Abandonment is a legal term describing the failure of a non-custodial parent to provide support to his or her children according to the terms approved by a court of law. In common use, abandonment refers to the desertion of a child by a parent.
Legal abandonment is an persistent issue that has received increasing attention since the 1970s. It refers to non-custodial parents who do not fulfill court-ordered financial responsibilities to their children, regardless of their involvement in their children's lives in other ways. Lack of such support is blamed for substantial poverty among single-parent families .
In 2002 it was estimated that up to 30 percent (19.8 million) of children in the United States, representing 11.9 million families, lived in single-parent households. While the number of single mothers has remained constant in recent years at 9.9 million, the number of single fathers has grown from 1.7 million in 1995 to 2 million in 2002, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. In 2002, some 19.8 million children lived with one parent. Of these, 16.5 million lived with their mother and 3.3 million with their father.
Fewer than half of single-parent children under the age of 18 received any financial support from the non-custodial parent. The income of more than a third of these households fell below the poverty level. The term "deadbeat dads" is often used in discussions about abandonment because most of the parents involved are fathers.
An increasing divorce rate and a rise in the number of infants born to unmarried mothers were in large part responsible for forcing the abandonment issue into public consciousness in the 1970s. Typically during the twentieth century, mothers involved in divorce or unwed births were routinely given physical custody of children, while fathers were granted visitation rights and ordered to pay a certain amount of money to help care for the children's needs. Many men ignored this financial responsibility, forcing some women to get jobs or to seek government support.
States have always taken on the main responsibility for ensuring the welfare of abandoned children. Federal involvement came as early as 1935, when the Social Security Act established the Aid to Dependent Children (ADC) program, primarily to assist widows. Over subsequent years, federal provisions strengthened the states' mandate. During the early 1970s, when the government's financial burden grew as more and more women turned to welfare, the U.S. Congress began to call for even stronger child-support enforcement provisions.
Enforcement laws vary from state to state. Garnishing wages, attacking bank accounts, and foreclosing on real estate are all used to force payment to affected children. All state enforcement systems are automated, allowing more efficient monitoring of payment and better tracking of violating parents. Some states have begun to deny drivers' and professional licenses to known delinquent parents. For example, in California, licenses for real estate salespersons, brokers, and appraisers can be revoked, suspended, or denied to applicants who are delinquent in child support payments. "Wanted" posters and other forms of advertising are more unconventional methods used occasionally to locate such parents.
Most states give priority to finding parents whose children, lacking parental support, are receiving government assistance. Some families with independent incomes turn to lawyers or private collection agencies to find offenders and bring them to court for nonpayment. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, hundreds of agencies specializing in child support collection, some of them unscrupulous, have been formed to meet the demand forced by overburdened state agencies. They sometimes charge extremely high retainer or contingency fees, substantially reducing the size of the payment recovered by the family .
In the 1990s, the federal government adopted measures to further assist states in the support-collection effort. Military personnel files have become more available, and a program to confiscate federal tax refunds has contributed to keeping the issue in the spotlight. The 1992 Child Support Recovery Act allows courts to impose criminal penalties on parents who cross state lines to avoid child support payments.
Some support exists for consolidating child-support enforcement through the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) rather than the states. Proponents argue that only the IRS can efficiently confiscate deadbeat parents' income and return it to children. Opponents contend that the involvement of the federal bureaucracy would more likely add inefficiency to the enforcement process and only aggravate an already growing problem.
Abandonment can take on a broader form than just legal abandonment. The term is used to refer to the abandonment of a child by one or both parents, either through desertion, divorce, or death. Although death is not legally abandonment, many children experience feelings and fear of abandonment following the death of one or both parents.
Abandonment is about the loss of love and a loss of connectedness. To the abandoned adolescent, it involves feelings of betrayal, guilt, loneliness, and lack of self-esteem . Abandonment is a core fear in humans, and this fear is intensified in adolescents.
The abandonment of children is an extreme form of child neglect stemming from many causes. Some include family breakdown, irresponsible fatherhood or motherhood, premature motherhood, birth out of wedlock, or the death of one or both parents.
The problem is not new. In the nineteenth century, "ragamuffins" were a familiar part of London's urban scene, and parents in Paris abandoned their children at the rate of 20 percent of the live births in the city. In his 1987 book, Children of the Sun Morris West tells of the survival of street children in Naples in the 1950s. What is new, rather, is the growing scale of the problem. The United Nations estimates 60 million children and infants have been abandoned by their families and live on their own or in orphanages in the world. In the United States, more than 7,000 children are abandoned each year.
Infancy and toddlerhood
Children in this stage of development understand little, if anything, about abandonment. However, they are aware of the emotional climate of the family. For the remaining parent, it is important to cuddle and care for the infant or toddler warmly, frequently, and consistently. The parent-child relationship continues to be central to the child's sense of security and independence.
Preschoolers tend to have a limited and mistaken perception of abandonment. They are highly self-centered with a strict sense of right and wrong. So when bad things happen to them, they usually blame themselves by assuming they did something wrong. Children this age often interpret the departure of a parent as a personal rejection. Youngsters are likely to deny the reality of the abandonment and wish intently for the parent to return. They can also regress to behaviors such as thumb sucking , bed wetting, temper tantrums , and clinging to a favorite blanket or toy. They also fear abandonment by the other parent. They generally become afraid of the dark and of being alone.
By the time children reach the early school years, ages six to nine, they can no longer deny the reality of the abandonment. They are extremely aware of the pervasive pain and sadness. Boys, especially, mourn the loss of their fathers, and their anger is frequently directed at their mothers. Crying, daydreaming, and problems with friends and in school are common abandonment behaviors in children of this age.
In the age group of nine to 12, adolescents usually react to abandonment with anger. They may also resent the additional household duties expected of them. There is also a significant disruption in the child's ability to learn. Anxiety , restlessness, inability to concentrate, and intrusive thoughts about the abandonment take a toll and can lead to a drop in school performance and difficulties with classmates.
Feelings of sadness, loneliness, guilt, lack of self worth, and self-blame are common in nine to 12-year-olds. They also tend to have concerns about family life, worry about finances, and feel they are a drain on the remaining parent's resources.
In children ages 13 to 18, the feelings are usually the same as with the younger groups except more pronounced. They become concerned about their own futures. Truancy is high, school performance is low, and they have a distorted view of themselves. In this population there is a high incidence of drug and alcohol abuse and aggressive behavior .
The teen may also withdraw from all relationships, including those with friends, family, and classmates, and become extremely dependent on the remaining parent. Teens may also react by becoming sexually promiscuous at an early age, sometimes to the point of addiction . Sometimes, however, the child makes valuable decisions about their own future and values.
Problems to watch for include trouble sleeping, crying, aggression, deep anger and resentment, feelings of betrayal, difficulty concentrating, chronic fatigue, and problems with friends or at school.
The remaining parent should be aware of the effects of the abandonment on the child and above all, reassure the child that the remaining parent will not abandon them.
When to call the doctor
Medical help may be needed if the abandoned child inflicts self-injury. Psychological counseling may also be needed to help the child understand and cope with the abandonment. This is especially true if any of the common reactions lasts for an unusual amount of time, intensifies over time, or if the child talks about or threatens suicide .
Contingencies —Naturally occurring or artificially designated reinforcers or punishers that follow a behavior.
Deadbeat dad —A father who has abandoned his child or children and does not pay child custody as required by a court.
Deadbeat parent —A mother or father who has abandoned his or her child or children and does not pay child custody as required by a court.
Non-custodial parent —A parent who does not have legal custody of a child.
Promiscuous —Having many indiscriminate or casual sexual relationships.
Ragamuffins —A term used in nineteenth-century London to describe neglected or abandoned children who lived on the streets.
Retainer —A fee paid in advance to secure legal services.
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Ken R. Wells