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

At this time of writing it is too soon after the signing of the armistice to make predictions as to what the Great War may do to marriage. Whether desertion and divorce will increase or decrease it is impossible to say, and the experience of Europe is beside the mark. The war will leave traces on this generation no doubt about that; but our losses have not been heavy enough seriously to disturb the balance of the sexes. The war, which has been to the common people of our country a war of service and ideals, has erased much that was petty and selfish; it has also caused nervous shocks and strains incalculable and unimagined. Years from now we may be able to strike the balance, but today this cannot be done. It is impossible also to say whether the growing irresponsibility that was generally recognized to be threatening married life in the years before the war is still operating with like effect, or whether the full tide of emotion in which the world has been lately submerged may have swept at least a part of it away.

We are dealing here, however, not so much with modifications in the spirit of the times, as with prevention in the individual case.

One very fundamental claim can be made concerning marital shipwrecks; namely, that the way to prevent many of them would have been to see that the marriage never was allowed to take place. Marriage laws and their enforcement form a whole subject in themselves which is now receiving careful study, the results of which should be available shortly. This fact precludes any discussion of the subject here, though the relation of our marriage laws to marital discord is so obvious that some mention of the matter is necessary.

It was formerly the belief of students of family desertion that the best way to prevent desertions was to punish them quickly and severely. It should be said that this plan has never received a fair trial on a large scale, for legal equipment has always lagged behind knowledge. It may be true that just as a community can, within limits, regulate its death rate by what it is willing to pay, so it can by repressive measures regulate its desertion rate. But measures that keep the would-be deserter in the home which constantly grows less of a home, simply through fear of consequences if he left it, seem hardly a desirable form of prevention from the social point of view. It would be much better to catch the disintegrating family in whatever form of social drag-net could be devised, and deal with it individually and constructively along the lines which case work has laid down.

Is it possible, however, to recognize a “pre-desertion state?” And if so, what are the danger signals? One case worker answers this question sententiously: “Any influences which tend to destroy family solidarity are possible signs of desertion.” Another writes: “We have sometimes found it possible to recognize a ‘pre-desertion state’ in the intermittent deserter, where we know the conditions which previously led to desertion, but I doubt whether we have very often been able to note it in the case of first desertions. In general, I should say a growing carelessness or a growing despondency as to his ability to care for his family are danger signals in the man, of which it is well to keep track.”

The conditions listed in Chapter II as “contributory factors” might in certain combinations be decided danger signals of impending desertion. Non-support itself is, indeed, one of the most common of such signals, though a man who has dealt with hundreds of desertion cases maintained recently that the best and most hopeful type of deserter is the one who supports his family adequately up to the time of leaving home.

In the following case the items that led the case worker to suspect an approaching desertion are set down in the order stated by her. The couple were Irish; the man had never deserted before.

(1) He had spoken with eagerness of the wages that were being earned
in munition plants in a city a few hours away said he would like to
go to some of those munition places and see what he could make.

(2) He was an intermittent drinker.

(3) His work record was poor; employers said he was irregular and

(4) Visitor felt he had never earned as much as he was easily
capable of earning and was rather indifferent to the needs of his

(5) The woman was willing to work had applied for day nursery care,
but visitor had persuaded the nursery not to accept the children.

After the visitor had stated the first two of the above items she stopped, and did not add the more significant three that followed until reminded that many workmen who drank intermittently were at that time thinking enviously of munition factory wages; and that these hardly constituted danger signals. The cumulative effect of all five items cannot, however, be denied.

Another statement, similarly obtained, concerns a colored couple, married about two years and with two children, the youngest less than a month old. Man had been out of work and family had gone to live with relatives.

(1) Man earns $20 a week but refuses to start housekeeping again,
although they are seriously overcrowded seven adults and five
children in five rooms.

(2) Woman says he makes her sleep on chairs so that he can get
better rest.

(3) He is seeing a good deal of another woman, a friend of the wife
(wife’s statement only).

(4) Woman had applied for nursery care for both children so that she
might go to work.

(5) It transpires that she lived with him before marriage, and that
the first child was a month old when the marriage took place. He
“holds it over her.”

(6) Man had been married before and divorced.

(7) The family’s habits of recreation are changed; the man no longer
“takes her out.”

Such attempts to foretell the future are not infallible, of course; but a listing process is a valuable aid to diagnosis, and, by its help, a situation may be uncovered which tends toward complete family breakdown. This may be taken in time and prevented; or, if separation is inevitable it can be prepared for in advance, the necessary legal arrangements can be made to protect the family, and the anxiety, suspense, and useless effort avoided which a sudden and downright abandonment would cause.

But the trouble is that the problem seldom comes to the case worker until matters have progressed farther than this. The real question is not how to recognize pre-desertion symptoms, but how to get hold of families when these symptoms are in the incipient stage.

Mr. Hiram Myers, manager of the Desertion Bureau of the New York Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, who has made a close study of the subject, holds the theory that the real period of stress in marital adjustment comes not during the “critical first year,” about which we have been told so much, but at a later period, which he sets roughly at from the third to the fifth year after marriage. By this time there are usually one or two babies, the wife’s girlish charm has gone, and the romance of the first attraction has vanished, while the steady force of conjugal affection which should smooth their path through the years ahead has not come to take its place. It is in this middle period that longings for the delights of his care-free youth begin to come back to a man; if he ever had the wandering foot, it begins again to twitch for the road; of else his fancy is captured by some other girl not tied down at home by children. It is at this time, too, that endless discords and misunderstandings arise that the last bit of gilt crumbles off the gingerbread.

As a result of his observations, Mr. Myers feels sure that the majority of first desertions take place somewhere from the third to the fifth year after marriage. Miss Brandt’s careful statistical study of 574 deserted families shows that in nearly 46 per cent of the families the first desertion took place before the fifth year of married life. Of course the jars that may come in the earlier months of marriage are seldom brought to the attention of social agencies, as it is usually the presence of children in the family and the consequent burden upon the wife which make such agencies acquainted with her.

It is to be hoped that further study will be made upon these points. It is well known and accepted that the majority of first deserters are young men; but if certain danger periods in married life can be definitely recognized, many new possibilities in prevention and treatment will be opened up.

A number of experiments and suggestions have lately been made which may prove to be the means of recognizing marital troubles early. The probation department of the Chicago Court of Domestic Relations some years ago established a consultation bureau to which people might come or be sent for advice on difficult matrimonial situations, and without any court record being made. The Department of Public Charities of New York City maintains a similar bureau which is, however, so closely connected with the court that its clients make little distinction between them.

In addition to such conscious efforts to reach out after marital tangles in the pre-court stage, there has recently been an interesting though accidental development in the city of Cleveland. During the thrift campaign of 1918, several savings banks of that city conceived the idea that their depositors could be induced and helped to save more money if the banks opened a bureau for free advice to their patrons on household management. This bureau is still in the experimental stage but it has had an increasing clientele so far. One thing that has astonished its management but which causes no surprise in the mind of a social worker has been the great variety of problems other than those connected with the family budget that have come to light in the bureau’s consultations. Particularly is this true of marital discord centering about money affairs.

If such bureaus prove their usefulness there is no reason why they might not be greatly extended, and why other agencies than banks (insurance companies, for example) might not be eager thus to serve their customers. This opens a new field for the home economist, but incidentally it would appear that, in order to function successfully, such bureaus would need to have access to the services of agencies employing highly skilled social case workers. It is conceivable that, if there are developed in our large cities consultation facilities under social auspices for people who feel their marriages going wrong, and want help and advice in righting them, such bureaus as those described above would be excellent “feeders” for this new form of social service.

Family social agencies have been distinctly backward in some of their approaches to the fundamental problems of family life. The failure of most of them, for instance, to study or seek improvements in the laws governing marriage or in their administration, is difficult of explanation. Such a consultation service as that suggested does, however, indicate a new point of departure in dealing with marital relations which would seem to fall distinctly within the field of the family case work agencies. It is time that these agencies began to find means of dealing, not with the dependent family alone but with the family in danger of becoming dependent not with the family broken and estranged only, but with the one whose bonds, even if cracking and ill-adjusted, still hold.

Concretely, why should not family agencies establish such consultation bureaus as have just been mentioned, distinct from their regular activities and hampered by no suggestion in their title of association with problems of dependency? Dr. William Healy of Boston ascribes much of his success in getting the parents of defective and backward children to bring them voluntarily for examination to the fact that the name of his organization (the Judge Baker Foundation) conveys no hint of stigma or inferiority. Here is a valuable lesson in right publicity.

A bureau of family advice such as has been suggested should be under unimpeachable auspices from the point of view of medicine and psychiatry; it should have the services not only of expert social workers and experts in household management, but of doctors and psychiatrists as well. If it could be run as a joint-stock enterprise, in which courts and social agencies might be equally interested, so much the better. Its investigations should be searching enough to discourage applications from curiosity-mongers; but its services, like those of any clinic, should be given for whatever the patient is able to pay. Its relations, needless to say, should be entirely confidential, and as privileged in the eyes of the law as are those of doctor, lawyer, and priest.

It may be objected that people guard their marital infelicities too jealously and are too loath to discuss them to come willingly to such a place; that the idea involves a presumptuous interference in the private lives of individuals. But neurologists know that people in increasing numbers feel the need, under conditions of modern stress, for a safe outlet and a chance to discuss their perplexities and find counsel.

Fifty years ago the interest now taken by the social and medical professions in the question of whether mothers are rearing their infants properly could not have been foreseen. The establishment of baby health stations, or the activities of the Children’s Bureau, would have been looked upon as unwarranted interference between the child and its mother, whose natural instincts could be depended upon to teach her how to nourish it. This point of view is no longer held; and the community’s duty to take an interest in the upbringing of its children is never questioned. Is it not conceivable that, before another half century has rolled around, the community may take the same intelligent interest in the conservation of the family, and that definite efforts, which are now almost entirely lacking, may be made to stabilize and protect it?

Educational propaganda would, of course, have to be a definite part of the work of such bureaus. By this is meant not such modern specialties as “birth control,” “sex hygiene,” et al., though we may by that time have enough authoritative information about sex psychology in marriage to be able to afford some help along these lines. Instruction in the ethics of married life and parenthood is of even more fundamental importance. The prevailing cynicism, the present low concepts of marriage, should be vigorously combatted by such an organization. Religious instruction would be, of course, beyond its scope; but it should be able to work sympathetically with all creeds, supplementing their teachings without seeking to duplicate them.

The services of such a bureau could not, of course, be forced upon anyone who did not wish to avail himself or herself of them; but definite though tactful efforts could be made to reach all young couples (just as are now being made to reach young mothers) with information as to where advice could be obtained.

No trustworthy figures exist as to the number of families broken by desertion or divorce in the United States, or as to the burden of actual dependency caused. Courts, probation officers, psychiatrists, and family case workers are all dissatisfied with our efforts to patch up the families which are already disintegrating. One of the three groups mentioned is likely before long to attempt some more dynamic attack upon the problem in its inception. If any suggestions herein contained find use in that program, the labor of compiling them will have been indeed well spent.