Read CHAPTER V - FURTHER ITEMS IN THE INVESTIGATION of Broken Homes A Study of Family Desertion and its Social Treatment, free online book, by Joanna C. Colcord, on

It is evident that the need of finding the man strongly influences the course of this type of investigation, especially in the early stages. Are there other considerations, however, that modify the technique of inquiry into these desertion cases?

There is one crisis in the lives of deserted families which is not duplicated in the history of any other group suffering from social disability. This crisis is the period of the first desertion. “If we could learn what preceded and what immediately followed the first desertion, we should know much more than we do now about how to deal with the problem,” said a case worker who has studied many court records.

The number of subsequent desertions may be both interesting and significant, but the circumstances attending them are not nearly so well worth study as are those connected with the critical first break. We should go back to that spot and probe for causes. The common practice of recording carefully what led up to a chronic deserter’s last desertion before his family applied, and of passing over his earlier desertions with a mere mention of their number and dates, puts the emphasis in the wrong place.

We must, however, go further back than the first desertion for a working fund of knowledge. The importance of knowing what were the influences surrounding the man and woman in childhood and youth has already been dwelt upon and is so generally conceded as to need no elaboration here. Of especial value also is careful inquiry into the period of courtship, the circumstances of the marriage, and the history of the earlier married life. “We should seek to know what first drew them together, as well as what forced them apart,” said a thoughtful district secretary. The notorious unhappiness of “forced marriages” leads case workers to scrutinize the relation between the date of marriage and the date of the birth of the first child. It should be remembered, however, that not all marriages which are entered into during pregnancy are forced marriages. Studies of forced marriages, so-called, have not always taken this fact into consideration.

The superintendent of a state department for aid to widows made a study of the vital statistics of 500 families chosen at random. She states that “out of these 500 mothers 96, or 19.2 per cent, had conceived out of wedlock or rather before wedlock judging by the date of marriage and that of the first child’s birth. All these women were hard working; several of good standing in the neighborhood and the mothers of large families of children.” This group of homes represents by no means an unstable segment of the community, since in most instances the couples had lived together in reasonable harmony up to the time of the man’s death. But do the 96 represent forced marriages as ordinarily thought of by the social worker? The study just quoted has no facts bearing upon this point. The likelihood is that a large number of these marriages, termed forced, were in reality not brought about by outside pressure at all, but that the couple were intending to be married at the time the pregnancy occurred and that the circumstances were condoned by public opinion in the community where the marriage took place.

The Chicago Juvenile Protective Association, however, has made a study of 89 forced marriages which were brought about in connection with bastardy proceedings. In this study there is no attempt to differentiate as to the amount of unwillingness that had had to be overcome on the part of either the man or the woman. Fifty-three of the women said that the marriage had been entered into willingly on their part. Sixty of them stated that they were well treated by their husbands, and only five complained of abuse or unkindness. Out of the 89 marriages brought about after proceedings were instituted 69 of the couples were still living together from one to two years later, although 20, or nearly one in five, had separated before the two-year period was over.

A young woman with four small children was given advice by an associated charities about her approaching confinement, and no further inquiry was made at that time. She was living apart from her husband, who was contributing a small amount regularly. The income was inadequate and it was decided to push the matter further. Efforts to verify the marriage failed. Finally, a tactful worker was able to learn that the ceremony had not taken place until after the birth of the first three children, that the couple had had sexual relations since the woman was a girl of fifteen, and that her relatives had never known the true state of affairs. The man’s mother finally interfered, and urged her son not to live with his wife. After much careful work, and with the assistance of a co-operating priest, a plan was worked out which brought the couple together and induced them to move away from the region in which the man’s parents lived.

A probation department tells of a case where, although the man was unwilling to marry, a court marriage was brought about; the man made his payments promptly and observed the other conditions of his probation faithfully. The woman, however, was indifferent to any efforts to bring about a reconciliation. It was finally discovered that she was immoral. The case culminated in the securing of a divorce by the man, who was granted the custody of the children.

The same department submits a story where good results were obtained in subsequently reconciling, after a desertion, a couple whose marriage had been of the forced description. The probation department arranged for the couple to live apart in the early stage of probationary treatment. A careful study was made of each of the individuals, and in their sincere attachment a basis was discovered for re-establishment of the home under the supervision of the probation officer. Five years later the man was found to be at work at the same position originally obtained for him by the probation officer, his salary had been increased, the family had grown in number and were getting on extremely well.

Although the term “forced marriage” has come to have the meaning given above, unions can be really forced where there has been no sex relation before marriage. In one unhappy marriage which came finally to a court of domestic relations, the wife was a weak and timid woman who married her husband because of her fear that he would carry out his threat and kill her and himself if she refused him. Another, an Italian girl, was married at fourteen by her parents against her inclinations to a well-to-do man, much older than she, who was a lodger in the family. As she grew to womanhood their incompatibility increased; finally, after four children had been born, the family was broken up and the children committed to institutions.

There are compulsions and false motives, operating to bring about marriages, which spring from within not without; and the discovery of any motive for the marriage except mutual inclination has significance to the case worker. Light was thrown on the troubles of one young couple when the girl confessed that she had married a youth for whom she had no particular affection, in order to “spite” her relatives and assert her right to do as she chose. And the unfortunate young woman who married a street evangelist in a fit of religious enthusiasm, and because of his promise that they would travel about the world saving souls together, had a married life both short and stormy. The so-called “slacker marriages” of the few months preceding the first draft in 1917 illustrate this point. The wreckage of these marriages is already drifting in increasing amount to the courts of domestic relations.

One of the most important items in desertion cases, and one far too often neglected, is the verification of the marriage. Much seeming indifference and confusion on this point is probably caused by the quasi-legality in many states of common law marriages. The case worker should not forget, however, that a common law union is often only a device on the part of one or the other of the two to avoid prosecution for bigamy. When it is established that the marriage is a common law union, a strong suspicion should be set up in the worker’s mind that there may be some legal barrier to a ceremony, and careful inquiry should be directed along this line. Not only does the verification of a marriage give the worker a sound basis on which to proceed to court action if necessary, but the copy of the actual marriage record, where that can be procured, gives much valuable information as to dates, addresses, and names of relatives and witnesses. A transcript of the record will usually be furnished by the registrar of vital statistics in the city where the marriage took place (if in the United States) for a nominal fee of fifty cents.

It is much more difficult to verify marriages which took place in other countries, and social workers are often appalled by the prevalence of the so-called “American marriage” among immigrant deserters, who trust to our happy-go-lucky methods for protection against a prosecution for bigamy.

Such was the case of Orfeo Pelligrini, who came to this country and took a new wife when his children in Italy were nearly grown. His Italian family came to America through their own efforts a few years later, and Orfeo found that he had underestimated the character of his eldest son, who traced his father, had him arrested and taken to the city where his original family was living. Orfeo, now forcibly reunited to the wife of his bosom, walks softly under the threat of bigamy proceedings, while the “American” wife refuses to take any action on the ground that “he didn’t go away from me of his own wish, and why should I put him behind the bars?”

Of an altogether more simple mental make-up was the Slovak laborer who brought his pregnant “American wife” and two children to the district office of a charity organization society, saying that the relatives in Europe of Anna, his first wife, had sent Anna to this country, and she was on the point of arriving. He added that, as manifestly it was not possible to support two families on his wages, he would like to provide for his second wife through “the Charity.”

A district secretary who has worked for many years with Italians is authority for the statement that marriages in Italy are always registered at the man’s legal residence, no matter where the marriage took place. “Careful Italian parents, if they cannot get reliable information in other ways, write to the ‘paese’ of a suitor for information in regard to his conjugal condition. A marriage which takes place in America is customarily registered with the consul for transmission to the home town in Italy.”

In some countries of Latin America great confusion may be caused by the fact that a marriage performed in church is not legal in the eyes of the state unless a second ceremony is gone through before the civil authorities. A Guatemalan woman, deserted in this country, had no recourse in law because she had had only the church ceremony in her country. Her claim to the status of common law wife was invalidated by the man’s producing proof that he was already married at the time the religious ceremony was performed.

Having established the fact that a legal marriage has taken place, the case worker must keep in mind the possibility that it may have been later dissolved. It is not at all uncommon to find that a deserter who has gone off with another woman has started proceedings to get a divorce by “publication.” This can happen when the two have gone to a state where such unfair divorce procedure is permitted. Publication in these cases takes place in local newspapers which there is little or no chance of the wife seeing; and she may later find herself a divorced woman with no legal claim for support for herself or children, and suffering under charges of misconduct without having had a chance of being heard. The National Desertion Bureau found this proceeding so common an abuse that it established a clearing bureau in its central office, and its local representatives in different parts of the country notify this bureau as soon as any action for divorce is started by a man with a Jewish name against a wife whose “address is unknown."

What are some of the other points at which the investigation of cases of desertion may differ from the technique generally accepted? The superintendent of a desertion bureau, in answer to this question, said that he emphasized “neighborhood references” more than in the ordinary case. Social workers have become very wary, of course, of much inquiry among present neighbors; but where the protection of the woman or the children is involved it is often necessary to procure the testimony of people who live nearby or in the same house. A deserted family is usually so much a center of neighborhood interest or sympathy, or both, that it is easier than in some other types of cases to secure information from neighbors, tradesmen, and so on, without augmenting neighborhood gossip.

Probably the most difficult part of the necessary information to be secured in desertion cases is an adequate picture of the sex relationship between man and wife. The part which sex plays in the causation of desertion has been touched upon in Chapter II. In getting the information from the people concerned, the case worker needs no elaborate equipment as a psycho-analyst; but she should know enough about sex psychology to recognize a pathological problem when she meets it, and to be able to call on the psycho-analyst or psychiatrist for specialized service.

The securing of an adequate picture of the sex life of the couple may have to be delegated, however, to some volunteer whose own sex, profession, or marital experience makes him or her a suitable person to secure it.

“The majority of social case workers are unmarried women under forty, and in this particular respect they frequently find themselves handicapped by the natural reluctance of the deserter to discuss his conceptions of the marital relation in such a way as to be enlightening to them, as well as by the chivalrous attitude which the woman of the tenements often adopts toward her unmarried visitor. The decisive statement, ’You have never been married, so you can’t understand,’ often proves at least a temporary barrier in dealing with deserted wives, just as the similar statement, ’You have never been a mother so you cannot know the feelings of one,’ is used to block her efforts in another direction. If it is found impossible to carry on the necessary discussions rationally and without too serious embarrassment, it is often possible to call upon the socially-minded physician or clergyman for help along this line."

To sum up, the interviews with the family and the supplementary visits and letters of inquiry should furnish the social worker if possible with:

1. A clear picture of the home in which the two adult members of the family grew up, and the factors in their early training which contributed to their failure as husband or wife; or which can be utilized as assets in the future plan.

2. A history of how the couple met; the events of their courtship and marriage, including sex relations prior to marriage with spouse or others; also previous marriages. Records of marriage, death of previous spouse, etc., are very important and should be secured if in existence.

3. A picture of the family and its individual members in their other social relationships with employers, medical agencies, teachers, their church, their friends, their relatives. Knowledge of their habits, tastes, and characteristics, with special attention to period of first desertion. Analysis of factors leading to the desertion.

4. History of first reconciliation (unless the present is the first break). History of subsequent desertions. Court record, if any.

A prerequisite to some of the above information is an interview or interviews with the man. Where this cannot be had as part of the first investigation, the investigation should leave the worker in possession of some good clues, at least, to the man’s whereabouts.