Broken Homes - A Study of Family Desertion and its Social Treatment
by Joanna C. Colcord
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There is one crisis in the lives of deserted families which is not duplicated in the history of any other group suffering from social disability. This crisis is the period of the first desertion. "If we could learn what preceded and what immediately followed the first desertion, we should know much more than we do now about how to deal with the problem," said a case worker who has studied many court records.

The number of subsequent desertions may be both interesting and significant, but the circumstances attending them are not nearly so well worth study as are those connected with the critical first break. We should go back to that spot and probe for causes. The common practice of recording carefully what led up to a chronic deserter's last desertion before his family applied, and of passing over his earlier desertions with a mere mention of their number and dates, puts the emphasis in the wrong place.

We must, however, go further back than the first desertion for a working fund of knowledge. The importance of knowing what were the influences surrounding the man and woman in childhood and youth has already been dwelt upon and is so generally conceded as to need no elaboration here. Of especial value also is careful inquiry into the period of courtship, the circumstances of the marriage, and the history of the earlier married life. "We should seek to know what first drew them together, as well as what forced them apart," said a thoughtful district secretary. The notorious unhappiness of "forced marriages" leads case workers to scrutinize the relation between the date of marriage and the date of the birth of the first child. It should be remembered, however, that not all marriages which are entered into during pregnancy are forced marriages. Studies of forced marriages, so-called, have not always taken this fact into consideration.

The superintendent of a state department for aid to widows made a study of the vital statistics of 500 families chosen at random. She states that "out of these 500 mothers 96, or 19.2 per cent, had conceived out of wedlock—or rather before wedlock—judging by the date of marriage and that of the first child's birth. All these women were hard working; several of good standing in the neighborhood and the mothers of large families of children." This group of homes represents by no means an unstable segment of the community, since in most instances the couples had lived together in reasonable harmony up to the time of the man's death. But do the 96 represent forced marriages as ordinarily thought of by the social worker? The study just quoted has no facts bearing upon this point. The likelihood is that a large number of these marriages, termed forced, were in reality not brought about by outside pressure at all, but that the couple were intending to be married at the time the pregnancy occurred and that the circumstances were condoned by public opinion in the community where the marriage took place.

The Chicago Juvenile Protective Association, however, has made a study of 89 forced marriages which were brought about in connection with bastardy proceedings. In this study there is no attempt to differentiate as to the amount of unwillingness that had had to be overcome on the part of either the man or the woman. Fifty-three of the women said that the marriage had been entered into willingly on their part. Sixty of them stated that they were well treated by their husbands, and only five complained of abuse or unkindness. Out of the 89 marriages brought about after proceedings were instituted 69 of the couples were still living together from one to two years later, although 20, or nearly one in five, had separated before the two-year period was over.[22]

A young woman with four small children was given advice by an associated charities about her approaching confinement, and no further inquiry was made at that time. She was living apart from her husband, who was contributing a small amount regularly. The income was inadequate and it was decided to push the matter further. Efforts to verify the marriage failed. Finally, a tactful worker was able to learn that the ceremony had not taken place until after the birth of the first three children, that the couple had had sexual relations since the woman was a girl of fifteen, and that her relatives had never known the true state of affairs. The man's mother finally interfered, and urged her son not to live with his wife. After much careful work, and with the assistance of a co-operating priest, a plan was worked out which brought the couple together and induced them to move away from the region in which the man's parents lived.

* * * * *

A probation department tells of a case where, although the man was unwilling to marry, a court marriage was brought about; the man made his payments promptly and observed the other conditions of his probation faithfully. The woman, however, was indifferent to any efforts to bring about a reconciliation. It was finally discovered that she was immoral. The case culminated in the securing of a divorce by the man, who was granted the custody of the children.

The same department submits a story where good results were obtained in subsequently reconciling, after a desertion, a couple whose marriage had been of the forced description. The probation department arranged for the couple to live apart in the early stage of probationary treatment. A careful study was made of each of the individuals, and in their sincere attachment a basis was discovered for re-establishment of the home under the supervision of the probation officer. Five years later the man was found to be at work at the same position originally obtained for him by the probation officer, his salary had been increased, the family had grown in number and were getting on extremely well.

Although the term "forced marriage" has come to have the meaning given above, unions can be really forced where there has been no sex relation before marriage. In one unhappy marriage which came finally to a court of domestic relations, the wife was a weak and timid woman who married her husband because of her fear that he would carry out his threat and kill her and himself if she refused him. Another, an Italian girl, was married at fourteen by her parents against her inclinations to a well-to-do man, much older than she, who was a lodger in the family. As she grew to womanhood their incompatibility increased; finally, after four children had been born, the family was broken up and the children committed to institutions.

There are compulsions and false motives, operating to bring about marriages, which spring from within not without; and the discovery of any motive for the marriage except mutual inclination has significance to the case worker. Light was thrown on the troubles of one young couple when the girl confessed that she had married a youth for whom she had no particular affection, in order to "spite" her relatives and assert her right to do as she chose. And the unfortunate young woman who married a street evangelist in a fit of religious enthusiasm, and because of his promise that they would travel about the world saving souls together, had a married life both short and stormy. The so-called "slacker marriages" of the few months preceding the first draft in 1917 illustrate this point. The wreckage of these marriages is already drifting in increasing amount to the courts of domestic relations.

One of the most important items in desertion cases, and one far too often neglected, is the verification of the marriage. Much seeming indifference and confusion on this point is probably caused by the quasi-legality in many states of common law marriages. The case worker should not forget, however, that a common law union is often only a device on the part of one or the other of the two to avoid prosecution for bigamy. When it is established that the marriage is a common law union, a strong suspicion should be set up in the worker's mind that there may be some legal barrier to a ceremony, and careful inquiry should be directed along this line. Not only does the verification of a marriage give the worker a sound basis on which to proceed to court action if necessary, but the copy of the actual marriage record, where that can be procured, gives much valuable information as to dates, addresses, and names of relatives and witnesses. A transcript of the record will usually be furnished by the registrar of vital statistics in the city where the marriage took place (if in the United States) for a nominal fee of fifty cents.

It is much more difficult to verify marriages which took place in other countries, and social workers are often appalled by the prevalence of the so-called "American marriage" among immigrant deserters, who trust to our happy-go-lucky methods for protection against a prosecution for bigamy.

Such was the case of Orfeo Pelligrini, who came to this country and took a new wife when his children in Italy were nearly grown. His Italian family came to America through their own efforts a few years later, and Orfeo found that he had underestimated the character of his eldest son, who traced his father, had him arrested and taken to the city where his original family was living. Orfeo, now forcibly reunited to the wife of his bosom, walks softly under the threat of bigamy proceedings, while the "American" wife refuses to take any action on the ground that "he didn't go away from me of his own wish, and why should I put him behind the bars?"

* * * * *

Of an altogether more simple mental make-up was the Slovak laborer who brought his pregnant "American wife" and two children to the district office of a charity organization society, saying that the relatives in Europe of Anna, his first wife, had sent Anna to this country, and she was on the point of arriving. He added that, as manifestly it was not possible to support two families on his wages, he would like to provide for his second wife through "the Charity."

A district secretary who has worked for many years with Italians is authority for the statement that marriages in Italy are always registered at the man's legal residence, no matter where the marriage took place. "Careful Italian parents, if they cannot get reliable information in other ways, write to the 'paese' of a suitor for information in regard to his conjugal condition. A marriage which takes place in America is customarily registered with the consul for transmission to the home town in Italy."

In some countries of Latin America great confusion may be caused by the fact that a marriage performed in church is not legal in the eyes of the state unless a second ceremony is gone through before the civil authorities. A Guatemalan woman, deserted in this country, had no recourse in law because she had had only the church ceremony in her country. Her claim to the status of common law wife was invalidated by the man's producing proof that he was already married at the time the religious ceremony was performed.

Having established the fact that a legal marriage has taken place, the case worker must keep in mind the possibility that it may have been later dissolved. It is not at all uncommon to find that a deserter who has gone off with another woman has started proceedings to get a divorce by "publication." This can happen when the two have gone to a state where such unfair divorce procedure is permitted. Publication in these cases takes place in local newspapers which there is little or no chance of the wife seeing; and she may later find herself a divorced woman with no legal claim for support for herself or children, and suffering under charges of misconduct without having had a chance of being heard. The National Desertion Bureau found this proceeding so common an abuse that it established a clearing bureau in its central office, and its local representatives in different parts of the country notify this bureau as soon as any action for divorce is started by a man with a Jewish name against a wife whose "address is unknown."[23]

What are some of the other points at which the investigation of cases of desertion may differ from the technique generally accepted? The superintendent of a desertion bureau, in answer to this question, said that he emphasized "neighborhood references" more than in the ordinary case. Social workers have become very wary, of course, of much inquiry among present neighbors; but where the protection of the woman or the children is involved it is often necessary to procure the testimony of people who live nearby or in the same house. A deserted family is usually so much a center of neighborhood interest or sympathy, or both, that it is easier than in some other types of cases to secure information from neighbors, tradesmen, and so on, without augmenting neighborhood gossip.

Probably the most difficult part of the necessary information to be secured in desertion cases is an adequate picture of the sex relationship between man and wife. The part which sex plays in the causation of desertion has been touched upon in Chapter II.[24] In getting the information from the people concerned, the case worker needs no elaborate equipment as a psycho-analyst; but she should know enough about sex psychology to recognize a pathological problem when she meets it, and to be able to call on the psycho-analyst or psychiatrist for specialized service.

The securing of an adequate picture of the sex life of the couple may have to be delegated, however, to some volunteer whose own sex, profession, or marital experience makes him or her a suitable person to secure it.

"The majority of social case workers are unmarried women under forty, and in this particular respect they frequently find themselves handicapped by the natural reluctance of the deserter to discuss his conceptions of the marital relation in such a way as to be enlightening to them, as well as by the chivalrous attitude which the woman of the tenements often adopts toward her unmarried visitor. The decisive statement, 'You have never been married, so you can't understand,' often proves at least a temporary barrier in dealing with deserted wives, just as the similar statement, 'You have never been a mother so you cannot know the feelings of one,' is used to block her efforts in another direction. If it is found impossible to carry on the necessary discussions rationally and without too serious embarrassment, it is often possible to call upon the socially-minded physician or clergyman for help along this line."[25]

To sum up, the interviews with the family and the supplementary visits and letters of inquiry should furnish the social worker if possible with:

1. A clear picture of the home in which the two adult members of the family grew up, and the factors in their early training which contributed to their failure as husband or wife; or which can be utilized as assets in the future plan.

2. A history of how the couple met; the events of their courtship and marriage, including sex relations prior to marriage with spouse or others; also previous marriages. Records of marriage, death of previous spouse, etc., are very important and should be secured if in existence.

3. A picture of the family and its individual members in their other social relationships—with employers, medical agencies, teachers, their church, their friends, their relatives. Knowledge of their habits, tastes, and characteristics, with special attention to period of first desertion. Analysis of factors leading to the desertion.

4. History of first reconciliation (unless the present is the first break). History of subsequent desertions. Court record, if any.

A prerequisite to some of the above information is an interview or interviews with the man. Where this cannot be had as part of the first investigation, the investigation should leave the worker in possession of some good clues, at least, to the man's whereabouts.


[22] Bowen, Louise de K.: A Study of Bastardy Cases. Juvenile Protective Association of Chicago, 1914.

[23] It is the policy of the Bureau, when such a case is discovered, to help the wife get competent legal advice in the city where action is being brought, and either to contest the case or start a counter suit. Where necessary the woman is sent on to appear in person.

[24] See p. 37 sq.

[25] J.C. Colcord in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, May, 1918, p. 97.



As in all other problems faced by the case worker, it is impossible to lay down general rules for the treatment of desertion. There may be general considerations, however, which it is well to keep in mind, some of which have been advanced in the last chapter.[26]

On questions of investigation there is closer agreement among social workers than on questions of treatment. Personal factors here play a much larger part, and it may very well be that two case workers who differ in personality but are of equal ability, will choose very different plans of treatment in a given case and yet each bring it to a successful issue. It is with a good deal of hesitancy, therefore, that a case worker ventures upon the discussion of anything so flexible as treatment. In preparation for this study many consultations were had with practising social case workers in the fields of family work, probation, medical-social service, and child welfare. Differences of opinion were found and this chapter will attempt to express the composite opinion on how to treat the deserter and his family in the different situations which confront them.

1. Man's Whereabouts Unknown but Desertion of Recent Date.—It is better in this case to make no very definite plans for the family. Emergent plans, both as to relief and medical or other care should, of course, be prompt and adequate. Now is the time, if it can be done, to win the confidence and co-operation of the wife. We should, however, make no promises for the sake of "buying" co-operation, and give no premature advice either as to prosecution or reconciliation. Everything possible should be done to strengthen such ties with church, relatives, and friends as may be helpful, but the social worker should be slow to encourage the family to form new ties with other social agencies at this time. She should avoid the possibility of judging the woman harshly in a period of stress, but be watchful for signs of deterioration and resourceful to combat them. This is the stage, of course, when all energies should be bent toward finding the man.

In this as in the other situations about to be discussed, the question of whether or not the home should be broken up and the children committed should be decided on other grounds than on the desertion alone. Under many circumstances, it is the best thing to do. The woman, worn out with anxiety or abuse, may be unequal to their physical care for the present; or they may be running wild and in danger of becoming delinquent. The mother may be morally an unfit guardian, and the desertion may furnish the long-sought opportunity to interfere for the children's protection. Commitment may have to be planned, and the mother's consent won, to save the children from the return of a brutal father, against whom she cannot protect them. Or she may desire a temporary commitment in order to give her husband a severe lesson. The main consideration, however, ought to be what is going, in the long run, to be best for the children concerned.

2. Man's Whereabouts Unknown, Desertion of Long Standing.—A very different problem from the preceding may be presented in the family of a man who disappeared some time ago. Where the desertion is bona fide and has persisted over a period of years, it is often possible to treat the family as if the man were dead, and, if other circumstances make this advisable, to plan comprehensively for the future. There is always the chance, however, that, until the man's death is established, he may turn up unexpectedly. If living, he usually manages to hear now and again about his family and is often able to find them at will. A man who had neither seen nor communicated with his family during the ten years they had been maintained by a private family agency, nevertheless sent promptly for his wife and eldest son by a messenger who knew exactly where to find them (although they had moved in the interval several times), when he lay dying of alcoholic excess in the city hospital.

The laws of many states contain a provision that the marriage of a person who has completely disappeared and not been heard from in a period of years can be set aside by the proper authorities. This makes legal the remarriage of the spouse. In nearly all of the states divorce can be obtained on the ground of long continued desertion.[27] The wisdom of advising such a divorce, however, should receive careful individual consideration, particularly in relation to the religious faith of the client and the attitude of that faith toward divorce.

3. Man's Whereabouts Known; Man Unwilling to Return or Support.—Many types of deserting men are included under this catch-all heading—the so-called "justifiable deserter;" the man who has fled to escape his creditors or is a fugitive from justice; the man who has elected to try life with another mate; the wandering hobo who means to come back some sweet day but not now; the cowardly pregnancy deserter; the low-grade irresponsible—a motley crew. They are grouped together here for convenience, since they constitute those with whom coercive measures have most often to be used.

A good example of the "justifiable deserter" is found in the story of Williams.[28] This man, when home conditions became intolerable, tried to secure his children's safety through the courts but did not obtain a hearing. He left home feeling that he was fully justified. The lame point in his self-defense was his failure to support his children, and it took a court order to rectify this in part.

* * * * *

Joseph Mellor is in a more logical situation in his refusal to provide for his wife, since he is paying the board of his child in a good institution. He makes no charge against her character, but insists that her quarrelsome and dictatorial disposition makes her impossible to live with. She had haled him so many times into court and lost him so many positions that Mellor, who earns a good salary, will deal with her only through his lawyer, who keeps his client's whereabouts secret and will not trust the social worker interested even to the extent of arranging an interview.

It is generally impossible in cases of such deep-seated antagonism to make any plans looking toward reconciliation. The "justifiable deserter" can usually be reasoned with, and once he understands and admits his responsibilities, can often be made to live up to them without judicial process.

A ship steward deserted his wife, who was both alcoholic and paretic, taking with him his only child whom he placed with his relatives. The woman was devoted to the boy and broken in spirit because she was not allowed to see him. The steward claimed, probably correctly, that he was not responsible for the woman's syphilitic condition. The following extract from the record of the first interview with the man is quoted to show the lines of argument which were effective with him:

"Man at District Office—Visitor started in immediately with the subject in hand, thinking he was the sort that would respond to absolutely direct dealing. Explained to him that we had been given to understand his wife was ill, not only from alcoholism but also from other complications; that it was suspected there might be some difficulty with her blood and that we had been advised that her mental condition was not now as strong as it had been previously. Explained to him that he was absolutely responsible for his wife, for her support, and for her care and protection, and that no matter how far he traveled, his responsibility remained the same; that he had assumed this when he married her. Said that he felt no responsibility for her whatsoever, that he had done all he ever would do for her and intended to devote his efforts toward his child. Visitor explained to him that woman's intemperance might perfectly well be a disease over which it would be very difficult for her to have control; that, moreover, if she were suffering also from a blood condition, this should have treatment. Explained that he would more nearly meet his responsibilities were he to have her examined and send her where she could procure the treatment required, even if it meant commitment to an institution. At this point man seemed more interested, particularly as visitor told him that Arthur would grow up and would want to know where his mother was and what had become of her; and if man had left her sick and alone, at the mercy of strangers, he would not be able to give an adequate accounting to his son. Man's reaction was not what visitor had expected—he would be glad to put her away where she could not trouble him any more but he did not intend to expend any more money. Said he was under too heavy expenses with Arthur. Claimed he was making $70 a month, and visitor forced him to add that he got in addition his board and lodging on the ship, so that he was under no expense except when on shore leave. Visitor repeated that as a husband he was required to pay for woman's care, that that was the right thing to do; that one way he would be a husband deserting his wife, liable to arrest for non-support and desertion, and the other way a husband with a sick wife for whom he was willing to provide the medical attention and care that every sick person has a right to have. He said if it was a question of a few dollars a week, he supposed he would be willing to do it, and visitor felt he really was willing to do the right thing if he only could be assured that woman would not interfere with Arthur. Said he would never let woman see the child, but finally admitted, if she were not drunk and was in the hospital and it would do any good, he supposed she could."

With persistent or recalcitrant deserters as a group, court action has very often to be invoked. Procedure in this direction differs so much in different communities that only general observations can be offered here. If the man has left his home but not the town and is still within the jurisdiction of the local court, the magistrate will usually issue a summons (which in many cities the wife is expected to serve) calling on the man to appear at court on the date set for the hearing. If he fails to appear a warrant for his arrest is issued. If he has left the city but not the state, local courts may issue warrants, which can be mailed to the city to which the man has gone and served by the police there; or an officer may be sent from the home town with a warrant to arrest the man and bring him back.

Prior to his arraignment, the best court practice calls for an investigation by the probation officer, so that the judge may have substantiated facts before him when the case comes up. Whether this is done or not here is the time and place for the social worker who already knows the family to get his knowledge in usable fashion before the court. How best to do this varies greatly in different communities. Sometimes the social worker is permitted to talk the matter over with the judge personally, sometimes with the probation officer, clerk or other court official. Sometimes a written report is required, to be attached to the probation officer's report. Occasionally the social worker gets no chance to be heard unless he is present to testify in open court. In the last two contingencies, care must be taken to safeguard information given in confidence, even by the deserter. Letters marked "confidential" should not ordinarily be submitted in court except by consent of the writer, as some judges hold that material so submitted becomes a matter of public record.

The approach to the court, therefore, is governed by local conditions. A very important part of co-operation in any community is to see that this channel is kept free from obstruction. In general, the probation officer should be the best friend of the other social workers, since he knows their language. Indeed, many social workers themselves combine the office of probation officer with their other duties.

After the institution of court proceedings the outside social worker has usually little chance to affect the disposition of the case. This is made by the judge on the basis of the testimony he elicits in court, and on that of any preliminary investigation he may have caused to be made. Disposition may be:

1. In rare instances, to dismiss the complaint altogether.

2. To remand for a later hearing.

3. To induce the woman to drop her complaint and give the man another chance.[29]

4. To place the man under court order to stay away from home and pay his wife a stated amount weekly. Custom differs in different places as to whether payment shall be direct to the wife, through the probation officer or clerk of court, or through public or private charities.

5. To order the man to return home and contribute a stated amount.

6. To place on probation (together with either 4 or 5).

7. Commitment—usually to jail or workhouse, and for a period of not over six months. May be longer for violation of probation or for aggravated offense.

When the deserting man has gone without the borders of the state, there is the added problem of securing his extradition, which is often a difficult one. Wife desertion is in most states only a misdemeanor (in New York it is even less serious and constitutes in the eye of the law only disorderly conduct). Since extradition between states has to be acted upon by the governors of the states, it is unusual (though not impossible[30]) to secure extradition for a misdemeanor. The reluctance of the authorities is understandable, however, when it is realized that to extradite for wife desertion would be to create a precedent for extradition for any sort of misdemeanor. There is in most states a law which makes the abandonment of a minor child or children a felony, punishable by a long term in state prison, and it is this law which is generally invoked when the man has been traced to another state. Complaint then has to be made to the district (or county) attorney, the matter taken before the grand jury and an indictment secured before extradition papers can be granted. The man, if captured, must usually be tried in a higher court than the domestic relations court; if convicted he is likely to be more severely punished. Extradition means expense to the state; it is usually difficult, moreover, to get an active interest taken in extraditing a family deserter who, to the legal eye, has committed an offense neither against the person nor against property, and cannot therefore be a serious offender!

If extradition for family desertion is difficult between states, with other countries it is impossible, as no treaties exist even with contiguous countries like Canada and Mexico.[31] By special arrangement with the Canadian authorities, states which touch the Canadian border can sometimes obtain the person of a deserter without actual extradition. Information is submitted to the police of the Canadian town where the man is known to be, who thereupon arrest him as an "undesirable citizen" and arrange for his deportation. The neighboring state is notified, and an officer with a warrant meets the Canadian officer and the prisoner at the boundary, arresting the latter as soon as he sets foot across the state line.

The testimony of social workers is, in the main, in favor of probation as against long prison sentence for men of this type. "We have found a shortened penitentiary sentence, with release on probation, very successful in a number of instances." "Sometimes the probation has been more effective by its being a sort of double probation; that is, having the case pending in juvenile court as well as municipal or district court. The fear of having his children permanently taken from him if he again fails to support them has, in one or two instances, had much more effect with the deserter than the threat of a prison sentence." "Probation works very well and occasionally a prison sentence; but probation is better." These statements come from cities where probation work is well organized. From another city where the probation officers are notoriously overworked, comes a pessimistic note: "The theory of probation is fine, but the practice is poor because the officers have entirely too much to do."

Probation is simply case work with the added "punch" of the law behind it; so that when it is at all well done it should have the more lasting results. Probation officers and other social workers agree, however, that for certain deserters of the complacent type, an unexpected prison sentence is sometimes a very salutary dash of cold water.

After having tried one or two short absences, ostensibly to look for work and finding that nothing serious happened to him, Andreas Gorokhoff walked out one day and did not come back for five years. During that time his wife's relatives and the community's family agency took care of his family while he led the life of a care-free vagabond. He was ready upon his return to settle down again for a time; but the family agency and the probation department thought differently, and succeeded in having him sent to state prison for an indeterminate sentence of not more than two years. He was released on parole for good conduct, returned home, went to work, and, during the four years which have since elapsed, all has gone well.

Good results may, and probably more often do, follow shorter prison sentences.

A man on probation for intemperance, broke it and deserted. On account of the children's keen feeling about the consequent disgrace, the wife made no move until urged thereto by the social worker interested. Her husband was then arrested in a nearby city and brought back, much surprised at the firm stand his wife had taken. He was sentenced to four months, served two, and was released on parole. Since his return he has not been drinking and has been contributing satisfactorily toward the support of his family.

* * * * *

The first step taken by Harvey Brand when released from the workhouse after a short prison sentence, was to stop in at a furniture store and order a green plush parlor "suit" on the instalment plan. Harvey had never been conspicuously interested in his home before, and the district secretary and her committee were aghast at this new evidence of his irresponsibility. The green plush was, however, the outward sign of an inner burgeoning, and it warmed the heart of Mrs. Harvey as nothing else could have done. From that time, Harvey, with judicious encouragement over a few hard spots, has become a good family man and a regular provider.

The particular problem involved in the treatment of the family during the trial and imprisonment of the deserter is that of encouraging the woman to stick to her guns. If she withdraws her complaint or secures his release before his time is up, she not only convinces him of her lack of firmness but the entry in the court record seriously prejudices her case should she make complaint there again. Unless the social worker is convinced, therefore, that the sentence has been unduly severe, the wife should be encouraged in every way to let her husband serve out his time. If a policy of relief has been necessary, care should be taken that it be adequate, so that economic pressure will not induce her to ask for his release. If the home has been broken up and the children committed, the mother's loneliness and desire to have her home back is likely to work in the same way. The hope of making her husband kinder when he returns often leads a woman to ask for his release. The pressure of relatives and friends, and sometimes of her church is likely to be exerted in the same direction and unknown to the social worker. Chaplains of correctional institutions, interested entirely in the man and with no knowledge of the family situation, are also likely to appear in the case; and it is well to acquaint them, in the beginning, of our interest and our hope that no step will be taken without a consultation. If it is hoped or expected that the man will return to his home after imprisonment, he should be earnestly cultivated by the social worker while he is serving his time. Visits and letters will go far toward breaking down his resentment at the part the worker is likely to have played in "putting him behind the bars." Now is an excellent time to introduce a man as volunteer visitor to the prisoner, if he is to be off probation when released. If imprisonment or: "stay-away probation" does not have the desired effect of making the deserter willing and anxious to return to his family and take care of them, or if for any reason return is permanently undesirable, the advisability of obtaining a legal separation[32] should be considered at this point. If, on the other hand, the man evinces eagerness to return home and support his family, he comes automatically (though belatedly) into the class to be considered in the next chapter.


[26] The Questionnaire on the Deserted Family (see p. 395 sq. of Richmond's Social Diagnosis) has already been mentioned as suggesting lines of investigation. It will also be found useful at the stage of summing up knowledge gained and seeing in what direction it points.

[27] The state of New York is an exception, as it grants only limited divorce for desertion.

[28] See p. 57.

[29] See p. 132 sq. concerning court reconciliations.

[30] See Baldwin, Wm. H.: "The Most Effective Methods of Dealing with Cases of Desertion and Non-support," Journal American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology, November, 1917.

[31] See p. 169 sq.

[32] See p. 127.



There remains a fourth classification under treatment, of cases which demand even more individualized care and therefore more extended comment than those just considered.

4. Man's Whereabouts Known; Man Willing to Return.—Here the question to determine is whether it is going to be a desirable thing for the man to re-enter the home and, if so, when. This does not always lie within the power of the case worker to decide; the couple may and often do resolve their differences for the time being without reference to her opinion. But she can often hasten, defer, or even prevent the reconciliation. Careful consideration must be given the elements involved: What causes probably operated to bring about the rupture in family relations? If there have been other desertions what does their history show? Is the man's willingness to return a sign of real change of heart and purpose, or is he merely afraid of punishment? Are his habits such as to make him a fit inmate of the home? Is he capable of supporting the family? Can any adjustment of temperaments be made which will lessen incompatibility? Is the wife willing to have him return? What are her motives? Has she enough firmness of character to carry out a plan to which she has agreed? These are only a few of the questions to which the social worker needs to know the answer, if the decision is to be a wise one.

If none of the elements is present in the home out of which family life can be reconstructed, if the man's self-indulgence and cruelty have been proved beyond any doubt, or if affection is dead or never existed, then the decision may have to be that no reconciliation be attempted. In many cases the question then is how best to protect the woman and children against the man's forcing his way upon them. Court intervention is usually necessary here, if it has not already taken place; and a first step is to have the husband placed under a court order to give separate support and to stay away from his home.[33] The wife should be armed with a warrant for his arrest, which can be served by the policeman on the beat if the man appears. Such a man usually considers that his proprietorship of the home and the family is not affected by his absence or even by court orders, and when fortified by liquor he is likely to force his entrance into the home and perhaps do harm. The protection of the warrant is not absolute; in such cases as this it ought later to be reinforced by a legal separation. Social workers avail themselves of this resource far less than they should. It controverts the principles of no religious sect and gives all the protection of absolute divorce (including the payment of alimony) to the woman and children. To the children it is likely to give more protection than divorce; for in the event of the divorced husband's remarriage the children of the second wife have prior rights over those of the first, and legal separation makes this impossible by preventing the remarriage of either party. Proceedings for a legal separation cannot usually be started if a man is on probation, but may be while he is undergoing imprisonment. It should be said that, after a separation, claims for non-payment of alimony cannot, in many states, be pressed in a court of domestic relations but must go to a civil court. This is usually more expensive and less satisfactory.[34]

Some social workers even advance the heretical doctrine that support secured through the court from a cruel and dangerous husband does not make up for the harm he may do and the anxiety he causes. If to force him into periodical payments means that he will be continually excited into seeking out and "beating up" his offending wife, the support she is able to extort from him comes high. It is sometimes necessary to move a family to new quarters and actually help them to hide from the pursuit of one of these insistent gentry. Even if we have some doubt that the wife's protestations of fear or aversion are genuine, we should hardly take the risk of revealing her address if she wishes it kept secret. This precaution applies not only to the man but to anyone whom we suspect of being interested on his behalf. A district secretary continued to refuse the address of his family to a dangerous epileptic deserter who threatened the secretary's life and, in the opinion of physicians who examined him, was likely to carry out his threat.

The committee on difficult cases in a family social agency voted to refuse to accept voluntary payments from a thoroughly worthless deserter and transmit them to his wife whose address he was seeking to learn, on the theory that it was better for her and her children to be entirely quit of him, and that nothing would make him realize the finality of the decision more than to refuse his money. The agency, it was felt, would be in better position to protect the wife and children if it refused to act as post office for the man.

The same consideration might apply in questions of extradition. When the whereabouts of a deserter of this type has been discovered in another city a safe distance away, it may be wiser to sacrifice the money he might be forced to contribute than to have him brought within arm's length of his wife and family.

A prime difficulty in dealing with the undesirable husband who is willing to come home is often the attitude of the wife. Some of the causes at work when a woman takes her husband back have been discussed earlier.[35] Unfortunately, hopelessly bad husbands profit by them as well as hopeful ones. The policy of niggardly relief to a deserted wife has undoubtedly been responsible for many of these unfortunate attempts to patch up a life together. "She was worn down by her efforts to keep the household going, and, when the faint chance of her husband's supporting her appeared, she took it" is the explanation given by a case worker of one unpromising reconciliation, and she goes on to say of this and another similar story: "With both of these it seems that enough money put into the household to enable these mothers to be with their children more and to keep up a reasonable standard of health for themselves might have resulted in their refusing to take back their husbands.... Our records seem to show that inadequate relief, making life fairly hard for the deserted mother, does not tend to keep the man from returning or others from deserting."

The story of Mrs. Francis shows the effect of adequate relief in strengthening her decision not to take her husband back. He had been a chronic deserter for years, had drank heavily, been foul-mouthed and abusive, while failing to support the family when at home, so that Mrs. Francis had only a little harder time when he was away. His last desertion took place when she was near confinement. Owing to her condition, the church and a family agency co-operated in an unusually generous relief policy. This was in a state which gave mother's aid to deserted wives. After about a year this was secured for her, and the health of woman and children was built up and the home improved. Then Mr. Francis sent ambassadors in the form of relatives, with whom Mrs. Francis refused to treat. He later appeared himself, but she would not consider taking him back. He escaped before he could be brought into court. As he has now been gone over two years, it seems that her stand is a genuine one.

On the other hand, when the man has been found and interviewed, he may show signs of repentance, and the earlier history, together with the opinion which the social worker has been able to form about the character of man and woman may make it seem that a reconciliation should be encouraged. A further question then arises: Shall the man return to his home at once or first undergo a probationary period?

The quick reconciliation has been a feature of the work in domestic relations courts from the beginning of the movement. In connection with some courts there are special officers whose duty it is to prevail upon couples who come to the court to patch up their differences and give each other another trial. This would be an admirable procedure if the couples to receive such treatment were selected by a process of careful investigation, and if probationary supervision were continued long enough to ascertain whether permanent results could be secured. As it actually works out it is a little like expecting a wound to heal "by first intention" when it has not been cleaned out thoroughly, and when no attention is being paid to subsequent dressings.

"The wholesale attempt to patch the tattered fabric of family life in a series of hurried interviews held in the court room, and without any information about the problem except what can be gained from the two people concerned, can hardly be of permanent value in most cases. It is natural that case workers, keenly aware as they are of the slow and difficult processes involved in character-rebuilding, look askance at the court-made reconciliations. With the best will in the world, the people who attempt this delicate service very often have neither the time nor the facts about the particular case in question to give the skilful and devoted personal service necessary to reconstruction. As a result many weak-willed wrong-doers are encouraged to take a pledge of good conduct which they will not, or cannot, keep; and other individuals who feel themselves deeply wronged go away with an additional sense of those wrongs having been underestimated and of having received no redress. The results are written in discouragement and in repeated failures to live in harmony, each of which makes a permanent solution more and more difficult. The case worker to whom the results of the externally imposed reconciliation come back again and again has reason to be confirmed in a distrust of short-cut methods."[36]

* * * * *

A probation officer writes: "Superficial reconciliations invariably result unsatisfactorily. In one case a reconciliation was effected before the husband was released on probation. This was done apparently in the hope that it would influence the court in the disposition of the case. After a study of the situation had been made by the probation officer, it was found that the wife was totally incompetent as a housekeeper, that she possessed an antagonistic disposition, had a violent temper, and that no sincere attachment for each other existed between the couple. Before any constructive measures could be carried out by the probation officer to remedy this situation they separated, and it was not possible thereafter to adjust the differences with any degree of satisfaction.

"On another occasion a man who had a previous prison record and had displayed criminal tendencies was arrested for desertion. His wife, a feeble-minded woman with one child, was being maintained at a private institution at county expense. Through the efforts of the district attorney a reconciliation was effected before the case was disposed of in court, and the man was placed on probation upon the recommendation of the prosecutor without the usual preliminary investigation by the probation department. The couple began to live together contrary to the advice of the probation officer. About two months later the man was arrested for committing a series of burglaries and the woman was found to be pregnant. Efforts which had been made by the probation department to determine her mentality disclosed her to be feeble-minded; later she was committed to a custodial institution for feeble-minded women of child-bearing age. The man was committed to a state prison."

However, when youth and high temper seem to have caused the trouble and there is real affection to build upon, a speedy resumption of life together is usually the best thing.

A young woman with one baby said that her husband had got drunk and threatened her with a knife. They quarreled and he went to relatives in another city. Neighbors testified how devoted the couple had been to each other, describing the young man as handy about the house though "lazy about finding work." He was visited by the family social agency in the city to which he had gone, and wrote a penitent letter asking to come home. The wife agreed; the man immediately returned, got work, and succeeded in overcoming his incipient bad habits. The death of the baby soon after his return seemed only to draw the couple more closely together. The case was soon after closed; nothing has been heard in the three years since to indicate that any further trouble has developed.

A study recently made under the auspices of the Philadelphia Court of Domestic Relations seems to show somewhat better results from court reconciliations than might have been expected. One thousand and two couples who were reconciled in court during the year 1916 were visited from six to eighteen months later. Three hundred and ten had separated or had had further differences which brought them to court; 87 could not be found, and 605, or about 60 per cent, were found to be still living together, though with a varying degree of marital happiness, as the report somewhat drily states.[37]

It should be said that many of these families were probably under the supervision of a probation officer for a longer or shorter period after the reconciliation took place. There is no statement as to the number of repeated deserters among the men, and we cannot estimate how many of the 605 fell within the group which might chance to have the proper basis for reconciliation.

The practice of the Desertion Bureau maintained by the New York Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor is as a rule not to advise reconciliations without a definite preliminary period during which the man shall contribute regularly and show that he means business. "The kind of reconciliation that lasts is the one that is effected with some difficulty to the man," its secretary remarked. The same probation department which furnished the stories of hasty and unsuccessful reconciliations,[38] contributes this remarkable account of the restoration of a family through slow and careful character rebuilding:

George Latham had shamefully neglected his wife and children for several years. He drank to excess, gambled considerably, and associated with women of loose character. He came from good stock, however, and his early training had been excellent. The differences between man and wife seemed impossible to adjust. After the man's release on probation, the co-operation of relatives was secured and through the aid of his new found employer efforts were made toward a reconciliation. The man was gradually led away from his old harmful pursuits and tendencies, these being replaced by wholesome activities. He was induced to join a fraternal organization, to take out insurance for his wife and child, was encouraged to attend church regularly, and to open a bank account. When his sincerity was appreciated by the wife, she agreed to resume housekeeping. Under the direction of the probation officer, new furniture was purchased and the home re-established. This man today holds a responsible position under the employer who aided in his rehabilitation, and occupies a respected place in the community.

Very many processes are indicated in such a story. To bring about the conviction of wrong-doing, to awaken desire and supply an incentive, to keep the hope of attainment alive, to encourage weakened nerves in a new and persistent effort, and all the while to build and strengthen and develop faculties and powers that had been dormant and well-nigh destroyed, is a task that demands a high order of skill and resourcefulness.

The story just told emphasizes the work which was done with the husband. Equally careful work had undoubtedly to be done with the wife to carry her along with the plan. The period of "stay-away probation" for the man is a difficult time for the woman. Neighbors and friends know that he is taking steps in the direction of reformation, and often hold the attitude that it is her duty to let bygones be bygones and receive him again. The promptings of her own heart are often in the same direction; and affection not outlived combines with custom, religious precept, and economic pressure to make it almost impossible to hold to her decision. The social worker can sometimes slip some of the burden of the decision off the woman's shoulders to her own by exacting a promise from the two that they will not try living together until the man has "shown what he can do" for a certain definite time. The economic pressure can be eased by a wise policy of relief; but most of all such a woman needs continued encouragement from a person whose judgment and kindliness she has learned to trust. This is another good point at which to introduce the right kind of volunteer visitor, one who will already have established friendly relations with both when the time of readjustment comes, and who can help bridge over that difficult period. In some cases it might be possible and desirable to procure as volunteer visitors to a couple whose marital relations have come to shipwreck, another married couple who have learned how to live together successfully.

The use of carefully chosen volunteers in effecting reconciliations by the case work method has been singularly little developed. In this respect modern theory and practice have both fallen behind.[39] Especially is it an opportunity to enlist the service of men, whom it is easy to interest in a problem that seems to focus about the man of the family. A man volunteer can search for a deserter in places where a woman, by being conspicuous, would defeat her own end. "Located man by mingling with longshoremen on the docks where he usually worked" could hardly be the entry of a woman visitor. A man can also be very useful in court cases, to counteract the prejudice that sometimes exists in court rooms against the testimony of social workers who are women. In the more subtle processes of winning the man's confidence and helping him to regenerate his life and recover his home there is no preponderance of testimony in favor of the man visitor. Sex lines vanish here; the good case worker, man or woman, volunteer or professional, is the person needed.

Sometimes the difficulty is not to deter the wife from prematurely taking her husband back but to induce her to relent when the proper time comes.

Martin Long was intemperate, his wife was high-tempered; her relatives advised her to leave him and he deserted, leaving the relatives to provide for her and the three children. He was away two years; then, becoming homesick and wanting to re-establish his home if possible, he returned. The wife caused his arrest when he was seeking an interview with her. The probation officer in whose care he was released became convinced of his genuine sincerity and regret, but the wife, still on the advice of her relatives, refused to see him. He persisted in his hope of a reconciliation and made extraordinary efforts during a winter of industrial depression, putting his pride in his pocket and taking laborer's work, which he had never done before. He finally got a good position and saved money enough to begin housekeeping. The probation officer kept in touch with the wife, first persuading her to receive a letter from Mr. Long and answer it through the probation office. He interested her in the details of her husband's struggle, and finally, after a whole year of probation and with the help of her pastor, he induced her to return. The probation officer kept in close touch with the family for some months and reports: "Three years have elapsed since that time; the family is now in a nearby city where they are living harmoniously and in comfortable circumstances."

A case worker who is remarkable for her success in the treatment of estranged couples, when asked how she did it answered laconically, "talks and talks and talks." A study of her case records, however, shows certain points that recur again and again in her treatment.

She encourages man and wife, separately, to talk out their grievances thoroughly and get everything out of their systems. She then proceeds (with a lavish expenditure of time, as indicated in her phrase) to convince each that she is a friend, but an impartial friend. She does not push for an immediate reconciliation, is much more likely to recommend a temporary separation until tempers cool down and the true facts appear. She always advises strongly against "argument" and "casting up" the past, and tells the couple to come back to her if they want to discuss their grievances further. Above all, they are not to retail their troubles to relatives and friends. If either or both are out of the city during their separation she keeps in close touch with them by letter. She is quick to utilize their interest in their children as a means of reawakening their interest in each other. The following letters illustrate her method. The first was written to a young man who was serving a six months' sentence for desertion; the others to the same young man after he had begun a manful struggle to "come back," working in a munitions plant in another state and later sending money regularly to the wife, who still obdurately refused to forgive him. (The letters are part of a series of 27 which were written to him during a ten months' period.)

My dear Mr. Andrews:

I was ever so glad to get your letter this week and I am sorry that no one has been over [to the workhouse] to see you recently. I will surely be over within the next two weeks. I know you are anxious and you should have had a letter telling you about the children. They are both all right now and the baby is out of the hospital.

We have had a nice talk with your aunt and she is very anxious to come over and see you. We will all get together and try and plan what is the right thing to do when you come out. I will arrange it so we can have a little longer talk this time if possible.

Very truly yours, DISTRICT SECRETARY.

My dear Mr. Andrews:

Your long letter has just arrived. I read it with a great deal of interest and pleasure. It is fine to know you have already arrived and have started out to make good on your promises.

I got your cards during the week, which brought the news of your journey. Also on Tuesday morning came your last letter, expressing your appreciation for all we had tried to do for you and enclosing two more thrift stamps for the children. I put these in their books.

Yesterday I had a nice long letter from your father, enclosing one for me to give to you. I am sending it on just as it is. I was very much tempted to read it but have not done so. The reason I was tempted was that I know it must be full of happiness to think you have made such a good start. At least that was the tone of the letter he wrote to me.

During the past years I have worked for this society I have seen many people "come back" strong, and always it has been because they had some big motive in life and reason for making good. But I have seldom known a fellow that had so many reasons why he should make good. You have the confidence of your father and your aunt. You have the children for whom you will do right. You have Clara, whom you have wronged and whom you will have to teach all over again to trust you. Surely all these things added to your own firm will to try and undo all the unhappiness you have given people, ought to help you every day as you prove the good stuff that is in you.

I, of course, telephoned Clara of your starting off and yesterday she came to the office and we had a long talk. She is only sorry that you did not see the baby and says she will be only too glad to have special pictures taken of the children to send you. This was after I suggested that she let me take a snapshot of them to send you.

Be sure and write to your father and aunt often. And please remember my last instructions, which were to let me know fully about yourself. When you write, tell me all about the camp life; how they arrange the living; how long hours you have to work; what they give you for recreation, etc. Pick out for your friends men who can help you, not hinder you, in your good determinations, and hope there will be at least one man there in whom you can trust and to whom you can go for advice.

I will let you know about the children all the time. Clara says Nellie [the small daughter] was expecting to see you again. Don't worry, she will never forget you.

With all good wishes, Sincerely yours, DISTRICT SECRETARY.

My dear Mr. Andrews:

I received your long letter this morning and was very glad to hear all the details of camp life. It is too bad that your surroundings are not more comfortable, but I am sure you can stick it out for awhile. If you can raise yourself to be foreman, will you then have to live in the same uncomfortable quarters? Although I don't know the details, I should think it would be well if you did sign up for the six months. It is too bad that your throat is still hoarse.

Thank you for letting me see your father's letter. I am enclosing it. I hope you are keeping in touch with him.

You asked especially about Clara and whether she asked for you. Of course she did, and she wants me to say if there is anything you want to say to her you can send the letter here and she will write you. She thinks that your ambition and determination to make good is fine, and she will try and help you in every way. She has not been in this week and I have been very busy, but I shall make it my business to see her early next week, and if she has not had the pictures of the children taken, I will get that attended to myself.

So far as I can see there is absolutely nothing for you to worry about from this end of the line. Clara is at last, I think, as fully self-convinced as I am that you are making a splendid effort, and she is perfectly willing to be fair in waiting until you have a chance to get turned around financially and in making first payment for the children.

Next week I am going to send you down a book to read. It is one I have enjoyed myself, and perhaps some evenings when you are not too tired you will get a chance to glance over it. It is small and you can put it in your pocket. Be very sure I have not forgotten the very satisfactory talks we had and the splendid way you have grimly started out to make good. If you can help the Government do their work, even down there, give it a good try out. Never mind the different nationalities you have to mix with. You have already knocked around the world so much that you can just consider this another opportunity of getting to know a great variety of people. You might even learn to talk Italian and Greek! There is no experience in life we have to go through but can be a source of great education to us. You are sure to win out and get the respect of everybody, your fellow-workmen as well as your superior officers, if you continuously day in and day out simply refuse to get discouraged and keep up your work and do as you are told. Stick by.

With all good wishes, Sincerely yours, DISTRICT SECRETARY.

But when all is said and done, there are no unbreakable rules about treatment. A form of treatment is sometimes to do nothing at all.

Charles Morgan, a middle-aged machinist with a wife, a comfortable home, and seven children (the two eldest grown), picked up his tools and disappeared, after a quarrel over his wife's extravagance. He had been earning $50 a week in a shop where he had worked for eighteen years and he would not endure having his wages garnisheed for debt.

An experienced case worker to whom furious Mrs. Morgan made her complaint, decided, after studying Mr. Morgan's record, that he ought not to be prosecuted, and refused to be party to it. As he was a man of domestic habits, search was made in a nearby city where he had relatives. He was easily traced. Mr. Morgan was both proud and reticent, so the case worker made no attempt to approach him, but told the woman she must devise some way to get him back, preferably to write him and say she was sorry. This she refused to do and on her own responsibility adopted the clumsy device of wiring him that a favorite child was sick. This brought him "on the run," and, being back, he stayed. The case worker has never seen Mr. M., nor has his wife been encouraged to come any more to the office, although reports have been received from time to time through the son and daughter that things at home continue to go well.


[33] See p. 179 regarding equity powers of the courts.

[34] Massachusetts social workers succeeded in 1917 in securing the passage of a law which permits the ordinary non-support law to be invoked in case of the man's failure to pay the amount ordered after a legal separation.

[35] See p. 13 sq.

[36] Colcord, J.C.: Article on "Desertion and Non-support." Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, May, 1918, p. 95.

[37] Philadelphia Municipal Court, Report for 1916, p. 64.

[38] See p. 133.

[39] Miss Richmond, writing in 1895, says: "We would rather have a hundred visitors, patient, intelligent and resourceful, to deal with the married vagabonds of our city, than the best law ever framed, if, in order to get such a law, we must lose the visitors."



Many of the case workers consulted in gathering material for this book urged that a discussion of the treatment of the non-supporter who had not deserted be included in its pages. In so far as non-support is a pre-desertion symptom and the non-supporter a potential deserter, much that has been said applies also to him. But are the two groups co-terminous, or do they only partially overlap?

The law makes little difference in its treatment of the two, the fact of failure to support being the chief ground of its interest.[40] Indeed, in Massachusetts, the law under which deserters are extradited for abandonment is habitually spoken of as the "non-support law."

No study of which the results are available has been made to learn what difference, if any, exists between the non-supporter who leaves home and the one who does not. Miss Breed, in making the point that the true analogy of the deserted family is with the non-supported family and not with the widow and her children, says: "The deserting husband is at home the non-supporting husband."[41]

A case reader of experience writes: "When I look back over the many records I have read and studied, it seems to me that it is very difficult to draw a line between desertion and non-support cases, either in the kind of problem they present, or in the treatment of them. Do we know enough about non-supporters who later become deserters; and isn't it possible that every non-support case, certainly every beginning non-support case, is a potential desertion case?"

There is no doubt that the two groups grade imperceptibly into each other; but of the twenty or more case workers who were consulted in the preparation of this material, nearly all felt that the out-and-out deserter, if he can be got hold of, is more promising material to work with than the man who sits about the home and lets others maintain it. They all recognize a common middle ground where the two groups merge into each other; but they see decided differences in the two "wings" so to speak, outside of this common ground.

Seen through their eyes, the non-supporter has less courage, initiative and aggressiveness than the deserter. "He is less deliberately cruel—for at least he 'sticks around.'" He has not the roving disposition, but is apt to be intemperate and industrially inefficient as compared with the deserter. Often the married vagabond, as he has been called, is a "home-loving man who simply shirks responsibility and dislikes effort." He may "sometimes feel parental responsibility even though he does not support," and he is likely to have less physical and mental stamina than the deserter. That phrase in which the psychiatrists take refuge, "constitutional inferiority," is more likely to describe the stay-at-home than the wanderer. However, one social worker (non-medical) says "a mental twist more often enters into the problem of the deserter than into that of the non-supporter, from my experience."

The head of a large probation department writes: "Many of the deserters with whom we have dealt were non-supporters before coming to our attention. Among the men convicted of abandonment, however, is a group which is above the average in intelligence—skilled workers or men in professional occupations."

If this concurrence of observation is sound the reason for the social worker's preference for the deserter as material with which to work is not far to seek. With the deserter as described, the problem is chiefly to alter his point of view; with the non-supporter it is, in addition, to stiffen his will and to increase his capacity—a far more complicated task.

"The deserter is likely to have less justification than the non-supporter," says an observer of long experience. Studies which have been made of the relative capacity of the wives of deserters and of non-supporters seem to agree that the latter have the weaker characters and are less competent and successful workers. A comment made upon one such study points out the impossibility of sound conclusions, if both chronic and incipient cases are included in the two groups. The progressive demoralization in the family of the "intermittent husband" makes such a study of little value unless this distinction is taken into account.

The influence of ill-kept homes in the manufacture of non-supporting husbands has been widely recognized.

A drunkard's daughter, who had never known a decent home, married a young man who soon began to drink too. Luckily, the young couple were brought in touch with a volunteer visitor who, on finding that the wife possessed only two kitchen utensils, a teakettle and a "frypan," and actually did not know the names of any others, undertook to give her lessons in home management. She proved teachable, and her husband stopped drinking and braced up. Some years later the visitor was able to report a well established home, although the family refused to move out of the poor neighborhood in which they lived because the husband had been elected councilman for that district.

If the inefficient wife contributes her share to this form of family breakdown so also does the overefficient one. Many a non-supporter got his first impulse in that direction when his wife became a wage-earner in some domestic crisis. "There's only one rule for women who want to have decent homes for their children and themselves," advised a wise neighbor. "If your husband comes home crying, and says he can't find any work, sit down on the other side of the fire and cry until he does."[42]

One case worker comments on the relation that often exists between an inefficient husband and an unusually competent wife, made up of a motherly toleration on her side and a tacit acceptance on his that he is not expected to be the provider. "Sort of a landlady's husband" was the apt description of one such man, the speaker having in mind the "silent partner" who does odd jobs around his wife's furnished-room house. The lovable old rascal portrayed by Frank Bacon in his play "Lightnin'" is typical of this kind of husband.

There is no ground for outside interference in such an arrangement as long as both are satisfied and the family as a unit is self-supporting. It is often a serious problem to the case worker, however, to know how to treat such a family if the breadwinner-wife becomes incapacitated. Such was the case when Mrs. Laflin fell ill with tuberculosis. Her relatives described her husband as "that little nonentity of a man." He had no bad habits and was pathetically eager to work, but though only a little over fifty he was prematurely aged and incapable. The solution had finally to be institutional care for the entire family, Mrs. Laflin in a hospital for incurables, Mr. Laflin in a home for the aged, and their two young daughters, through the interest of a former employer, in a good convent school. "Uncomplicated" non-support, as in the case of Mr. Laflin, is, however, rare in the experience of the social worker.

Out of a group of 51 non-supporters selected at random from the records of the Buffalo Charity Organization Society in 1917, 46 showed some serious moral fault other than non-support. Alcoholism is probably the commonest of these complications; and, as has been pointed out in the previous chapter, is probably a primary cause as well. It will be a matter of great interest to social workers whether the "non-support rate" is reduced after July 1, 1919. Grounds for hope that it may be are found in the fact that some remarkable results have been obtained by moving alcoholic non-supporters and their families from "wet" into "dry" territory.

Another vice that has a direct relation to non-support (much more direct than to desertion) is gambling. The gambler carries no signs of his vice upon his person as does the inebriate, and it is therefore hard to detect. It undoubtedly does not appear in social case records as frequently as it should. Case workers should have it in mind as a possible explanation, whenever there is a marked discrepancy between what a non-supporter earns and what he contributes to the home.

With the non-supporters rather than with the deserters should be put the group of men whose wives tire of supporting them and either put them out or leave them. These men are often not only morally, but mentally and physically, so handicapped that there is nothing to be gained by constantly pursuing and arresting them, although some wives extract the sweets of revenge from doing just this. Few courts of domestic relations are without some wives as regular patrons who pursue their husbands not for gain but for sport. For the most part, however, the wives of such men are philosophical. "I only wash for meself now," said one of them.

These men, and the unreclaimed deserters, doubtless make up a large part of the floating population of homeless men in our large cities. How large a part it is impossible to say, for they are likely to give assumed names and deny the possession of families. Mrs. Solenberger[43] has noted, however, that if they are asked, not "Are you married?" but a less direct question such as "Where is your wife now?" a story of unfortunate married life will often be elicited. Until we have some better method of inter-city registration of homeless men, many of these who otherwise might be identified and in suitable cases brought back, will continue to slip through our fingers.

With non-support in an incipient stage,[44] it is sometimes possible to deal so suddenly and effectively that the man is shocked into a better realization of his responsibilities.

A young Irish rigger, with a capable wife and two pretty babies, lost his job after a quarrel with his boss rigger. He was a genial, popular chap, always "the life of the party" in his circle; and his companions encouraged him to feel that he was a much injured man. They also helped him to fill his enforced leisure with too much beer. When the family received a dispossess notice the wife's patience was at an end, and acting on the advice of a society engaged in family case work, she put the furniture in storage and went to a shelter where she could leave her children in the daytime, while she was at work, and have them with her at night. The man was told to shift for himself until he could get together sufficient money to re-establish the home. The arrangement continued for nearly two months, during which the man lived in lodging houses, had an attack of stomach trouble, and was altogether thoroughly miserable. Every night he waited for a word with his wife on a corner that she had to pass in coming from work. Finally, when it seemed to the social worker and to the wife that his lesson had gone far enough, the home was re-established, with only a small amount of help from the society. During the five years since that time, no recurrence of the trouble has come to the attention of the agency interested.

This experiment was realized to be a ticklish one, as a man less sincerely attached to his home might have been turned into a vagabond by such treatment.

In general, it may be said that, as there is less to work on constructively with the non-supporter, court action has more often to be invoked. If the non-supporter is a "chronic," his path must not be allowed to be too easy. "Sometimes you just have to keep pestering him" was the way one social worker put it. A Red Cross Home Service worker successfully shocked one elderly non-supporter into going to work, as described in one of the Red Cross publications:

"Well, Mr. Gage," I said, "I see you're not working yet."

"No, Mrs. Cox, the coal company promised to send for me."

"Well," I said, "I think you've been pretty fair with that company. You've waited on it for three months now. If I had the offer of another job I'd feel perfectly free to take it, if I were you."

"Yes," he said, "I think I should."

"All right, I have a job for you," said I. "My husband wants a man now at his garage, to clean automobiles. The hours are from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., and you'll earn $15 a week."

His paper fell from his hands to the floor; his jaw dropped, and he just looked at me. Then he tried to crawl out of it and began to make excuses.

"I haven't time to argue with you, Mr. Gage," I said. "I'll keep the job open till seven o'clock tonight and you can let me know then whether you'll take it or not."

At seven he came to say he'd take the job.[45]

If in desertion cases the interest centers very vividly about the absent man, in non-support cases the reverse is likely to be true, because he is often not very interesting per se, and because, moreover, he is always on the spot and does not have to be searched for. Familiarity certainly breeds contempt for the non-supporter. Consequently the social worker may easily fall into the danger of disregarding the human factors he presents, and either treating the family as if he did not exist or expending no further effort on him than to see that he "puts in" six months of every year in jail if possible (since the law usually secures to him the privilege of loafing the other six). It is not safe, however, to regard even the most leisurely of non-supporters as beyond the possibility of awakening. One district secretary who had thus given a man up had the experience of seeing him transformed into a steady worker after a few months of intensive effort by a first-year student in a school of social science, whose only equipment for the job was personality and enthusiasm. So remarkable are some of the reclamations that have been brought about with seemingly hopeless non-supporters that all possible measures should be tried before giving one of them up.

His Scotch ancestry, a good wife, luck, and a friend with insight and skill, pulled Aleck Gray out of that bottomless pit, the gutter. Aleck had been a bookkeeper; but he didn't get on well with his employers, lost his job, got to drinking, and went so far downhill that his wife had to take their two children and go home to her people several hundred miles away. Aleck finally drifted into a bureau for homeless men, where the agent became interested in him and worked with him for six months, getting him job after job, which he always lost through drink or temper. He seemed incapable of taking directions or working with other people. In all that time the agent felt that he was getting no nearer the root of Aleck's trouble, though he came back after each dismissal and doggedly took whatever was offered. Finally, the agent's patience wore thin, and when Aleck had been more than usually dour and aggravating it went entirely to pieces. Aleck listened to his outburst apparently unmoved; then said, "Very well, if you want to know what would make me stop drinking, I'll tell you. If I could see any ray of hope that I was on the way to getting my home and family back, I'd stop and stop quick." On the agent's desk there happened to be a letter from a friend who wanted a tenant farmer. He thrust it into Aleck's hand saying, "There's your chance if you mean what you say." The man's reply was to ask when he could get a train. At the end of several weeks Aleck wrote that he had not drunk a drop and was making good, which was enthusiastically confirmed by his employer. He begged the agent to intercede with his wife, and a letter went to her which brought the telegraphic reply, "Starting tomorrow."

How they got through the first winter the agent never knew exactly. But they pulled through and the next year was easy, as country-born Aleck's skill came back. Six years later, during which time the agent heard from them once or twice a year, Aleck was still keeping straight, the children were doing well in school, and the family, prosperous and happy, had bought a farm of their own in another state.


[40] The deserter who does not fail to support is usually safe from punishment no matter how aggravated his offense. A man living with his wife and five-year-old boy in an eastern city eloped with another woman to a city in the Middle West. The couple kidnapped the boy and took him with them; and the distracted woman, bereft of both her husband and child, had no recourse in any court, since the father was continuing to provide for his son.

[41] Proceedings of the New York State Conference of Charities and Correction, 1910, p. 76.

[42] Loane, M.: The Queen's Poor, p. 102. London, Edward Arnold, 1905.

[43] Solenberger, Alice Willard: One Thousand Homeless Men, p. 22. New York, Russell Sage Foundation, 1911.

[44] For a consideration of possible lines of treatment for the non-supporter and his family, the reader is referred to Chapter VII, where is discussed the treatment of the deserter who is willing to return.

[45] Behind the Service Flag, pamphlet ARC 211, American Red Cross, Department of Civilian Relief.



Any discussion of laws, their application, and enforcement, must perforce be very general, since the different states vary greatly in laws governing desertion and in equipment for their enforcement. Suggestions for a uniform federal desertion law are not considered here; the term "next steps" should be read as meaning not plans in actual prospect but rather the increase in legal facilities desirable from the social worker's point of view. In communities where no such facilities exist, social workers are in a good position to collect illustrative material and push for desirable changes in law and law enforcement. Especially advantageous is the position of the legal social agencies such as legal aid societies and special bureaus and committees for increasing the efficiency of the courts, many of which are affiliated with or maintained by the large family work societies.

1. Measures for the Discovery, Extradition or Deportation of the Deserter.—The nation-wide registration of males between certain ages, under the Selective Service Act, was widely utilized by social workers in finding deserting men, with the hearty co-operation usually of the draft boards. This fact forms no argument for universal registration as it was carried on in Germany before the war; no system which meant such cumbersome machinery or so much interference with the freedom of the individual ought to be advocated for a moment if it were solely for the purpose of keeping track of the small percentage of citizens who wish to evade their responsibilities, marital and other. Even such a non-military device as that which obligates every person to register successive changes of address with the postal authorities to facilitate delivery of mail would be contrary to the American spirit and easily evaded by people interested in concealing their whereabouts, unless enforced with all the rigor of the European police system. But though we can advocate no system of manhood registration, we can avail ourselves of the incidental benefits of any that may be in force.

The Federal Employment Service offers a promising means of help in discovering the movements of deserters whose trade and probable destination are known. It should be entirely possible to work out a system by which the managers of the local employment bureaus should be furnished with name, description, copy of photograph, and so on, of a deserter who is being sought, so that the man if recognized could be traced or quickly apprehended if a warrant is already in the hands of the local police authorities. It may even be possible, under the federal employment service, to develop the long wished for national registration of casual and migratory labor. Need for some such system has been felt by all agencies trying to deal constructively with vagrants and homeless men. Little track can be kept not only of the individual wanderer but of the ebb and flow of the tides of "casual labor" without some system of this sort. If employment bureaus were required to forward to a central registry the names and some identifying particulars of every non-resident who applied for employment, the problem of finding the deserter would be rendered ten times easier than it is now.

One present obstacle to this and other improvements is the attitude of authorities—city, state, and federal—toward wife desertion. We have already mentioned the way in which the task of tracing the deserter has been thrust back upon the wife and the social worker, as if he were not an offender against the community as well as against his wife and children. Almost as widespread is the reluctance of the proper authorities to arrest the deserter and bring him back after he has been found. A general atmosphere of indifference and despair of accomplishing anything worth while surrounds any attempt to push the prosecution of a man who has taken refuge outside the community. Hope for the future lies in socializing the point of view of court officials, police, and district attorneys—a process in which the social worker must play a large part. No chance should be lost to drive home the social and economic waste involved, by using the illustrative material which abounds in the files of most case work agencies.

The pernicious system by which the wife is required to serve summons and warrant upon the offending husband who is still in the same city, should be done away with entirely. The social agency, public or private, which has had to support or assist the man's family ought to be able to prefer a charge for non-support, and to take out a summons or a warrant and serve it without the wife's being present. The agency should in this case protect itself by securing from the wife a signed affidavit and authorization to act in her behalf. It may seem unimportant whether the wife makes such complaint in the court or to a private society. The psychological effect upon the man is, however, very different. If his wife initiates the complaint in court, his resentment is directed toward her—a fact which renders reconciliation more difficult if this is later attempted. In other cases, for the wife to make the complaint puts her in actual physical danger from the vindictive husband. If he is brought into court on the complaint of a social agency, part of that resentment at least is transferred to the intrusive social worker, who is not usually seriously troubled thereby and is far better able to bear the weight of the husband's displeasure than is his poor wife.

The absence of any treaty with Great Britain by which family deserters can be extradited to or from Canada makes the Dominion a place of refuge for many American evaders of family responsibilities. The National Conference of Charities and Correction,[46] at its meeting in Cleveland in 1912, passed a resolution on the need for such a treaty. As a result, largely through the efforts of Mr. William H. Baldwin, the treaty was signed and sent to the Senate for ratification in December, 1916. It was referred to the Committee on Foreign Relations, where it met with objection and has remained without action up to the present. The National Conference of Jewish Charities, at its meeting in Kansas City in May, 1918, sent urgent representations to the Senate Committee, which it is hoped may result in ratification after the pressure of war-time legislation is relaxed.

We should not stop when reciprocal extradition with Canada has been secured; there is a similar situation on our southern border in states from which escape into Mexico is easy. While American deserters are not likely to go to other more remote countries than these two, immigration into America from other countries creates desertion problems in other places and presents us with a class of undesirables with whom it is difficult to deal under existing immigration laws. In 1912 a report was submitted to the Glasgow Parish Council showing the alarming amount of dependency created in that one city by the emigration to America and the Colonies of men without their families, and who subsequently drifted into the status of deserters. This report makes the interesting suggestion that no married man be permitted to emigrate without his family unless he presents a "written sanction of the Parish Council or other local authority," and further, that he be bound, under penalty of deportation, to report himself to some authority in the country of his destination, which would satisfy itself as to his conduct and insure that he did his duty by wife and family.[47] Such a provision would of course involve the revision of our own immigration laws, making wife and family desertion a crime thereunder.

At present the law provides deportation only within five years after entry, and for "persons who have been convicted of or admit having committed a felony or other crime or misdemeanor involving moral turpitude," or who are sentenced to a term of one year or more in this country, within five years of entry, for such crime (or who may suffer a second conviction at any time after entry). This would clearly cover bigamy committed within five years after entry; whether it could be stretched to cover lesser forms of marital irresponsibility remains to be determined. (It should be remembered that a man who brings in as his wife, or later sends for, a woman to whom he is not married, can be deported under quite other sections of the immigration law.)

2. Improvements in Court Procedure.—A sore point with the social worker is the often ridiculously inadequate amounts that unwilling husbands are put under court order to pay. They accuse the courts, whether rightly or wrongly, of considering first what part of the man's alleged earnings will be needed for him to live upon comfortably, and then of making the order for whatever may be left over.

Onofrio Mancini was under court order to stay away from home and pay his wife $6.00 a week for the support of their two children, He drove a two-horse truck, and, at that time, must have been earning not less than $16.00 a week. Mrs. Mancini fell ill, whereupon Onofrio promptly ceased all payments. The social agency interested was permitted to make a complaint on producing a doctors certificate that Mrs. Mancini could not appear in court; but Onofrio, when he appeared, put up such a hard luck tale of earning only $8.00 a week that the judge, without investigation, cut the order down to $4.00 a week and ordered Onofrio to return home to live.

A bulletin issued by the Seybert Institution of Philadelphia gives a very interesting set of diagrams showing the relation (or lack of relation) between the amount of man's income, size of family, and the court order issued in the Philadelphia Municipal Court.[48]

This report gives a series of illustrations, where glaring inconsistencies between the man's earnings and the court order were observed by visitors to the court. A sample of the reports made by these visitors is as follows:

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