23 March 2011

Dead and Beaten

Recently people keep asking me why I chose to be a pediatrician. It's the question that follows quickly after: So why did you decide to write a book? While the answer to both these questions is complex and multifaceted, the nuances of which I will likely only uncover slowly as the years unfold, I do know that one reason for the first is that I get angry at people who are not taking care of their children. What better way to advocate for those kids than to help keep them healthy?

Now, there are many reasons why parents struggle with being able to provide for their offspring. When this happens I enjoy being able to advocate for the family as a whole. But there are other situations in which a parent clearly needs to get their crap together. No excuses. No questions asked. Just do it.

I'll also admit that when I hear mothers tell me that they are having difficulty negotiating life alone with her child or children, I typically have strong feelings about what those children's father should be doing, but clearly isn't. Then I heard Nina Totenberg's report on deadbeat parents while driving to work today and, curiously, I found myself having some sympathy for the deadbeat dad in question.

Here's the story. A father from South Carolina was jailed for a full year because he failed to pay his child support payments. This was only one of many sentences he was made to serve. Over the years, he went to jail repeatedly. 

If I had been only half listening, I might have been tempted to think that it serves him right. But I was actually paying attention for once and so I heard the part of the report where Miss Totenberg related that this man was poor. Not just struggling to makes ends meet. Not can't supersize my value meal financially limited. Out on the street, has nowhere to sleep poor.

The only way he can pay his child support is to get a job, which is unfortunate because he's generally unable to show up on time what with being incarcerated and all. I think that even if I had not already had my caffeine this morning, I would have realized that this is not only unjust, but also seriously counterproductive.

Even had I not been having a surge of unexpected empathy for the male species while listening to the radio, I would have felt it an affront to have illustrated for me just how broken this system is. To quote the NPR article: "...in South Carolina, 13 percent of the county jail population consists of nonpaying parents held in civil contempt, and 98 percent of them did not have lawyers."

Really? The taxpayers of South Carolina are paying for food and housing for both the fathers who cannot pay child support and the mothers and children who are forced to live in public shelters. What an amazing waste of...well, a waste of so many different things. Shame on us for not being able to create a system that is only slightly broken and bureaucratic and frustrating instead of one that is just really, really stupid. Hopefully the Supreme Court will be able to agree that we need to do better.

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