Read CHAPTER VII - THE DETAILS OF TREATMENT (Continued) of Broken Homes A Study of Family Desertion and its Social Treatment, free online book, by Joanna C. Colcord, on

There remains a fourth classification under treatment, of cases which demand even more individualized care and therefore more extended comment than those just considered.

4. Man’s Whereabouts Known; Man Willing to Return. Here the question to determine is whether it is going to be a desirable thing for the man to re-enter the home and, if so, when. This does not always lie within the power of the case worker to decide; the couple may and often do resolve their differences for the time being without reference to her opinion. But she can often hasten, defer, or even prevent the reconciliation. Careful consideration must be given the elements involved: What causes probably operated to bring about the rupture in family relations? If there have been other desertions what does their history show? Is the man’s willingness to return a sign of real change of heart and purpose, or is he merely afraid of punishment? Are his habits such as to make him a fit inmate of the home? Is he capable of supporting the family? Can any adjustment of temperaments be made which will lessen incompatibility? Is the wife willing to have him return? What are her motives? Has she enough firmness of character to carry out a plan to which she has agreed? These are only a few of the questions to which the social worker needs to know the answer, if the decision is to be a wise one.

If none of the elements is present in the home out of which family life can be reconstructed, if the man’s self-indulgence and cruelty have been proved beyond any doubt, or if affection is dead or never existed, then the decision may have to be that no reconciliation be attempted. In many cases the question then is how best to protect the woman and children against the man’s forcing his way upon them. Court intervention is usually necessary here, if it has not already taken place; and a first step is to have the husband placed under a court order to give separate support and to stay away from his home. The wife should be armed with a warrant for his arrest, which can be served by the policeman on the beat if the man appears. Such a man usually considers that his proprietorship of the home and the family is not affected by his absence or even by court orders, and when fortified by liquor he is likely to force his entrance into the home and perhaps do harm. The protection of the warrant is not absolute; in such cases as this it ought later to be reinforced by a legal separation. Social workers avail themselves of this resource far less than they should. It controverts the principles of no religious sect and gives all the protection of absolute divorce (including the payment of alimony) to the woman and children. To the children it is likely to give more protection than divorce; for in the event of the divorced husband’s remarriage the children of the second wife have prior rights over those of the first, and legal separation makes this impossible by preventing the remarriage of either party. Proceedings for a legal separation cannot usually be started if a man is on probation, but may be while he is undergoing imprisonment. It should be said that, after a separation, claims for non-payment of alimony cannot, in many states, be pressed in a court of domestic relations but must go to a civil court. This is usually more expensive and less satisfactory.

Some social workers even advance the heretical doctrine that support secured through the court from a cruel and dangerous husband does not make up for the harm he may do and the anxiety he causes. If to force him into periodical payments means that he will be continually excited into seeking out and “beating up” his offending wife, the support she is able to extort from him comes high. It is sometimes necessary to move a family to new quarters and actually help them to hide from the pursuit of one of these insistent gentry. Even if we have some doubt that the wife’s protestations of fear or aversion are genuine, we should hardly take the risk of revealing her address if she wishes it kept secret. This precaution applies not only to the man but to anyone whom we suspect of being interested on his behalf. A district secretary continued to refuse the address of his family to a dangerous epileptic deserter who threatened the secretary’s life and, in the opinion of physicians who examined him, was likely to carry out his threat.

The committee on difficult cases in a family social agency voted to refuse to accept voluntary payments from a thoroughly worthless deserter and transmit them to his wife whose address he was seeking to learn, on the theory that it was better for her and her children to be entirely quit of him, and that nothing would make him realize the finality of the decision more than to refuse his money. The agency, it was felt, would be in better position to protect the wife and children if it refused to act as post office for the man.

The same consideration might apply in questions of extradition. When the whereabouts of a deserter of this type has been discovered in another city a safe distance away, it may be wiser to sacrifice the money he might be forced to contribute than to have him brought within arm’s length of his wife and family.

A prime difficulty in dealing with the undesirable husband who is willing to come home is often the attitude of the wife. Some of the causes at work when a woman takes her husband back have been discussed earlier. Unfortunately, hopelessly bad husbands profit by them as well as hopeful ones. The policy of niggardly relief to a deserted wife has undoubtedly been responsible for many of these unfortunate attempts to patch up a life together. “She was worn down by her efforts to keep the household going, and, when the faint chance of her husband’s supporting her appeared, she took it” is the explanation given by a case worker of one unpromising reconciliation, and she goes on to say of this and another similar story: “With both of these it seems that enough money put into the household to enable these mothers to be with their children more and to keep up a reasonable standard of health for themselves might have resulted in their refusing to take back their husbands.... Our records seem to show that inadequate relief, making life fairly hard for the deserted mother, does not tend to keep the man from returning or others from deserting.”

The story of Mrs. Francis shows the effect of adequate relief in strengthening her decision not to take her husband back. He had been a chronic deserter for years, had drank heavily, been foul-mouthed and abusive, while failing to support the family when at home, so that Mrs. Francis had only a little harder time when he was away. His last desertion took place when she was near confinement. Owing to her condition, the church and a family agency co-operated in an unusually generous relief policy. This was in a state which gave mother’s aid to deserted wives. After about a year this was secured for her, and the health of woman and children was built up and the home improved. Then Mr. Francis sent ambassadors in the form of relatives, with whom Mrs. Francis refused to treat. He later appeared himself, but she would not consider taking him back. He escaped before he could be brought into court. As he has now been gone over two years, it seems that her stand is a genuine one.

On the other hand, when the man has been found and interviewed, he may show signs of repentance, and the earlier history, together with the opinion which the social worker has been able to form about the character of man and woman may make it seem that a reconciliation should be encouraged. A further question then arises: Shall the man return to his home at once or first undergo a probationary period?

The quick reconciliation has been a feature of the work in domestic relations courts from the beginning of the movement. In connection with some courts there are special officers whose duty it is to prevail upon couples who come to the court to patch up their differences and give each other another trial. This would be an admirable procedure if the couples to receive such treatment were selected by a process of careful investigation, and if probationary supervision were continued long enough to ascertain whether permanent results could be secured. As it actually works out it is a little like expecting a wound to heal “by first intention” when it has not been cleaned out thoroughly, and when no attention is being paid to subsequent dressings.

“The wholesale attempt to patch the tattered fabric of family life in a series of hurried interviews held in the court room, and without any information about the problem except what can be gained from the two people concerned, can hardly be of permanent value in most cases. It is natural that case workers, keenly aware as they are of the slow and difficult processes involved in character-rebuilding, look askance at the court-made reconciliations. With the best will in the world, the people who attempt this delicate service very often have neither the time nor the facts about the particular case in question to give the skilful and devoted personal service necessary to reconstruction. As a result many weak-willed wrong-doers are encouraged to take a pledge of good conduct which they will not, or cannot, keep; and other individuals who feel themselves deeply wronged go away with an additional sense of those wrongs having been underestimated and of having received no redress. The results are written in discouragement and in repeated failures to live in harmony, each of which makes a permanent solution more and more difficult. The case worker to whom the results of the externally imposed reconciliation come back again and again has reason to be confirmed in a distrust of short-cut methods."

A probation officer writes: “Superficial reconciliations invariably result unsatisfactorily. In one case a reconciliation was effected before the husband was released on probation. This was done apparently in the hope that it would influence the court in the disposition of the case. After a study of the situation had been made by the probation officer, it was found that the wife was totally incompetent as a housekeeper, that she possessed an antagonistic disposition, had a violent temper, and that no sincere attachment for each other existed between the couple. Before any constructive measures could be carried out by the probation officer to remedy this situation they separated, and it was not possible thereafter to adjust the differences with any degree of satisfaction.

“On another occasion a man who had a previous prison record and had displayed criminal tendencies was arrested for desertion. His wife, a feeble-minded woman with one child, was being maintained at a private institution at county expense. Through the efforts of the district attorney a reconciliation was effected before the case was disposed of in court, and the man was placed on probation upon the recommendation of the prosecutor without the usual preliminary investigation by the probation department. The couple began to live together contrary to the advice of the probation officer. About two months later the man was arrested for committing a series of burglaries and the woman was found to be pregnant. Efforts which had been made by the probation department to determine her mentality disclosed her to be feeble-minded; later she was committed to a custodial institution for feeble-minded women of child-bearing age. The man was committed to a state prison.”

However, when youth and high temper seem to have caused the trouble and there is real affection to build upon, a speedy resumption of life together is usually the best thing.

A young woman with one baby said that her husband had got drunk and threatened her with a knife. They quarreled and he went to relatives in another city. Neighbors testified how devoted the couple had been to each other, describing the young man as handy about the house though “lazy about finding work.” He was visited by the family social agency in the city to which he had gone, and wrote a penitent letter asking to come home. The wife agreed; the man immediately returned, got work, and succeeded in overcoming his incipient bad habits. The death of the baby soon after his return seemed only to draw the couple more closely together. The case was soon after closed; nothing has been heard in the three years since to indicate that any further trouble has developed.

A study recently made under the auspices of the Philadelphia Court of Domestic Relations seems to show somewhat better results from court reconciliations than might have been expected. One thousand and two couples who were reconciled in court during the year 1916 were visited from six to eighteen months later. Three hundred and ten had separated or had had further differences which brought them to court; 87 could not be found, and 605, or about 60 per cent, were found to be still living together, though with a varying degree of marital happiness, as the report somewhat drily states.

It should be said that many of these families were probably under the supervision of a probation officer for a longer or shorter period after the reconciliation took place. There is no statement as to the number of repeated deserters among the men, and we cannot estimate how many of the 605 fell within the group which might chance to have the proper basis for reconciliation.

The practice of the Desertion Bureau maintained by the New York Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor is as a rule not to advise reconciliations without a definite preliminary period during which the man shall contribute regularly and show that he means business. “The kind of reconciliation that lasts is the one that is effected with some difficulty to the man,” its secretary remarked. The same probation department which furnished the stories of hasty and unsuccessful reconciliations, contributes this remarkable account of the restoration of a family through slow and careful character rebuilding:

George Latham had shamefully neglected his wife and children for several years. He drank to excess, gambled considerably, and associated with women of loose character. He came from good stock, however, and his early training had been excellent. The differences between man and wife seemed impossible to adjust. After the man’s release on probation, the co-operation of relatives was secured and through the aid of his new found employer efforts were made toward a reconciliation. The man was gradually led away from his old harmful pursuits and tendencies, these being replaced by wholesome activities. He was induced to join a fraternal organization, to take out insurance for his wife and child, was encouraged to attend church regularly, and to open a bank account. When his sincerity was appreciated by the wife, she agreed to resume housekeeping. Under the direction of the probation officer, new furniture was purchased and the home re-established. This man today holds a responsible position under the employer who aided in his rehabilitation, and occupies a respected place in the community.

Very many processes are indicated in such a story. To bring about the conviction of wrong-doing, to awaken desire and supply an incentive, to keep the hope of attainment alive, to encourage weakened nerves in a new and persistent effort, and all the while to build and strengthen and develop faculties and powers that had been dormant and well-nigh destroyed, is a task that demands a high order of skill and resourcefulness.

The story just told emphasizes the work which was done with the husband. Equally careful work had undoubtedly to be done with the wife to carry her along with the plan. The period of “stay-away probation” for the man is a difficult time for the woman. Neighbors and friends know that he is taking steps in the direction of reformation, and often hold the attitude that it is her duty to let bygones be bygones and receive him again. The promptings of her own heart are often in the same direction; and affection not outlived combines with custom, religious precept, and economic pressure to make it almost impossible to hold to her decision. The social worker can sometimes slip some of the burden of the decision off the woman’s shoulders to her own by exacting a promise from the two that they will not try living together until the man has “shown what he can do” for a certain definite time. The economic pressure can be eased by a wise policy of relief; but most of all such a woman needs continued encouragement from a person whose judgment and kindliness she has learned to trust. This is another good point at which to introduce the right kind of volunteer visitor, one who will already have established friendly relations with both when the time of readjustment comes, and who can help bridge over that difficult period. In some cases it might be possible and desirable to procure as volunteer visitors to a couple whose marital relations have come to shipwreck, another married couple who have learned how to live together successfully.

The use of carefully chosen volunteers in effecting reconciliations by the case work method has been singularly little developed. In this respect modern theory and practice have both fallen behind. Especially is it an opportunity to enlist the service of men, whom it is easy to interest in a problem that seems to focus about the man of the family. A man volunteer can search for a deserter in places where a woman, by being conspicuous, would defeat her own end. “Located man by mingling with longshoremen on the docks where he usually worked” could hardly be the entry of a woman visitor. A man can also be very useful in court cases, to counteract the prejudice that sometimes exists in court rooms against the testimony of social workers who are women. In the more subtle processes of winning the man’s confidence and helping him to regenerate his life and recover his home there is no preponderance of testimony in favor of the man visitor. Sex lines vanish here; the good case worker, man or woman, volunteer or professional, is the person needed.

Sometimes the difficulty is not to deter the wife from prematurely taking her husband back but to induce her to relent when the proper time comes.

Martin Long was intemperate, his wife was high-tempered; her relatives advised her to leave him and he deserted, leaving the relatives to provide for her and the three children. He was away two years; then, becoming homesick and wanting to re-establish his home if possible, he returned. The wife caused his arrest when he was seeking an interview with her. The probation officer in whose care he was released became convinced of his genuine sincerity and regret, but the wife, still on the advice of her relatives, refused to see him. He persisted in his hope of a reconciliation and made extraordinary efforts during a winter of industrial depression, putting his pride in his pocket and taking laborer’s work, which he had never done before. He finally got a good position and saved money enough to begin housekeeping. The probation officer kept in touch with the wife, first persuading her to receive a letter from Mr. Long and answer it through the probation office. He interested her in the details of her husband’s struggle, and finally, after a whole year of probation and with the help of her pastor, he induced her to return. The probation officer kept in close touch with the family for some months and reports: “Three years have elapsed since that time; the family is now in a nearby city where they are living harmoniously and in comfortable circumstances.”

A case worker who is remarkable for her success in the treatment of estranged couples, when asked how she did it answered laconically, “talks and talks and talks.” A study of her case records, however, shows certain points that recur again and again in her treatment.

She encourages man and wife, separately, to talk out their grievances thoroughly and get everything out of their systems. She then proceeds (with a lavish expenditure of time, as indicated in her phrase) to convince each that she is a friend, but an impartial friend. She does not push for an immediate reconciliation, is much more likely to recommend a temporary separation until tempers cool down and the true facts appear. She always advises strongly against “argument” and “casting up” the past, and tells the couple to come back to her if they want to discuss their grievances further. Above all, they are not to retail their troubles to relatives and friends. If either or both are out of the city during their separation she keeps in close touch with them by letter. She is quick to utilize their interest in their children as a means of reawakening their interest in each other. The following letters illustrate her method. The first was written to a young man who was serving a six months’ sentence for desertion; the others to the same young man after he had begun a manful struggle to “come back,” working in a munitions plant in another state and later sending money regularly to the wife, who still obdurately refused to forgive him. (The letters are part of a series of 27 which were written to him during a ten months’ period.)

My dear Mr. Andrews:

I was ever so glad to get your letter this week and I am sorry that no one has been over [to the workhouse] to see you recently. I will surely be over within the next two weeks. I know you are anxious and you should have had a letter telling you about the children. They are both all right now and the baby is out of the hospital.

We have had a nice talk with your aunt and she is very anxious to come over and see you. We will all get together and try and plan what is the right thing to do when you come out. I will arrange it so we can have a little longer talk this time if possible.

Very truly yours,

My dear Mr. Andrews:

Your long letter has just arrived. I read it with a great deal of
interest and pleasure. It is fine to know you have already arrived
and have started out to make good on your promises.

I got your cards during the week, which brought the news of your journey. Also on Tuesday morning came your last letter, expressing your appreciation for all we had tried to do for you and enclosing two more thrift stamps for the children. I put these in their books.

Yesterday I had a nice long letter from your father, enclosing one for me to give to you. I am sending it on just as it is. I was very much tempted to read it but have not done so. The reason I was tempted was that I know it must be full of happiness to think you have made such a good start. At least that was the tone of the letter he wrote to me.

During the past years I have worked for this society I have seen many people “come back” strong, and always it has been because they had some big motive in life and reason for making good. But I have seldom known a fellow that had so many reasons why he should make good. You have the confidence of your father and your aunt. You have the children for whom you will do right. You have Clara, whom you have wronged and whom you will have to teach all over again to trust you. Surely all these things added to your own firm will to try and undo all the unhappiness you have given people, ought to help you every day as you prove the good stuff that is in you.

I, of course, telephoned Clara of your starting off and yesterday she came to the office and we had a long talk. She is only sorry that you did not see the baby and says she will be only too glad to have special pictures taken of the children to send you. This was after I suggested that she let me take a snapshot of them to send you.

Be sure and write to your father and aunt often. And please remember my last instructions, which were to let me know fully about yourself. When you write, tell me all about the camp life; how they arrange the living; how long hours you have to work; what they give you for recreation, etc. Pick out for your friends men who can help you, not hinder you, in your good determinations, and hope there will be at least one man there in whom you can trust and to whom you can go for advice.

I will let you know about the children all the time. Clara says
Nellie [the small daughter] was expecting to see you again. Don’t
worry, she will never forget you.

With all good wishes,
Sincerely yours,

My dear Mr. Andrews:

I received your long letter this morning and was very glad to hear all the details of camp life. It is too bad that your surroundings are not more comfortable, but I am sure you can stick it out for awhile. If you can raise yourself to be foreman, will you then have to live in the same uncomfortable quarters? Although I don’t know the details, I should think it would be well if you did sign up for the six months. It is too bad that your throat is still hoarse.

Thank you for letting me see your father’s letter. I am enclosing
it. I hope you are keeping in touch with him.

You asked especially about Clara and whether she asked for you. Of course she did, and she wants me to say if there is anything you want to say to her you can send the letter here and she will write you. She thinks that your ambition and determination to make good is fine, and she will try and help you in every way. She has not been in this week and I have been very busy, but I shall make it my business to see her early next week, and if she has not had the pictures of the children taken, I will get that attended to myself.

So far as I can see there is absolutely nothing for you to worry about from this end of the line. Clara is at last, I think, as fully self-convinced as I am that you are making a splendid effort, and she is perfectly willing to be fair in waiting until you have a chance to get turned around financially and in making first payment for the children.

Next week I am going to send you down a book to read. It is one I have enjoyed myself, and perhaps some evenings when you are not too tired you will get a chance to glance over it. It is small and you can put it in your pocket. Be very sure I have not forgotten the very satisfactory talks we had and the splendid way you have grimly started out to make good. If you can help the Government do their work, even down there, give it a good try out. Never mind the different nationalities you have to mix with. You have already knocked around the world so much that you can just consider this another opportunity of getting to know a great variety of people. You might even learn to talk Italian and Greek! There is no experience in life we have to go through but can be a source of great education to us. You are sure to win out and get the respect of everybody, your fellow-workmen as well as your superior officers, if you continuously day in and day out simply refuse to get discouraged and keep up your work and do as you are told. Stick by.

With all good wishes,
Sincerely yours,

But when all is said and done, there are no unbreakable rules about treatment. A form of treatment is sometimes to do nothing at all.

Charles Morgan, a middle-aged machinist with a wife, a comfortable home, and seven children (the two eldest grown), picked up his tools and disappeared, after a quarrel over his wife’s extravagance. He had been earning $50 a week in a shop where he had worked for eighteen years and he would not endure having his wages garnisheed for debt.

An experienced case worker to whom furious Mrs. Morgan made her complaint, decided, after studying Mr. Morgan’s record, that he ought not to be prosecuted, and refused to be party to it. As he was a man of domestic habits, search was made in a nearby city where he had relatives. He was easily traced. Mr. Morgan was both proud and reticent, so the case worker made no attempt to approach him, but told the woman she must devise some way to get him back, preferably to write him and say she was sorry. This she refused to do and on her own responsibility adopted the clumsy device of wiring him that a favorite child was sick. This brought him “on the run,” and, being back, he stayed. The case worker has never seen Mr. M., nor has his wife been encouraged to come any more to the office, although reports have been received from time to time through the son and daughter that things at home continue to go well.