They call it a success story, and I suppose it is. The federal Parent Locater Service was set up to find and force runaway fathers to pay child-support payments, and it's working.
In two days, the program has found a million parents and raked in $1.6 billion, and done it at a cost of $457 million. So, HEW Secretary Joseph Califano was right to boast last week: "This program is a success." Why, it even made a profit.
Yet, as I read the cost-accounting sheets and heard the tales of the Millions Most Wanted, I was struck by a profound sense of failure. The failure of these men to maintain their relationship - and their responsibility - to their own children.
The statistics are simply depressing. The fathers they tracked down weren't just men who couldn't pay. They were largely men who wouldn't pay. Over half of them, according to the program heads, had the income to contribute a reasonable amount of money. Some of them were actually wealthy.
One was a $300-a-week carpenter who refused to pay $40,000-a-year executive who defaulted on $100 a month. And a third was a judge who managed to fall $5,000 behind in payments of only $20 a week.
These were not just men whose paternity was a biological accident. They were also men who had lived with their children for years. Yet they left them, and not with working mothers or even stepfathers. Over 95 percent of the children in this program were subsisting on welfare.
It is enormously difficult for most of us to understand how a parent could totally give up a child as if that child were a hobby. It's been harder to imagine leaving a child in poverty. Yet, it's estimated that more than 3 million parents have disappeared that way from their children's lives. The vast majority of them are fathers.
Those fathers had divorced them. And so, this is a story of failure.
One of the crucial issues for any society is how to ensure the investment of fathers, as well as mothers, in their children's lives. There were, and are, a number of men who remain almost pathologically disconnected from their children. Realistically, there is very little we can do about those fathers. If they split because they are selfish or vindictive or uncaring, we can only leave them to the Parent Locators.
But there are others. In the past decade more men have enlarged their role in their children's lives. Fathering is seen today as a psychological as well as financial obligation - a question of intimacy over the dinner table, not just bread on the table.
Nevertheless, on the whole, when there is a divorce, women remain mothers with custody of their children, while too many men are relegated to status of visiting paymaster. When the emotional connections break, the divorced father doesn't necessarily run away, but he may gradually walk away.
The question in a transitional time like this is how to help fathers maintain the investment in their children when their marrigage goes bankrupt.
For his sake and his kids' sake, I think it's essential to experiment more in innovative and shared custody arrangements, to create settlements that maintain the strongest possible connections between parents and children. To make a shared and separate peace.
If there is one thing that the news from HEW reinforces, it's our own common-sense understanding that without a strong relationship, there is a weakened sense of responsibility. The financial and emotional ties are inexorably bound together. And when they are broken, we are left with the kind of failure symbolized by this great success.