Read CHAPTER IX - NEXT STEPS IN CORRECTIVE TREATMENT of Broken Homes A Study of Family Desertion and its Social Treatment, free online book, by Joanna C. Colcord, on

Any discussion of laws, their application, and enforcement, must perforce be very general, since the different states vary greatly in laws governing desertion and in equipment for their enforcement. Suggestions for a uniform federal desertion law are not considered here; the term “next steps” should be read as meaning not plans in actual prospect but rather the increase in legal facilities desirable from the social worker’s point of view. In communities where no such facilities exist, social workers are in a good position to collect illustrative material and push for desirable changes in law and law enforcement. Especially advantageous is the position of the legal social agencies such as legal aid societies and special bureaus and committees for increasing the efficiency of the courts, many of which are affiliated with or maintained by the large family work societies.

1. Measures for the Discovery, Extradition or Deportation of the Deserter. The nation-wide registration of males between certain ages, under the Selective Service Act, was widely utilized by social workers in finding deserting men, with the hearty co-operation usually of the draft boards. This fact forms no argument for universal registration as it was carried on in Germany before the war; no system which meant such cumbersome machinery or so much interference with the freedom of the individual ought to be advocated for a moment if it were solely for the purpose of keeping track of the small percentage of citizens who wish to evade their responsibilities, marital and other. Even such a non-military device as that which obligates every person to register successive changes of address with the postal authorities to facilitate delivery of mail would be contrary to the American spirit and easily evaded by people interested in concealing their whereabouts, unless enforced with all the rigor of the European police system. But though we can advocate no system of manhood registration, we can avail ourselves of the incidental benefits of any that may be in force.

The Federal Employment Service offers a promising means of help in discovering the movements of deserters whose trade and probable destination are known. It should be entirely possible to work out a system by which the managers of the local employment bureaus should be furnished with name, description, copy of photograph, and so on, of a deserter who is being sought, so that the man if recognized could be traced or quickly apprehended if a warrant is already in the hands of the local police authorities. It may even be possible, under the federal employment service, to develop the long wished for national registration of casual and migratory labor. Need for some such system has been felt by all agencies trying to deal constructively with vagrants and homeless men. Little track can be kept not only of the individual wanderer but of the ebb and flow of the tides of “casual labor” without some system of this sort. If employment bureaus were required to forward to a central registry the names and some identifying particulars of every non-resident who applied for employment, the problem of finding the deserter would be rendered ten times easier than it is now.

One present obstacle to this and other improvements is the attitude of authorities city, state, and federal toward wife desertion. We have already mentioned the way in which the task of tracing the deserter has been thrust back upon the wife and the social worker, as if he were not an offender against the community as well as against his wife and children. Almost as widespread is the reluctance of the proper authorities to arrest the deserter and bring him back after he has been found. A general atmosphere of indifference and despair of accomplishing anything worth while surrounds any attempt to push the prosecution of a man who has taken refuge outside the community. Hope for the future lies in socializing the point of view of court officials, police, and district attorneys a process in which the social worker must play a large part. No chance should be lost to drive home the social and economic waste involved, by using the illustrative material which abounds in the files of most case work agencies.

The pernicious system by which the wife is required to serve summons and warrant upon the offending husband who is still in the same city, should be done away with entirely. The social agency, public or private, which has had to support or assist the man’s family ought to be able to prefer a charge for non-support, and to take out a summons or a warrant and serve it without the wife’s being present. The agency should in this case protect itself by securing from the wife a signed affidavit and authorization to act in her behalf. It may seem unimportant whether the wife makes such complaint in the court or to a private society. The psychological effect upon the man is, however, very different. If his wife initiates the complaint in court, his resentment is directed toward her a fact which renders reconciliation more difficult if this is later attempted. In other cases, for the wife to make the complaint puts her in actual physical danger from the vindictive husband. If he is brought into court on the complaint of a social agency, part of that resentment at least is transferred to the intrusive social worker, who is not usually seriously troubled thereby and is far better able to bear the weight of the husband’s displeasure than is his poor wife.

The absence of any treaty with Great Britain by which family deserters can be extradited to or from Canada makes the Dominion a place of refuge for many American evaders of family responsibilities. The National Conference of Charities and Correction, at its meeting in Cleveland in 1912, passed a resolution on the need for such a treaty. As a result, largely through the efforts of Mr. William H. Baldwin, the treaty was signed and sent to the Senate for ratification in December, 1916. It was referred to the Committee on Foreign Relations, where it met with objection and has remained without action up to the present. The National Conference of Jewish Charities, at its meeting in Kansas City in May, 1918, sent urgent representations to the Senate Committee, which it is hoped may result in ratification after the pressure of war-time legislation is relaxed.

We should not stop when reciprocal extradition with Canada has been secured; there is a similar situation on our southern border in states from which escape into Mexico is easy. While American deserters are not likely to go to other more remote countries than these two, immigration into America from other countries creates desertion problems in other places and presents us with a class of undesirables with whom it is difficult to deal under existing immigration laws. In 1912 a report was submitted to the Glasgow Parish Council showing the alarming amount of dependency created in that one city by the emigration to America and the Colonies of men without their families, and who subsequently drifted into the status of deserters. This report makes the interesting suggestion that no married man be permitted to emigrate without his family unless he presents a “written sanction of the Parish Council or other local authority,” and further, that he be bound, under penalty of deportation, to report himself to some authority in the country of his destination, which would satisfy itself as to his conduct and insure that he did his duty by wife and family. Such a provision would of course involve the revision of our own immigration laws, making wife and family desertion a crime thereunder.

At present the law provides deportation only within five years after entry, and for “persons who have been convicted of or admit having committed a felony or other crime or misdemeanor involving moral turpitude,” or who are sentenced to a term of one year or more in this country, within five years of entry, for such crime (or who may suffer a second conviction at any time after entry). This would clearly cover bigamy committed within five years after entry; whether it could be stretched to cover lesser forms of marital irresponsibility remains to be determined. (It should be remembered that a man who brings in as his wife, or later sends for, a woman to whom he is not married, can be deported under quite other sections of the immigration law.)

2. Improvements in Court Procedure. A sore point with the social worker is the often ridiculously inadequate amounts that unwilling husbands are put under court order to pay. They accuse the courts, whether rightly or wrongly, of considering first what part of the man’s alleged earnings will be needed for him to live upon comfortably, and then of making the order for whatever may be left over.

Onofrio Mancini was under court order to stay away from home and pay his wife $6.00 a week for the support of their two children, He drove a two-horse truck, and, at that time, must have been earning not less than $16.00 a week. Mrs. Mancini fell ill, whereupon Onofrio promptly ceased all payments. The social agency interested was permitted to make a complaint on producing a doctors certificate that Mrs. Mancini could not appear in court; but Onofrio, when he appeared, put up such a hard luck tale of earning only $8.00 a week that the judge, without investigation, cut the order down to $4.00 a week and ordered Onofrio to return home to live.

A bulletin issued by the Seybert Institution of Philadelphia gives a very interesting set of diagrams showing the relation (or lack of relation) between the amount of man’s income, size of family, and the court order issued in the Philadelphia Municipal Court.

This report gives a series of illustrations, where glaring inconsistencies between the man’s earnings and the court order were observed by visitors to the court. A sample of the reports made by these visitors is as follows:

“Man earning $30 to $40 a week at ammunition factory. Can earn $20 with no overtime. Has been sending woman $10 a week but has threatened to leave town. Judge said: ’You can’t keep up $10 a week how much can you give?’ Finally ordered $8 a week. Woman said she couldn’t live on that and Judge told her she had to go to work herself then; that they should live together anyway. Woman says she is unable to work is ill. When man stated he was giving $10 great consternation seemed to take hold of the entire court force. He did not say he couldn’t pay $10; the judge simply told him he couldn’t keep that up.”

The practice of assigning less than half the man’s weekly earnings to the wife and children has been defended on the ground that if he is forced to live too economically, he will disappear and the family will be left with nothing. This would seem to be a self-confession on the part of the court that it cannot enforce its reasonable requirements. It would appear that the first thing to be considered is the minimum needs of the wife and children, taking into consideration whether the wife can be expected to contribute anything toward her own support or whether all her time is needed for her children. This amount should be cut down only when there is actually not enough left for the man to live on; and his wife and children should not be pinched for necessities in order that he may have luxuries or indulge in vices. The habit some judges have of accepting the man’s own statement on oath as to what his earnings are is responsible for many unjust orders. A man who does not want to contribute to his family’s support is almost sure to understate his earnings, oath or no oath; and the confirmation of his employer (or when the employer is suspected of being in league with him, the inspection of the employer’s books by the probation officer) is often needed. Probably the most difficult form of evasion to combat is that of the man who deliberately takes a lower salary than he is capable of earning, so as to have less to give his wife. Surprising as it may seem, this is a common practice; but skilful probation work can nevertheless find a remedy.

In cases of suspended sentence, payments ought always to be made through the court and not handed by the man to his wife. It is better to have the amount received and transmitted by some bureau attached to the court, and so managed that the man can send the money in without “knocking off work” to bring it and that the woman can receive it by mail. The probation officer should not be bothered with the actual handling of the money, but he should be promptly notified of any delinquency in the payments.

Whether the man under court order is on probation or not, the cessation of payments should automatically reopen the case. At present, in most courts, the order goes by default until the wife comes in to make another charge. This, through discouragement or fear of a beating from the man, she often neglects; with the result that the orders of the court mean little in the eyes of the men, and that arrears, once allowed to mount up, are never cleared off.

This statement applies as well to long term orders for separate support where the circumstances are such that no reconciliation is contemplated. These orders are now made for a definite period of months, at the end of which time the case drops unless the wife renews charges. A case of this sort ought not to be terminable without a reinvestigation and final hearing in court. Indeed it would seem, in such cases, that the children involved should have at least as much protection as the children in bastardy proceedings, and that the order should be made to cover the term of years until the oldest child becomes of working age.

The most important step in advance with regard to payments is undoubtedly the law which has been tried with signal success in the District of Columbia and in the states of Ohio and Massachusetts, requiring men serving prison sentences for non-support and abandonment to be made to work, and a sum of money, representing their earnings, to be turned over to their families.

In an interesting paper in the Survey for November 20, 1909, entitled “Making the Deserter Pay the Piper,” Mr. William H. Baldwin discusses in detail how this plan was made to work successfully in the District of Columbia.

The movement for special courts to consider cases of juvenile delinquency and marital relations has gained such headway that no word needs to be said here in its favor. In communities where the volume of court business permits such courts to be separately organized, they are generally accepted as the only means of handling these matters. In smaller communities the need may be met by setting aside regular sessions of the magistrates’ courts for this purpose.

Juvenile courts and domestic relations courts having proved a success separately, there is a strong movement on foot to combine them into one court, for which the name Family Court has been proposed.

A leader in this movement is Judge Hoffman of the Family Court of Cincinnati, which he describes thus:

“The Court of Cincinnati was organized for the purpose of dealing with the family as a unit and to ascertain possibly the cause of its disruption. It has exclusive jurisdiction in all divorce and alimony cases, and all matters coming under the Juvenile Court Act. It also has jurisdiction in cases of failure to provide. The ideal court would include in connection with the foregoing functions, adoption of children, the issuing of marriage licenses, and bastardy cases."

One advantage of this plan is the economy it effects in the time of probation officers. It is generally admitted that in children’s court cases it is the parents rather than the children who are really on probation; and with two courts and two separate probation systems, we may even have the anomaly of the same family being under the care of two probation officers at once. Specialization can no further go! Other leaders in the domestic relations court movement see little merit in the proposal for a one-part family court. They think that, in the large cities at least, the need would be better served by having the domestic relations and juvenile courts under one roof, but as two separate and distinct parts of the same court. All are agreed, however, that the powers of one or the other of the two special courts should be enlarged to cover bastardy cases, where this is not now done.

The domestic relations court, whether separate or as part of a family court, ought to have equity powers, so that the usual rules of evidence need not be so closely adhered to and more latitude could be allowed the magistrate in disposing of cases, not necessarily according to ruling and precedent but according to the social needs disclosed. A constitutional amendment now pending in New York is a model for this sort of legislation. It is in part as follows:

“The legislature may establish children’s courts and courts of domestic relations as separate courts or parts of existing courts, or courts hereafter to be created, and may confer upon them such equity and other jurisdiction as may be necessary for the correction, protection, guardianship and disposition of delinquent, neglected or dependent minors, and for the punishment and correction of adults responsible for or contributing to such delinquency, neglect or dependency, and to compel the support of a wife, child or poor relative by persons legally chargeable therewith who abandon or neglect to support any of them."

Many courts of domestic relations which now exercise equity powers, such as ordering that a man remain away from home or that a wife allow her husband to see his children at stated times, do so without actual legal warrant and subject at any time to appeal of counsel. The conferring of equity powers on courts of domestic relations is a form of protection both to the court and to its clients which social workers should stand ready to work for.

Juvenile courts have in the main outstripped the domestic relations courts in the use of physicians and psychiatrists. The best examples of both these courts have, however, facilities for the making of physical examinations and mental tests, where necessary, before adjudication. Judge Hoffman says that the fact that so many cases in courts of domestic relations disclose abnormal or perverted sex habits, makes important the services of a psychiatrist accustomed to diagnosing these conditions.

In most states the jurisdiction of the courts of domestic relations should be extended and co-ordinated. Few states escape some glaring inconsistencies in the laws governing desertion and abandonment. There is, for instance, much confusion between states as to whether a woman whose husband brings her to a strange city and there deserts her must prosecute him in the city where their home is or where the desertion took place. Under certain circumstances the woman is forced to travel to the city where her husband has gone, and bring action against him there, if the courts in that place will entertain a suit. In New York state there is no law which covers the case of a man who abandons his wife while she is pregnant, if there is no other living child. To constitute an extraditable crime there must have been abandonment of a child in esse not merely in posse.

But no institution, however carefully established by law, is any more effective than the people who run it; and the usefulness of the domestic relations court in any community depends entirely upon the social-mindedness and freedom from political entanglement of the judge and the amount and quality of probation service. From a social point of view, the latter is more important than the former; for a bad decision of the court can be mitigated by good case work later on, while a poor probation officer may nullify the effects of the wisest judicial decision ever made.

The importance of having enough probation officers to handle the work of the court has already been touched upon. An overworked officer is perforce an inefficient officer. He has usually to spend at least half his time in the court and attending to the clerical end of his job. From 50 to 60 cases is probably all that one probation officer can be expected to handle thoroughly at one time, if, as is to be hoped, he is required to make careful preliminary investigations to be presented to the judge before the trial.

In training and in equipment for the job, probation officers should be the equals of case workers in private agencies. Examinations for probation officers ought to be conducted by social workers of skill and high standards. A few months of cramming at a civil service school, or a few weeks of volunteer visiting with some case working agency, should not suffice to enable candidates to pass the examinations. The standards should be high enough and the salaries sufficiently attractive to draw into this field people who have successfully completed their apprenticeship in the art of case work. Only then can the status of the probation officer be raised to what it should be in the court itself. The relation of the probation officer to the judge ought to be exactly like the relation of the medical social worker to the physician that of a person acting under his direction in a general way, but with a special contribution to make to the treatment of the case and with a recognized standing as an expert in his own particular field.