purpose of his inquiry. In talking with relatives or close friends, however, it is often best to lay all cards on the table and convince one’s listener first of all that the man sought will have fair treatment and a chance to state his side of the case before any proceedings are begun against him.

Even a relative who has never been seen may sometimes be induced to act effectively.

A man who deserted his wife and family was reported to have gone to his brother in another city. Nothing definite was known of the brother except that he was a telephone lineman. No address could be secured through the company, but they agreed to forward a letter to this relative. He never answered; shortly, however, the deserter reappeared, having been persuaded to return voluntarily by the brother to whom the letter had been addressed.

During the war local draft boards were of the greatest assistance in finding deserting men. Election records too have been of real value in the case of men who were voters. Passports and immigration records may in some instances yield information helpful in establishing whereabouts. Where there is actually a warrant out for the man’s arrest, the active co-operation of the postal authorities can sometimes be secured in furnishing return addresses on envelopes delivered to persons with whom the culprit is known to be in correspondence.

Problems of family desertion involving men in service during the war were in the main handled by the Red Cross Home Service. Before the war, private case working agencies had learned that the regular Army and the Navy often seemed desirable havens to would-be family deserters. The difficulties of finding them there were great, owing to the fact that they often enlisted as single men under an assumed name. It has usually been possible to gain excellent co-operation from the military authorities if there are any clues whatever.

The desertion bureau of a family social work society learned that a deserting man had expressed a desire long before he left his family to enlist in the Army. Several letters were exchanged with the War Department, and the man was finally found to be with a company serving in the Canal Zone. As he had made misrepresentations when he enlisted, the War Department was willing to transfer him from Panama to a camp within the limits of the city where the desertion had taken place and there discharge him. This brought the absconder within the jurisdiction of the local courts and made it possible to arrest him as soon as he was outside the bounds of the camp.

It will repay the visitor to make not only a careful study of the deserting man’s employment history but also to learn something about the trade he follows. A cloakmaker, for instance, who deserts in New York City is likely to be found in Cleveland, for these are the two centers of the cloak branch of the garment trade. Certain seasonal occupations give the periodical deserter a great opportunity. Among these are hop picking, berry picking, and lumbering. The amusement parks near the large cities also furnish occupation for the seasonal deserter. The case worker cannot be expected to have such knowledge at his finger-tips, but he can go to people who know about the fluctuations of particular trades to employers, union officials or fellow-workmen who may throw light on a deserter’s movements. The story of Adolph R. is an excellent illustration of the help that may be obtained from trades unions and from fellow-workmen. A family welfare bureau in a western city writes:

“In one instance a blacksmith’s union published the picture of the deserting man in its official journal and asked that information regarding him be sent to the local unit here. This proved successful. In another instance a union gave us access to its books and helped us to trace all the men of a given name listed there. By this means we found the man we were looking for. One man, a vaudeville performer, we traced through the Bill Board (a trade paper) by discovering the movements of the show with which he had been connected.”

Another society succeeded in getting a certain trade union to post a description and photograph of a missing man on its bulletin boards. This aided in finding the man. Fraternal orders may be; used in the same way, though for many reasons they cannot be so helpful as the trades unions.

Employment agencies should not be forgotten in seeking to trace a man through his industrial record. The extension of the federal employment service, with free inter-city communication, should be of assistance in getting upon the track of deserters.

The co-operation of newspapers can be secured to good effect in tracing missing men.

Herbert McCann, who had been doing railway construction in Russia, returned to this country and disappeared while en route from an eastern city to his home in Canada. There was reason to think that he might have left the train in an intoxicated condition at an important junction point; and the family social agency of that city was asked to trace him. No information was secured from the police, lodging houses, employment agencies, etc., and finally the following advertisement was inserted in the local paper: “Information Wanted Anyone knowing the whereabouts of Herbert McCann, Montreal, who returned from Russia in June, will confer a favor upon his family by notifying Social Service Building, 34 Grand Street.” Six days later a reply was received from a man in a nearby town, and McCann was found at work in a factory there.

More than upon any other method the National Desertion Bureau depends on the publication of pictures and short newspaper paragraphs. As this Bureau deals entirely with Jewish deserters, it works chiefly through the Yiddish newspapers. Its “Gallery of Missing Husbands” is a regular weekly feature in some of the better known of these journals, and attracts increasingly wide attention. The Bureau estimates that 70 per cent of the deserters which it finds are discovered through the publication of pictures. It should be remembered, however, that this Bureau is dealing with a selected group, who know a great deal about one another, live closely together, follow in the main only a few trades, and read only a limited number of foreign-language newspapers. Whether anything like the same results could be obtained by the same methods applied to deserting husbands of many different national and social backgrounds is open to question.

Since most deserters leave the city, if not the state, the social worker who is dealing with the family problem is often not the same person to whom is delegated the task of finding the man. This fact makes necessary the most careful and sympathetic co-operation between the social workers or agencies, which must work together at long range upon the problem. In the case of Herbert McCann, just cited, not less than four family social work societies were concerned three in the United States and one in Canada. This necessitated keeping in the closest touch, by letter and telegram, so that each was informed of the doings of the others. Such a piece of work calls for a common body of experience and technique among the workers concerned, amounting almost to an unwritten understanding as to how the work should be done. Nothing makes more fascinating reading than the record of a quick, touch-and-go investigation, such as is presented in the finding of a deserter conducted by skilled case workers who are accustomed to work together. Much can, under these circumstances, be taken for granted or left to the discretion of the worker or agency whose help is being sought. There are instances, however, where no such common understanding exists, and where the home-town agency has to work through people with little social training or with training of a type which definitely unfits them properly to approach the deserting man. It is a distressing experience to know that a man has slipped through one’s fingers, been frightened off or alienated, by poor work at the other end. Are there any ways to reduce the number of these mischances?

Even with the closest co-operation among case workers of ability in different cities the results are not always as favorable, for obvious reasons, as if the person who knows the family were the one to find and interview the man. More and more it is realized that money and time spent in going to nearby cities to do one’s own investigating is well spent. There used to be a feeling on the part of the kindred society whose territory was thus invaded that this action argued lack of confidence in its work; but as the importance of the personal contact has been more widely recognized this feeling has disappeared. It may be said that a worker who goes to a strange city is handicapped by her lack of knowledge of local conditions. This is of course true, and it may easily be a question of how great an advantage will be gained by the journey. The worker from the man’s home town can, however, go far toward overcoming the handicap of unfamiliarity with the place, as well as toward dispelling any sense of injury in the mind of a professional colleague, by calling first at the office of the local agency and talking the problem over thoroughly, consulting the map and getting what hints the local agency may be able to furnish. The first question to ask oneself, therefore, is “Will it not be worth while to go myself?”

If for geographical or other reasons this is impracticable, the next thing that should receive careful consideration is the type of letter to be written. If the situation is very emergent (as in the case of Adolph R. cited earlier), the request may have to be sent by telegraph; but even in a telegram it is possible to convey some detail. To try to save money by confining oneself to ten words is unwise. If time admits, a letter is more desirable, and the principle of its construction is as simple as the Golden Rule give the other person all the information you would like to have if you were receiving the letter. Where the correspondent is not a trained social worker, very specific suggestions and directions should be given as to how you wish the man dealt with if found.

There might also be laid down a Golden Rule for recipients of requests from out-of-town that missing men be traced. “Give the request right-of-way over your regular work, and send back as prompt and as full a reply as you would wish yourself” might adequately cover the case. A reply which contains a history of actual steps taken as well as results gained, is more satisfactory than one which does not. Good case workers believe in reciprocity and treat their neighbor’s problem as their own. “We heard that a man we were interested in was in the vicinity of a certain city, and in the effort to trace him wrote to the charity organization society in that place, but without success. Several months later the charity organization society saw an item in a newspaper to the effect that the man had been interned as an enemy alien, and notified us. (This shows no cleverness on our part, but good work by the other society.)”