News | Sunday, 03 January 2010

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In the name of the father

Forcing single mums to declare the name of the father, irrespective of their circumstances as proposed by parliament’s social affairs committee, might well expose children to abusive fathers, JAMES DEBONO finds out

Not naming the father on a birth certificate could well be the genuine choice of a mother who feels she should protect her child or herself from the father for a number of valid reasons, such as fear of abuse or domination, sociologist Angele Deguara warns.
“If the mother and father have a loving and stable relationship, I don’t think the mother would register the child as having an unknown father, although there are those who believe that very often this is done just to collect welfare,” Deguara says.
However, she is not convinced that this represents the majority of cases. In fact, less than 30% of children born to single mums – 8.5% of national total offspring in 2008 – were declared to have an unknown father. “I can understand that the State would want to discourage welfare abuse and that fathers should show more responsibility towards children and their mothers and not just expect the taxpayer to carry the burden. However I’m sure the issue is more complex than this.”
Asked whether by removing the “father unknown” option, the government risks giving abusive fathers the chance to interfere in the life of the mother and their offspring, social affairs committee chairman Edwin Vassallo insisted that the document is not a “fait accompli”.
“That is why we issued the document for consultation. But we should be careful not to abort this exercise before it is even born.”
Neither does he pronounce himself on how the state can force mothers to name the father of the child if they refuse to do so.
“Our document is an eye opener. Instead of seeking solutions aimed at satifying adults, we looked at things from the perspective of children. It is now up to stakeholders in the various fields to formulate solutions”.
For Vassallo the proposal to do away with the ‘unknown father’ option in birth registrations should not be taken in isolation of other proposals in the report aimed at making people more aware of the important role of fathers.

Do it like the Brits?
A white paper presented by the UK government last year proposed that fathers who refuse to be named and mothers who do not record the father’s name would be liable to a £200 fine. Additionally, men who claim they are being excluded would also get the right to demand a paternity test and be formally acknowledged on registers.
But the proposed law would still allow mothers to omit a father’s name if they can prove exceptional circumstances, such as domestic violence or abuse, if corroborated by a social worker. Children born as a result of rape or sperm donation will also be granted exemption. Those who say they do not know the father’s identity would have to persuade the registrar they are telling the truth.
Deguara insists that if legislators opt for a similar law, as perhaps the Maltese parliament’s social affairs committee is mooting, they should offer the same protection to victims of domestic violence and abuse.
“If a similar law were to be passed in Malta, it has to offer such flexibility. The mother should have the right to protect herself and her child if she deems it necessary. At the same time, fathers who feel they are unjustly deprived of their children should have the opportunity to prove they are the fathers if they are willing to support the child.”
But even the British law has been criticised by charities working with abused mothers.
One Parent Families/Gingerbread, the lone-parent charity, strongly opposed the idea, on the basis of both fairness and justice. Janet Allbeson, the group’s policy adviser, pointed out: “There isn’t equality in terms of who’s identifiable as a parent. So if, for instance, the mother doesn’t want to have the father’s name on the register because he’s reluctant, she’s the one who would get the sanction. It’s on her that the burden of naming the other parent will lie.”
She also expressed deep concern that the procedures for joint registration could put women who have suffered domestic abuse at further risk of violence or psychological abuse.
“A pregnant woman could, in theory, escape domestic violence only to find that her abuser has registered himself as the father of her child and has automatic rights to the child,” Allbeson warned.
Bearing in mind such cases, Deguara thinks that ultimately it should be the mother who should decide whether to declare the name of the father. “The mother may still want to sever all ties with the father for reasons which she considers justified. Being the bearer and primary carer of her child, I think she has the right to make such a decision.”

Stigma is the problem
Deguara disputes the underlying gist of the report that children in single-parent households are necessarily worse off than those brought up in families with two parents, arguing that many of the disadvantages these children face are a product of stigma and poverty, rather than upbringing.
In what sounds like music to appease the Maltese far-right, instead of emphasising the need for equal opportunities for all kinds of families, the social affairs committee report comes to the controversial conclusion that it’s upbringing in single-parent households that makes children exposed to social problems: “It is a scientifically known fact that the risks facing children brought up by single parents, especially when they are brought up by the mother alone are greater,” the report states. “Without generalising, studies consistently show that children in families deprived of a father face greater risks in their emotional and psychological health, perform badly in school, may suffer from relative poverty and have greater behavioral problems.”
The report backs these claims by citing studies conducted in the Unites States, cited by family therapist Dr Charles Azzopardi, which claim that 72% of murders and 60% of rapists are born to single mothers.
Deguara is well aware of studies suggesting that these children brought up without a father may face greater difficulties in life. “But this may also be due to a number of other problems related to lone-parenthood and not specifically due to the absence of the father himself.”
Problems may also arise due to fatherless families not fitting the stereotypical nuclear family. “Children may compare their family with that of other children; they may be the recipients of negative comments or attitudes especially in the case of single or separated mothers.”
Problems may also arise due to the poverty and social exclusion which lone parents tend to experience. “Lone mothers, especially single never-married mothers, tend to have a low educational level and either have low-paying jobs or live on welfare.”
And welfare dependency is high among lone mothers in general, with single mothers of small children finding it more difficult to work and to improve their skills and qualifications. “So they tend to end up working part-time or depending on welfare,” Deguara says. “It is documented that children brought up in poverty suffer a number of social problems.”
She expresses disagreement that the assumption made in the report that the presence of both parents is essential for the wellbeing of children. “Children need a loving and supportive environment and this can be provided just as well by one parent in the case of separation, death or single parenthood.”
She also warns against idealising two parent households. “I am not suggesting here that lone parenthood should be encouraged, but we should not idealise dual-parent families and stigmatise other family forms. If the problems of children who are constrained to be fatherless are well recognised and adequately dealt with, children without fathers would cope better and have less social problems later on in life.”
But MP Edwin Vassallo reiterates the committee’s view that “having less fatherless families would contribute to the creation of a healthier society.”
“I am perfectly aware it is inevitable that some families are deprived of a father but if we manage to decrease their number by a small percentage we will also ensure that less children face problems in their upbringing and education.”
But Vassallo insists that he is wary of generalisations. “I am not saying that families with two parents are better than those with a single parent … I am just saying that we should act to make people more responsible so that we have a healthier society.”
On a positive note, Deguara draws attention to the fact that the report also singles out hte possibility that absence can be due to neglect by the father. “When the father is not present, even though he is still part of the family, the stereotyped roles of the mother as carer and that of the father as breadwinner without the responsibilities of childcare, are reinforced.”
Indeed, it’s also the role of fathers that has to be looked at – instilling more responsibility in them and making them aware that family life has its rewards when it’s shared and not only financial support is required. Sharing more in family life gives women more opportunities to diversify their interests and contribute to society rather than being restricted to childcare and housework.

Recommendations of the Select Committee

• Mothers should not have the option of declaring their children as having an unknown father.
• Encouragement of more flexible and family-friendly work arrangements which should be discussed by social partners at MCESD level.
• Benefits like children’s allowance and single mother benefits should be conditional on attendance in “family formation” courses organised by the state.
• Professional courses for teen mums to help them recognise the importance of fathers in the upbringing of their children.
• Fathers who persistently do not honour their custody duties following separation should be deprived of their rights to diminish the trauma of these children.
• Fathers should receive legal assistance from the state in their bid to seek recognition of their children.
• An emphasis on responsible sexuality in education to decrease the birth rate among teenagers without any reference to contraception.
• Marriage preparation courses underlining parental responsibilities even for those opting for a civil marriage.
• Re-evaluate welfare system to ensure that it does not include “marriage penalties” which encourage people to opt for single parenthood.



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