Broken Homes - A Study of Family Desertion and its Social Treatment
by Joanna C. Colcord
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No less thoughtful a critic of men and manners than Joseph Conrad has remarked recently that a universal experience "is exactly the sort of thing which is most difficult to appraise justly in the individual instance." The saying might have been made the motto of this book, for in its pages Miss Colcord—with all the eagerness of the newer school of social workers, bent upon understanding, upon making allowances—seeks that just appraisal to which Conrad refers. Marital infelicities and broken homes are not universal, fortunately, but some of the human weaknesses which lead to them are very nearly so.

To one who brings a long perspective to any theme in social work, Broken Homes suggests the successive stages through which the art of social case work has progressed. Twenty years ago the editor of this Series was responsible for the following sentences in an annual report: "One of our most difficult problems has been how to deal with deserted wives with children.... One good woman, whose husband had left her for the second time more than a year ago, declared often and emphatically that she would never let him come back. We rescued her furniture from the landlord, found her work, furnished needed relief, and befriended the children; but the drunken and lazy husband returned the other day, and is sitting in the chairs we rescued, while he warms his hands at the fire that we have kept burning."

The passage belongs to the first and what might be termed the "muddling along" period of dealing with family desertion, but the fact that boards of directors actually were willing to print such frank statements about their own shortcomings was a sign that the period was drawing to a close.

This first stage was succeeded by a disciplinary period, in which earnest attempts were made to enact laws that would punish the deserter and aid in his extradition whenever he took refuge across a state line. Laws of the strictest, and these well enforced, seemed for a while the only possible solution.

Then gradually, with the unfolding of a philosophy and a technique of helping people in and through their social relationships, a new way of dealing with this ancient and perplexing human failing was developed. This third way involved a more careful analysis of relationships and motives, a greater variety in approach, an increased flexibility in treatment, a new faith, perhaps, in the re-creative powers latent in human nature. But it is unnecessary to enlarge upon a point of view which these pages admirably illustrate. Desertion laws continue to serve a definite purpose, as Miss Colcord makes clear, but no longer are they either the first or the second resort of the skilful probation officer, family case worker, or child protective agent.

Just after the Russell Sage Foundation published a treatise on Social Diagnosis two years ago, a number of letters came to the author urging that a volume on the treatment of social maladjustments in individual cases follow. But this second subject is not yet ready for the large general treatise. A topic so new as social case treatment must be developed aspect by aspect, preferably in small, practical volumes each written by a specialist. This is such a volume, and Miss Colcord breaks new ground, moreover, in that her book illustrates the whole present trend of social work as applied to individuals.

Grateful acknowledgment should be made to the social case workers who have furnished valuable contributions to the body of data gathered for the present study. Miss Colcord wishes mention made of her especial indebtedness to Miss Betsey Libbey, Miss Helen Wallerstein and Miss Elizabeth Wood of Philadelphia; Mr. C.C. Carstens and Miss Elizabeth Holbrook of Boston; Mrs. A.B. Fox and Mr. J.C. Murphy of Buffalo; Miss Caroline Bedford of Minneapolis; Mr. Stockton Raymond of Columbus; Mrs. Helen Glenn Tyson of Pittsburgh; Mr. Arthur Towne of Brooklyn; Mr. E.J. Cooley, Mr. Charles Zunser, Mr. Hiram Myers, and Miss Mary B. Sayles of New York. Many others not here mentioned were untiring in answering questions and furnishing needed information.

MARY E. RICHMOND Editor of the Social Work Series NEW YORK, May, 1919.






It has frequently been said that desertion is the poor man's divorce but, like many epigrams, this one hardly stands the test of experience. When examined closely it is neither illuminating nor, if the testimony of social case workers can be accepted, is it true. It is true, of course, that many of the causes of domestic infelicity which lead to divorce among the well-to-do may bring about desertion among the less fortunate, but the deserting man does not, as a rule, consider his absences from home as anything so final and definite as divorce.

In a study of desertion made by the Philadelphia Society for Organizing Charity in 1902,[1] it was found that 87 per cent of the men studied had deserted more than once. The combined experience of social workers goes to show that a comparatively small number of first deserters make so complete a break in their marital relations that they are never heard from again, and that an even smaller number actually start new families elsewhere, although no statistical proof of this last statement is available. One social worker of experience says that in her judgment desertion, instead of being a poor man's divorce, comes nearer to being a poor man's vacation.

A man who had always been a good husband and father was discharged from hospital after a long and exhausting illness and returned to his family—wife and seven children—in their five-room tenement. Ten days later he disappeared suddenly, but reappeared some two weeks later in very much better health and ready to resume his occupation and the care of his family. His explanation of his apparent desertion was that he was unable to stand the confusion of his home and "had needed rest." He had "beaten his way" to Philadelphia and visited a friend there.

The reporter of the foregoing remarks that it illustrates "unconscious self-therapy," and that the patient's disappearance might have been avoided if the services of a good medical-social department had been available at the hospital where the man was treated.

It is more difficult to justify the thirst for experience of another deserting husband who came to the office of a family social agency after an absence of a few months, with effusive thanks for the care of his family and the explanation that he "had always wanted to see the West, and this had been the only way he could find of accomplishing it."

In fact, case work has convinced social workers that there are few things less permanent than desertion. In itself this provisional quality tends to create irritation in the minds of many of the profession. It is upsetting to plan for a deserted family which stops being deserted, so to speak, overnight. But in their understandable despair social workers sometimes overlook essential facts about the nature of marriage. The permanence of family life is one of the foundation stones of their professional faith; yet they may fail to recognize certain manifestations of this permanence as part and parcel of the end for which they are striving. They would see no point in the practice adopted by a certain social agency which deals with many cases of family desertion. This society, when it has had occasion to print copies of a deserter's photograph to use in seeking to discover his present whereabouts, often presents his wife with an enlargement of the picture suitable for framing. The procedure displays, nevertheless, a profound insight not only into human nature but into the human institution called marriage.

In the next chapter will be considered some of the causes that make men leave their homes. To deal effectively with the situation created by desertion, however, we have need of a wider knowledge than this. Not only what takes men away but what keeps them from going, what brings them back, what leads to their being forgiven and received into their homes again, are matters that seriously concern the social case worker. What is it that makes this plant called marriage so tough of fiber and so difficult to eradicate from even the most unfriendly soil?

It is fortunate (since the majority of case workers are unmarried) that simply to have been a member of a family gives one some understanding of these questions. The theorist who maintains that marriage is purely economic, or that it is entirely a question of sex, has either never belonged to a real family or has forgotten some of the lessons he learned there.

Many volumes have been written upon the history of marriage, or rather of the family, since, as one historian justly puts it, "marriage has its source in the family rather than the family in marriage."[2] In all these studies the influence of law, of custom, of self-interest, and of economic pressure, is shown to have molded the institution of marriage into curious shapes and forms, some grievous to be borne. But is it not after all the crystallized and conventionalized records of past time which have had to be used as the source material of such studies, and could the spiritual values of the family in any period be found in its laws and learned discourses? We might rather expect to find students of these sources preoccupied with the outward aspects, the failures, the unusual instances. It is as true of human beings as of nations, that the happy find no chronicler. "Out of ... interest and joy in caring for children in their weakness and watching that weakness grow to strength, family life came into being and has persisted."[3] It is hardly conceivable that in any society, however primitive, there were not some real families—even when custom ran otherwise—in which marriage meant love and kindness and the mutual sharing of responsibilities. And these families, today as always, are the creators and preservers of the spiritual gains of the human race. It has been beautifully said of the family in such a form, that "it is greater than love itself, for it includes, ennobles, makes permanent, all that is best in love. The pain of life is hallowed by it, the drudgery sweetened, its pleasures consecrated. It is the great trysting-place of the generations, where past and future flash into the reality of the present. It is the great storehouse in which the hardly-earned treasures of the past, the inheritance of spirit and character from our ancestors, are guarded and preserved for our descendants. And it is the great discipline through which each generation learns anew the lesson of citizenship that no man can live for himself alone."[4] It follows that the most trying and discouraging feature of social work with deserted wives; namely, their determination to take worthless men back and back again for another trial, is often only a further manifestation of the extraordinary viability of the family.

It is true that, into this enduring quality, many elements enter, some homely or merely material. A desire for support, or for a resumption of sex relations, may play a part in a wife's decision to forgive the wanderer. There are many other factors—use and wont; pride in being able to show a good front to the neighbors; a feeling that it is unnatural to be receiving support from other sources. Just the mere desire to have his clothes hanging on the wall and the smell of his pipe about, the hundreds of small details that go to make up the habit of living together, have each their separate pull on the woman whose instinct to be wife and mother to her erring man is urging her to give in; Home is, in both their minds,

" ... the place where when you have to go there They have to take you in.... Something you somehow haven't to deserve."[5]

A woman who had left her home town and found clerical work in a strange city, in order not to be near her syphilitic husband from whom she had determined to separate, said, "When you've been married to a man, you can't get over feeling your place is with him."

However we may deplore the results in a given case, the spineless woman who takes her husband back many times may nevertheless be giving a demonstration of the thing we are most interested in conserving—the durability and persistence of the family. And so the social worker who is enabled by experience or imagination to enter into the real meaning of family life is neither scornful nor amused when Mrs. Finnegan is found, on the morning when her case against Finnegan is to come up in the domestic relations court, busily washing and ironing his other shirt in order that he may make a proper appearance and not disgrace the family before the judge.

* * * * *

An attempt will be made in this small book to analyze some causal factors in the problem of the deserter, to touch upon recent changes in the attitude of social workers toward deserted families, to present illustrations from the best discoverable practice in the treatment of desertion, and to suggest certain possible next steps, both on the legal and on the social side. For lack of space, it will be impossible to consider the closely related problems of the deserting wife, the unmarried mother, or the divorced couple. It is assumed throughout that the reader is familiar with the general theory of modern case work; and no more is here attempted than to give a number of suggestions which will be found to be practical, it is hoped, when the social worker deals with the home marred and broken by desertion, or when he seeks to prevent this evil by such constructive measures as are now possible.


[1] Twenty-fourth Annual Report of the Philadelphia Society for Organizing Charity, p. 25.

[2] Goodsell, Willystine: The Family as a Social and Educational Institution, p. 8. New York, The Macmillan Co., 1915.

[3] Byington, Margaret F.: Article on "The Normal Family," Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, May, 1918.

[4] Bosanquet, Helen: The Family, p. 342. London, Macmillan & Co., 1906.

[5] Frost, Robert: North of Boston, p. 20. New York, Henry Holt & Co., 1915.



"Before the deserter there was a broken man," said a district secretary who has had conspicuous success in dealing with such men. By this characterization she meant not necessarily a physical or mental wreck, but a man bankrupt for the time being in health, hopes, prospects, or in all three; a man who lacked the power or the will to dominate adverse conditions, who had allowed life to overcome him. Such an unfortunate may not be conscious of his own share in bringing about the difficulties in which he finds himself, but he is always aware that something has gone seriously wrong in his life. His grasp of this fact is the one sure ground upon which the social worker can meet him at the start.

We should distinguish between the causes that bring about a given desertion, and the conscious motives in the mind of the deserter. It is well for the social worker to make the latter the starting point in dealing with the man, accepting the most preposterous as at least worthy of discussion. The absconder is often too inarticulate and ill at ease to give a clear picture of what was in his mind when he went away. If he was out of work, it may have been a perfectly sincere belief that he would find work elsewhere, or perhaps only a speculative hope that he might. (These are not in the beginning genuine desertions, but often become so later on.) It is possible that, beset by irritations and perplexities, the thought of cutting his way out at one stroke from all his difficulties made an appeal too strong to be resisted. Or perhaps he flung out of the house and away, in a passion of anger and jealousy which later crystallized into cold dislike. The spell of an infatuation for another woman might well have been the cause; or he may have been mentally deranged through alcohol. Simple weariness of the burden which he has not strength of body or mind to carry and ought never to have assumed is one attitude to be reckoned with, and failure to realize or in his heart accept the binding nature of his obligations is another.

His temperamental instability may have been such that the desire for a change—the "wanderlust"—was driving him to distraction. Or perhaps, under the urge of his own subconscious feeling of failure, he may have convinced himself that if he could "shake" the old environment and all in it that hampered him, he could take a fresh start and make good. "If I could only get to California," sighed Patrick Donald,[6] "I have a feeling things would be different." With too much imagination to be content with the situation in which he found himself, Donald had not imagination enough to realize that he would have to take his old self with him wherever he went, and that he might better fight things out where he stood. Men of his sort yearn constantly for the future, not realizing that in its truest sense the present is the future.

Only in rare instances will the deserter accept the entire responsibility for his act. To try to find justification for doing what we want to do is characteristic of human beings, and the deserter is no exception. He attempts to "rationalize" his conduct and so regain his sense of self-approval and well-being by finding excuses and justifications in the conduct of others. Even when the fault is all his, he usually succeeds in making himself believe that his wife is more to blame than he for his having left home.[7] The social worker who attempts to deal with the situation the deserter creates should know this attitude in advance and be prepared, through some simple rule-of-thumb psychology, to attack the obsession and bring him, first of all, to see and face squarely his own responsibility.

Many blanket theories have been developed to explain desertion—that it is due to economic pressure; that it is the result of bad housekeeping; that its causes can all be reduced to sex incompatibility. All these factors: undoubtedly have their bearing on the problem, but there is no one cause or group of causes underlying breakdowns in family morale. The ratio of desertions has been observed to decrease rather than to increase in "hard times";[8] moreover, it is a matter of common observation that not all slovenly and incompetent wives are deserted, and that many married couples in all walks of life whose sex relationships are unsatisfactory, nevertheless maintain the fabric of family life and support and bring up their children with an average degree of success. None of these three factors alone will serve, therefore, as a fundamental causation unit in desertion. Many statistical attempts have been made to study the causes of desertion, and to assign to each its mathematical percentage of influence. The report of a court of domestic relations gives such an analysis of over 1,500 cases, listing 25 causes, and carefully calculating the percentage of cases due to each. A summary of these percentages grouped under five heads is as follows:

Percentage 1. Distinct sex factors 39.03 2. Alcohol and narcotic drugs 37.00 3. Temperamental traits 15.40 4. Economic issues 6.27 5. Mental and physical troubles 2.30 ——— 100.00

It would be easy to criticize the foregoing on the score of grouping. Can alcoholism and drug addiction be separated from mental and physical disorders? And how distinguish infallibly between sex factors, temperamental traits, and mental disabilities? But the main defect in such statistical studies is that they assume in each case one cause, or at least one cause sufficiently dominant to dwarf the rest; and few of the causes listed are really fundamental. The mind instinctively begins to reach back after the causes of all these causes. The social worker who made the sweeping assertion that there are two great reasons for marital discord—"selfishness in men and peevishness in women,"—came a good deal nearer to an accurate statement of fact with infinitely less trouble.

Looked at from the point of view of the social worker, desertion is itself only a symptom of some more deeply seated trouble in the family structure. The problem presented, if it could have been recognized in time, is not essentially different from what it would have been before the man's departure. Without attempting, therefore, any statistical analysis of the causes of desertion, we may nevertheless be able to examine one by one a number of possible contributory factors in marital unhappiness and therefore in desertion. No attempt will be made in the list that follows to distinguish between primary and secondary causes, nor to arrange them in any order of importance. An effort to get from case workers lists so arranged resulted only in confusion, each person emphasizing a different set of factors. The groupings here given, therefore, are no more than a placing of the more obviously related factors together and a leading from past history up to the present.

Considering first the personal as distinguished from the community factors in desertion, these may be listed as follows:


1. Actual Mental Deficiency.—Character weaknesses such as were spoken of earlier in this chapter grade down by degrees into real mental defect or disorder, and not even the psychiatrist can always draw the line.

A physician connected with the Municipal Court in Boston gives as his opinion that while the percentage of actually insane or feeble-minded among deserters is no higher than among other offenders they are extremely likely to present some of the phenomena of psychopathic personality. Such people have to be studied by the social worker and the psychiatrist, and not from the behavior side only, but with a view to discovering what sort of equipment for life was handed down to them from their family stock.

The plan for the future of a fifteen-year-old boy which was made by a society for family social work was markedly modified when it was discovered that not only his father but his grandfather had been a man of violent and abusive temper, who drank habitually and neglected their family obligations. With this sort of heredity and an ineffective mother, whom he was accustomed to seeing treated with abuse and disrespect, it was felt important to remove the boy, who showed some promise, to surroundings where he could be under firm discipline and learn decent standards of family life.

Feeble-mindedness, closely connected as it usually is with industrial inefficiency in the man, bad housekeeping in the woman, and lack of self-control in both, is of course, a potent factor in non-support and probably also in desertion.

2. Faults in Early Training.—To low ideals of home life and of personal obligation, which were imbibed in youth, can be traced much family irresponsibility. It is by no means the rule, however, for children always to follow in the footsteps of weak or vicious parents; and it is the experience of social workers that such children, taught by observation to avoid the faults seen in their own homes, often make good parents themselves. Perhaps even more insidious in its effect on later marital history is the home in which no self-control is learned. The so-called "good homes" in which children are exposed to petting, coddling, and overindulgence—and these homes are not confined to the wealthy—produce adults who do not stand up to their responsibilities. A probation officer in Philadelphia tells of the mother of a young deserter who could not account for her son's delinquency. "He ought to be a good boy," she complained; "I carried him up to bed myself every night till he was eleven years old."

3. Differences in Background.—Even though both man and wife come from good homes, if those homes are widely different in standards and in cultural background strains may develop in later life between the couple. Differences in race, religion and age are recognized as having a causative relation to desertion. Miss Brandt[9] found that, in about 28 per cent of the cases where these facts were ascertained, the husband and wife were of different nationality. "In the general population of the United States in 1900 only 8.5 per cent was of mixed parentage, and for New York City the proportion was less than 13 per cent.... A difference in nationality was more than twice as frequent among the cases of desertion as among the general population of the city where it is most common." Miss Brandt's figures for difference of religion are less significant, but it existed in 19 per cent of the total number of cases for which information on this point was available. In 27 per cent of the families where age-facts were learned, there were differences of over six years between the two; in 15 per cent the woman was older than the man.

Other differences which should find mention under this heading are those that arise when the environment is changed by immigration. The man who precedes his wife by many years in coming to America has often outgrown her when she finally joins him, even if he has formed no other family ties. The handicap is not wholly overcome when the couple come to this country together, for the much greater opportunities of the man to learn American ways may drive a wedge between him and his wife. On the other hand it is a popular saying, particularly among young Italian immigrants, that girls who have been in America too long do not make good wives, that when a man wants to marry he had better send for a girl from the old country; and these marriages seem on the whole to turn out well.

4. Wrong Basis of Marriage.—Included here should be hasty marriages, mercenary marriages, marriages entered into unwillingly after pregnancy had occurred, as well as marriages where coercion was a factor for other reasons.[10]

When there have been sex relations before marriage, unless the custom of the community sanctions such intimacy, there are likely to develop jealousies, quarrels, and ill feeling. "He do be always castin' it up at me, but sure, 'twas himself was to blame" is one version of the age-old story.

There should also be included here those irregular unions called "common law marriages," which are still permitted in many of our states. The protection supposed to be afforded to the woman by this institution is mainly fictitious, as it is practically impossible to secure conviction for bigamy if one of the marriages was of the common law variety. A common law husband who deserts, even if he admits his wife's legal claim upon him, does not feel morally bound; and this fact undoubtedly plays its part in the causation of such desertions.[11]

5. Lack of Education.—More is included under this title than scanty "book-learning." Not only the morally undisciplined child but the mentally undisciplined youth is handicapped as spouse and parent. Ignorance of the physical and spiritual bases of married life is a potent cause of desertion. So also is a limited industrial equipment. Irregular school attendance, early "working papers," a dead-end job with no educational possibilities in it—these form a frequent background for later unsuccess in life and in marriage.

There seemed at first no good explanation for the desertion of Alfred West. Both his record and his wife's were good, and their mutual fondness for the children seemed a strong bond. They constantly bickered, however, over the small income Alfred was able to earn, and his wife and her relatives "looked down" upon him as being lower than they in the social scale. Inquiry into past history showed that he had grown up in a southern community where there were no facilities for education, and that he could not even read and write until after his marriage. Although of average capacity, he was restricted by his early lack of training in his choice of a job; and the mortification and sense of inferiority which his wife fostered led to discouragement and indifference, which ended in desertion. A thorough understanding of the two backgrounds involved enabled a social worker to effect a real reconciliation, with the woman's eyes opened to her ungenerous behavior and the man taking steps to improve his education in a night school.

6. Occupational Faults.—Closely allied to the foregoing, and in some respects growing out of it, are the shortcomings on the employment side that contribute to marital instability. Most of these can be referred back to lack of education or opportunity in youth, or to defects of character. Laziness, incompetence, lack of skill in any trade, lack of application, or, on the other hand, the possession by a man with no business "stake" in the community of a trade at which he can work wherever he takes a fancy to go, or of a trade which is seasonal and shifting—all these have a direct relation to desertion.

The wife's competence and willingness to earn often seems to have a causal connection with the man's failure as "provider."[12]

Corresponding to and complementing the man's industrial defects, and springing from the same causes, is the woman's failure in the business of being a housewife. The wife's laziness, incompetence, lack of interest, and lack of skill and knowledge create, as one case worker puts it, "the sort of home that tends to get itself deserted." These faults of the wife are responsible for as many desertions, probably, as are the faults of the husband. When the man and the wife are both industrial failures we get the extremity of family breakdown to be found in records of "chronic non-support" cases.

7. Wanderlust.—As a cause of family desertion this has probably been overestimated. Some item of this sort appears in every list of causes of desertion which has ever been compiled, and there are more or less exceptional cases in which it probably plays a part. The boy who becomes a vagabond in childhood and early takes to the road does not, however, seem to be a marrying man; and the instances from case work in which it is clear that the thirst for adventure was at the bottom of desertion are rare. The man whose line of work before marriage led him from place to place seems, in fact, hardly to contribute his quota to the ranks of wife-deserters, and it is unusual to find sailors or other wanderers from force of circumstance figuring among them.

8. Money Troubles.—As has already been said, it is impossible to show any direct relation between small incomes and desertion. The connection between low wage and non-support is of course a great deal closer. The inadequate income unquestionably acts indirectly to break down family morale in much the same way as does lowered physical vitality.

But marital discord that springs from the handling of the family finances is another matter, and it recurs regularly in the history of what went on prior to desertion. One deserter, traced to a southern city, returned voluntarily and begged the assistance of the social worker interested to reform his wife's spending habits. "I made good money and I never opened my pay envelope on her," said he, "but the week's wages was always gone by Thursday." Many men, however, who make a boast of turning over unbroken pay envelopes to their wives borrow back so much in daily advances that their net contribution is only a fraction of their wages.

Some desertions brought about by financial difficulties are not, strictly speaking, marital problems at all. Debts resulting from his own extravagance or dishonesty may cause a man to leave home to escape prosecution or disgrace. One such man kept in touch with his family, sending money at irregular intervals for some years, but always moving on to another place before he could be found. It proved impossible to get in communication with him, and finally he stopped writing and disappeared.

9. Ill Health: Physical Debility.—All social workers agree that physical condition plays a part, though usually only indirectly and secondarily, in causing desertion. In the man, it may lower his vitality, cause irregular work, and superinduce a condition of despondency and readiness to give in. In the woman, it brings about careless housekeeping, loss of attractiveness, and disinclination to marital intercourse—all factors which contribute directly to desertion. Continued ill health of the wife brings burdens, financial and other, which may help through discouragement to break down the husband's morale.

There should be included here some consideration of one of the most puzzling types of abandonment—the "pregnancy desertion." Attempts have been made to explain it on the ground of the instinctive aversion of the male sex for domestic crises. But the impulse that causes the prosperous householder to move to his club when house-cleaning time arrives will hardly serve to explain such a custom, and as a matter of fact other domestic crises, such as illnesses of the children, do not have any such effect upon the man who habitually absents himself from home before the birth of each child. Other possible reasons for it are the well-known irritability and "difficulty" of women in this condition, and their aversion to sexual intercourse. Some pregnancy deserters take the step in the hope that their wives will bring about an abortion; but this is a modern and sophisticated development and the institution of "pregnancy desertion" is one of undoubted antiquity. Its prevalence among certain European immigrants would almost point to its being a racial tradition. Ethnologists who have studied strange marriage customs, such as the "couvade," ought to turn their attention to discovering the causes of this other and socially more important marital vagary.

10. Temperamental Incompatibility.—It is difficult to catalogue and appraise the causal factors in desertion that lie in personality. They are closely related to differences in background and are intimately involved with the sex relations of the pair. We cannot, however, admit that they are identical with the latter, as some students of the subject claim; or that the only incompatibility in marriage is sex incompatibility. Indeed, two people may be so incompatible as to find in sex their only common ground.

The commonest of these temperamental differences center about standards of right and wrong or proper and improper conduct. Especially is this manifested in the bringing up of the children. Extreme self-righteousness on the part of one or the other, nagging and petty criticism, unreasonable jealousy, "sulking spells," violent quarrels, are some of its manifestations. The idea of possession exercised by either of the couple, and especially a tendency to dominate or try to control on the part of the woman, may be a causal factor in desertion. The lack of a saving sense of humor in one or both is often a complicating factor. These comparatively minor differences take on a serious complexion in the minds of the couple; and it is surprising how often a deserting man will give promptly and with every appearance of feeling justified some cause for his desertion which falls clearly under this head. "People forgive each other the big things; it's the little things they can't forgive."

11. Sex Incompatibility.—There comes under this heading a wide range of causative factors which play an important part in marital discord. Some of them are better understood by the social worker than was formerly the case; but many of them are obscure even to the practitioner of mental medicine, to whom their results come daily. Distasteful as the task may be, the social worker should familiarize herself, through reading or through instruction by a qualified physician, in the commoner forms of these maladjustments. This is not urged because it is part of the social worker's task to make detailed inquiry into such matters or to pass judgment upon them, but because they often clamor for attention and need to be recognized by the first responsible person to whose notice they are brought. Unless she knows, for instance, what constitutes excess in sex relations, a worker may misunderstand the situation described to her and condemn a man for being a selfish brute, when the trouble is really sexual anaesthesia in the wife. It is well known that this single cause operates disastrously to disrupt many marriages or else to render them insupportable. The warning should be added, however—and it cannot be added too emphatically—that the social worker must scrupulously refrain from making diagnoses in these cases, even tentatively; she must refer such data as come to her either to the general practitioner or to the psychiatrist, selecting one or the other as the symptoms presented may indicate.

Less well understood by the lay worker are actual maladjustments, both physical and mental (or spiritual), which prevent the complete satisfaction of one or both. Some of these are curable by medical care, others by instruction and education. This instruction should be given, needless to say, by the physician and not by the case worker. If uncorrected such maladjustments are apt to result in marital shipwreck.

No attempt can be made here to discuss actual sex perversions in their relation to desertion. Their effect is obvious; and the social worker should be sufficiently well informed, not only from a few standard books on the subject,[13] but from a knowledge of the phrases which are used in the tenements, to understand them, so that significant symptoms are not overlooked. So intimately are sex difficulties connected with the neuroses that the lay social worker should consult the psychiatrist freely wherever one is available, before attempting to deal with them.

12. Vicious Habits.—Sexual immorality, through its degenerative effect on personality and the lowered ideals of marriage it induces, has a real effect in bringing about desertion. The "other man" and the "other woman" type of desertion, however, is often itself only a consequence of a previously existing state of temperamental or sexual incompatibility. If these underlying causes can be attacked and changed such a desertion may be "repairable."

A young man deserted his wife and three children and eloped with an eighteen-year-old girl who had made his acquaintance in a street car flirtation. He had been "an obedient boy with good principles," and his later record showed steadiness and ability; but he and his wife had been drifting apart—their marital relations had not been "quite the same" as formerly. Arrested and brought back, he did not impute any blame to her, however, but said he "must have been crazy." In spite of the circumstances, the judge decided to give him six months in the penitentiary; and a man visitor from the family social agency interested began at once to try to secure an influence over him. On his release the couple again went to housekeeping. The wife had been cautioned on how to receive him; but things went badly at first, and the man began again insisting that they were mismated. (He "had the other girl still considerably on his conscience and heart.") Tangles continually arose which the society's visitor was hard put to it to straighten out. Once the wife found a letter from the girl; but finally, after the charity organization society in the city where he had left the girl reported that she was doing well and not breaking her heart about him, the man decided to "cut out" the correspondence. A little later the girl eliminated herself by marrying. A year after the reconciliation the wife told the friendly visitor that the trouble was gone between them, and "it was just like a new life." For another year efforts were continued to strengthen the attachment and make the home more attractive, at the end of which time it was felt that the home was stable enough to need no further supervision.

For reasons of convenience we may include here the causal relations between venereal disease and desertion. In so far as syphilis brings about mental and physical deterioration, the relation between the two is obvious. The presence of the disease in the man, if known to his wife, may lead her to sever relations with him in self-protection, and this severance, in turn, may lead ultimately to desertion or complete separation. Often separation is desirable, but the syphilitic who is on the whole a good family man raises some of the most difficult questions with which the social worker has to deal. Whether to try to force him out of the home and thus make an unwilling deserter; whether to violate the diagnosis given in confidence by passing it on to the wife for her protection—these are only two of the puzzles that may arise.

The relation of alcoholism to non-support and desertion is too well known to require discussion. The causative relation between alcohol and desertion is so direct that it probably ought not to be included under contributory causes at all. As it is an active poison to the cells of the nervous system, it may bring about deteriorations of mind and character that are directly to blame for such anti-social acts as desertion. The same is true in less degree of the use of narcotics; though drug habits are far less common in connection with desertion than alcoholism. What relation drugs and alcohol will hold to desertion after July 1, 1919, remains to be seen. Alcoholism in the woman is, however, a real contributory factor, and one frequently met with. The experience of social workers leads them to believe that alcohol is more devastating in its effects on character with women than with men, and that there is less hope of a cure. The great majority of so-called "justifiable deserters" are the husbands of alcoholic women.

Gambling in its effect on family income will be discussed in connection with non-support, to which it bears a much more direct relation than to desertion. In its degenerative effect upon character it may have, however, a real causal relation to the latter.

The habit of desertion itself is a degenerative one, not only upon the deserter but upon his home. The "intermittent husband" often weakens and demoralizes his wife in almost the same ratio as his own progress down-hill.


1. Interference of Relatives.—The tendency of relatives to take sides against their "in-laws" is a matter of everyone's observation. It is frequently found as a serious factor in desertion. Many case stories which will be used in the following chapters to illustrate other points show also the harmful interference of relatives in what might otherwise have been a fairly stable home. Relatives can be a factor in marital discord without actively interfering. One high-tempered young couple formed what amounted to a habit of frequent quarrels and temporary separations simply because the parents of both stood ready to take them back whenever they chose to live apart. Relatives within the home as well as outside it may exercise an unfortunate influence on marital relations. The desertion of a middle-aged man who married a widow was found to be directly caused by the antagonism which grew up between him and his grown step-children.

2. Racial Attitude toward Marriage.—The racial factor is important in desertion. Not only the individual's own background, but the attitude of the people whence he sprang toward the sanctity of marriage, toward the position of women, and toward the importance of restraint in sexual relations, will have an effect upon the desertion rate of a given racial group. A study was recently made of 480 deserters known to the New York Charity Organization Society in 1916-17 whose nationality was given. The results in percentage form are given for what they may be worth, compared with the same percentage in 2,987 families of known nationalities which were under care for all causes during the same year.


Per cent Per cent among 2,987 Race or place of birth among 480 families under deserters care for all causes - United States white 30.6 29.7 United States colored 11.2 5.6 Irish 9.7 14.7 Other British 5.0 4.7 German 6.2 6.2 Italian 20.2 28.0 Austrian 5.5 4.8 Russian 2.8 1.0 Polish 3.3 1.2 Other 5.5 4.1 100.0 100.0

3. Community Standards.—It cannot be too emphatically stated that any tendency in the community to belittle or ridicule the estate of matrimony has a definite cumulative effect on desertion. The "when a man's married" series in the comic supplements, certain comic films in the moving picture shows, the form of drama popularly called "bedroom farce" are examples of these destructive forces. Most of the people who laugh at them accept them as a humorous formula and are not seriously affected by them; but their educational effect on young people is bound to be bad and false to the last degree. In so far as they overemphasize romantic love and disparage conjugal love, the theater and the popular press do this generation great disservice.

Another way in which the community may affect the popular conception of marriage is in the administration of civil marriage. Lack of care in enforcing the laws and lack of gravity in performing the ceremonies may have a decided reaction on respect for those laws and for the institution itself. Similarly, the administration of divorce laws may affect the popular conception of marriage. One entire neighborhood condoned the situation in which a deserted wife immediately went to live with another man, on the ground that "if they had been rich, they could have got a divorce."

4. Lack of Proper Recreation.—This may seem a subject to be discussed under personal factors; but proper recreation, after all, depends in large measure upon what the community provides or makes available. The American tendency for the man to get his recreation apart from his family, in saloons and social clubs, is responsible for many family maladjustments. Any change in family habits of recreation which means that the man and wife enjoy fewer things together is a danger signal the seriousness of which is not always appreciated. Social workers are inclined to undervalue not only the influence of faulty recreation as a factor in family breakdown, but also the possibilities of good recreation as an aid in family reconstruction.

5. Influence of Companions.—As a factor in desertion this is closely connected with the two just discussed. Neighborhood standards, as they affect individuals, are apt to be transmitted through the small group that stands nearest, and a man's companions have the freest opportunity to influence him during their common periods of recreation. The influence of companions is not often met as a force deliberately exerted to bring about desertion; but, on the other hand, a man's own mental contrast between his condition and that of his unmarried companions often plays a definite part in his decision to desert, if he has begun to yearn for freedom. The influence of companions is particularly connected with the "wanderlust" type of desertion.

6. Expectation of Charitable Relief.—It used to be held that many men who would otherwise remain at home and support, might be encouraged to desert if they had reason to believe that their wives and families would be cared for in their absence. This was no doubt often the case before social workers had learned to discriminate in treatment between deserted wives and widows, or to press with vigor the search for deserting men. At present, it is the experience of social workers that few men deliberately reckon upon transferring the burden of their family's support to others, or are induced by these considerations to leave.[14]

* * * * *

In trying to determine the cause for any given desertion it is well to keep in mind from the beginning that there is probably more than one, and that the obvious causes that first appear are almost certain themselves to be the effects of more deeply underlying causes. A young vaudeville actor of Italian parentage married a Jewish girl, a cabaret singer, and took her home to live with his parents. Was his subsequent desertion to be ascribed to difference in nationality and religion, to interference of relatives, to irregular and unsettling occupation, or to a combination of all three? Would all marriages so handicapped turn out as badly? If not, what further factors entered to lower the threshold of resistance to disintegration in this particular case?

This last question is after all the most important one of the foregoing series. It is one which the social case worker must never be content to leave unanswered.


[6] All names of deserters given throughout the text are pseudonyms.

[7] For an excellent discussion of the process of rationalization see The Psychology of Insanity, Bernard Hart, Cambridge University Press, 1914.

[8] For a thoughtful discussion of this point see Eubank, E.E.: A Study of Family Desertion. Chicago Department of Public Welfare, 1916.

[9] Brandt, Lilian: Family Desertion. The Charity Organization Society of New York City, 1905.

[10] For a fuller discussion of forced marriages, see p. 92 sq.

[11] See also p. 98.

[12] See also p. 154.

[13] Two books may be suggested: Forel on The Sexual Question and Havelock Ellis on Sex in Relation to Society (Vol. VI of Studies in the Psychology of Sex).

[14] See p. 70 sq. for a discussion of collusive desertion.



Unconsciously and imperceptibly, the point of view about the treatment of desertion has been changing during the past fifteen years. The case worker's attention used to be focussed on the danger of increasing the desertion rate by a policy of too sympathetic care for deserters' families. Little study was made of individual causes, and in so far as there was a general policy of treatment it was to insist, wherever a desertion law existed, that the deserted wife go at once to court and institute proceedings against her husband. He was often not seen by the social worker until he appeared in court. The policy toward the family meantime was to reduce its size by commitment of the children until their mother could support herself unaided; or, if relief was given, to give smaller amounts than to a widow or the wife of a man in hospital. As soon as the man had been placed under court order or had returned home, old records generally show that the social worker's efforts were relaxed, and often the final entry is, "Case closed—family self-supporting."

There were excellent reasons underlying much of the practice. Few laws were at that time in existence or at all adequately enforced, and any man who desired was at liberty, so far as the community was concerned, to walk off and leave his family at any time. The multiplicity of sources of relief in the large communities and the absence of anything resembling investigation constituted almost an invitation to men to desert. It did not occur to the charitable public to draw any line between the widow and the deserted wife, or indeed to inquire which of these two a woman was, so long as she was a good mother and "seemed worthy." No wonder that the pioneering social agencies, busy forging tools out of the very ore, took a rigid stand on such a question of social policy as this. Although their deterrents failed to eradicate the evil of desertion or indeed to touch its sources, there is little doubt that they did lessen its volume by creating a wholesome respect for the power of the law in the mind of the would-be deserter and by fostering in his wife a disposition to stand up for her rights. The more lenient and more constructive policies now in force have been made possible in part by these changes of attitude. The very fact that the collusive desertion, once fairly common, is now seldom met with, illustrates the salutary effects of the earlier methods of treatment.

But the fact remains that no marked change has been seen in the desertion rate, that successive desertions have not been prevented in individual cases. Hardly any statistical figure in the work of family social agencies shows so little fluctuation from year to year and between different cities, as the percentage of deserted families. It generally forms from ten to fifteen per cent of the work of any such society.

Gradually, therefore, the repressive features of the earlier treatment have been abandoned, and there has come about a realization of the complexity of causes that bring about family breakdowns. In particular, the relation of sex maladjustments to failure in marriage have received the serious attention of the social worker. On the question of court intervention there has been almost a right-about face; the best social practitioners now say, unhesitatingly and unequivocally, that they take cases into court only as a matter of last resort, after case work methods have been tried and have failed. In no other case where court action is undertaken by one individual against another does the relation between them remain unchanged. One could not conceive of a business partnership failing to be annulled by one partner who brought suit against another; yet we expect the marriage relation to survive this. As a matter of fact, such is its vitality that it often does. But many times the result of court action is only to deaden once and for all the tiny spark from which marital happiness might have been rekindled. As long as it survives, both man and wife feel in their inmost hearts that, no matter what his offense, to "take him to court" is treason against the intangible bonds that still hold between them. No matter how far apart they have drifted, or how unforgivable has been the deserter's offense, something irrevocable does happen to the fabric of marriage, a few poor shreds of which may still exist between the two, when his wife appears in a court of law to make complaint against him. It is an instinctive realization that she is abandoning hope which underlies many a woman's reluctance to "take a stand against her husband." Many social workers (including some probation officers and court workers) now feel that such a stand should be urged only in the full conviction that the protection of the woman and children demands it, and that there is nothing else to be done.

This must not, however, be interpreted as a criticism of the laws concerning desertion or of the courts which administer them. If they were not there in the background, ready to be taken advantage of when all else fails, the social worker's hands would be tied, and the possibility of a rich and flexible treatment of desertion problems would be lost to her. It is precisely because they had no such recourse that the case workers of an earlier day had to adopt a policy which now seems rigid. It is because they were instrumental in securing better laws and specialized courts that the latter day social worker can push forward her own technique of dealing with homes that are disintegrating.

Another great change in emphasis has been upon the question of interviewing the man, and of being sure that his side, or what he thinks is his side, has been thoroughly understood. Social workers are under conviction of sin in the matter of dealing too exclusively with the woman of the family; in desertion cases it is more than desirable, it is vitally necessary to have dealings with the man. Many social workers feel that, at all events with a first desertion, they would rather take the risk of having the man vanish a second time after having been found, than have him arrested before an attempt to talk the matter out with him. More stringent measures, they believe, can be resorted to later—but the man must first be convinced that he will be listened to patiently and with the intent to deal fairly. The case worker knows that the power of the human mind to "rationalize" anti-social conduct is infinite; and that, besides the few "justifiable deserters," there are many who have succeeded in convincing themselves that their action is warrantable. A deserter who could allege nothing else against his wife, averred that he had placed under the bed two matches, crossed, and a week later found them in the same position, proving his contention that she was slovenly and did not keep the rooms clean.

The man who, aided by a sore conscience, has worked himself into such a state of mind as this must be permitted to talk himself out before he can be made to see the true state of affairs. In the minds of both man and woman there is likely to be found a superstructure of suspicion, jealousy, misinterpretation and distrust, built upon the basic fact of their incompatibility, which has to be pulled down before the true causes can be probed. To arrest a man in this state of mind is in his eyes simply to "take sides" against him. Eventually he may have to be arrested, but, in the case worker's experience, the chances of success are ten to one if the man can be induced to take some voluntary step toward reconciliation without the intervention of the law. In many instances a real interview with the man, while not exonerating him, would have thrown new light on the woman's statements.

A family social work society writes: A young woman with her mother and little boy were referred for aid by a medical social department because her husband had deserted and she was unable to work. The doctors feared that her breakdown would result in insanity, so they asked that her wishes be respected in not seeing the man's family. She recovered, but it was later found that her husband, while not doing all that he might for her, had been living at home a good deal of the time and did not know that his family was in receipt of aid.

Some years ago a charity organization society, which maintained a special bureau for treatment of desertion cases, was asked by a Mrs. Clara Williams to help her find her husband, John, who had left her some years previously and was living with another woman, so that she might force him to contribute to the support of herself and her two children. Mrs. Williams was a motherly appearing person who kept a clean, neat home, and seemed to take excellent care of her children. She was voluble concerning her husband's misdeeds and very bitter toward him, which seemed only natural. The fact of the other household was corroborated from other sources, and Mr. Williams' work references indicated that he had been quarrelsome and difficult for his employers to get along with, although a competent workman. The problem seemed to the desertion agent a perfectly clear and uncomplicated one and he proceeded to handle it according to the formula. Some very clever detective work followed, in the course of which the man was traced from one suburban city to another, and his present place of employment found in the city where his wife lived, although he lived just across the border of another state. The warrant was served upon the man as he stepped from the train on his way to work, and he appeared in the domestic relations court. He did not deny the desertion but made some attempt to bring counter charges against his wife. When questioned about his present mode of living he became silent and refused to testify further. He was placed under bond, which was furnished by the relatives of the woman with whom he was living, to pay his wife $6.00 a week. No probation was thought necessary and the case was closed, both the court and the charity organization society crediting themselves with a case successfully handled and terminated.

About a year later Mrs. Williams again applied, stating that her husband's bond had lapsed, his payment had ceased, and that she had no knowledge of his whereabouts. Although her home and children were still immaculate she failed to satisfy the social worker who this time visited her home with the plausible story which she had told before. The children's health was not good and they seemed unnaturally repressed and unhappy. Ugly reports that Mrs. Williams drank came to the society. The school teacher deplored the effect which the morbid nature of Mrs. Williams was having on her youngest child—a daughter just entering adolescence. The son, a boy a little older, was listless and unsatisfactory at his work, and defiant and secretive toward any attempt to get to know him better. He spent many nights away from home and was evidently not on good terms with his mother. As soon as Mrs. Williams saw that real information was desired she began indulging in fits of rage in which she displayed such an exaggerated ego as to cause some doubts as to her mentality. Baffled at every turn the case worker decided to interview the man, if possible, to see if through him any clue to the situation might be gained. The first step was to gain the confidence of a former fellow-workman and friend of his who now maintained his own small shop. This was done after several visits, the deserting husband consenting to an evening meeting in his friend's shop.

A most illuminating interview followed. Mr. Williams was found to be an intelligent though melancholy and self-centered man. The couple had married somewhat late in life, it being Mrs. Williams' second marriage. She had been strongly influenced by her mother to marry him and had never had any real affection for him. It became very evident from his story that the strongly developed egotism of both the husband and wife had made a real marriage impossible between them, and the visitor became convinced of the genuineness of Mr. Williams' protestations that he endured the constant abuse and ill-treatment of his wife as long as it had been possible to do so. As her drinking habits took more hold upon her and he had realized that the break was coming he had endeavored to place the children in homes, and had once had his wife taken into court. There her plausible story and good appearance resulted in the case being dismissed with a reprimand to the husband. He then left home, but continued to send her money at intervals, although as he got older he was able to earn less at his trade. Socialism was his religion, and it was his preaching of this doctrine in season and out to his fellow workmen which had earned him the ill-will of his employers. He defended his present mode of living, vigorously putting up a strong argument that it was a real marriage, whereas the other had only been a sham. He spoke in terms of affection of the woman who was giving him the only real home he had ever known, and only wished that the state of public opinion would permit his taking his young daughter into his home. The boy, he realized, had grown entirely away from him and they could never mean anything to each other. It was his habit to make frequent trips back to the region where his family lived in order that he might stand on the corner and watch his children go by. He gave readily much information about his own and his wife's past connections, including the addresses of many of her relatives whose existence she had denied, and he successfully proved that her claims as to his lapsed payments were false by producing the entire series of post office receipts covering his remittances to her and extending down to the very week of the interview.[15]

There have been striking changes not only in the treatment of the deserter but in that of his family. Writing in 1910, Miss Breed[16] deprecates the habit of fostering the deserter's "easy-going conviction that his family will get along somehow without him" by giving relief. She approves offering full support in an institution, but is reluctant to recommend any form of aid in the home, even from relatives. It is better, she feels, to give entire support to some of the children in foster homes, leaving the mother only those she can care for.

Much can be said for even so stringent a policy as this. An unstable home, with a worthless father an intermittent member of the household, is as bad an environment as children can have—its very fluctuations making for nervous instability and a wrong point of view later on. There is a possibility that other would-be deserters may be deterred by temporarily breaking up the home, and that an occasional absconding father may be brought back. But the fact remains that social workers have, in practice, departed far from this point of view. Out of more than twenty-five case workers of experience who were interviewed or written to in preparation for this book, only one believed there had not been a decided change toward a policy of more liberal relief.

One district secretary told of a woman who had more than once taken back a disreputable husband whom she always professed to dislike. Aid was given sparingly and intermittently during his absences; but finally the woman in a burst of frankness told the secretary that she had never felt confident the society would stand behind her. Each time the man came back with money in his hand, she cheated herself into believing that he meant "a new leaf." A budget was worked out with her, and a promise given of an adequate income as long as she kept her husband away. She has faithfully kept her side of the bargain for over three years.

The extension in many states of "state aid to mothers" to cover deserted wives is an indication of this changed view. In most states, however, some safeguards are set up; the wife must take out a warrant, and a given number of years must elapse during which the man shall not have been heard from, before state aid can be granted to the wife.

Finally, it is more clearly recognized than formerly that the time to "close the case" is not just after the man's return.

A case supervisor speaks of "the strong temptation to close our records as soon as relief becomes unnecessary. The man's return to the family is often the critical point at which there is need of skilful and sympathetic friendship. These cases cry out for continued treatment. We need to think more humanely about all the unsettling elements in our urban civilization and to see that all the nice individual adjustments that as case workers we can make are made. If the man's work gives him no opportunity for self-expression, what attempt are we making to give him such opportunities outside his work, to connect him with a trade union, with clubs and with fraternities? How much are we thinking about cures for inebriates, psychoanalysis, vocational guidance, recreation?"

Briefly, then, changes in the social worker's attitude toward treatment have meant less emphasis on punitive and repressive measures, more consideration of the man's point of view, less tendency to press court action, at least in the beginning, fewer commitments of children, a more liberal relief policy (partly as a preventive of "forced reconciliations"), and lastly, longer supervision after the man has resumed support of his family.


[15] Adapted from the writer's article on "Desertion and Non-Support in Family Case Work," The Annals of the Academy of Political and Social Science, May, 1918, p. 98.

[16] Breed, Mary: Eleventh New York State Conference, 1910, p. 76.



A few years ago a young Jewish woman reported to the National Desertion Bureau[17] that her husband had left her and their children.

The couple had never got on well, and the man seemed to have been a melancholy and impractical fellow. The usual methods of the Bureau brought no results in finding the missing husband. Then the wife was more carefully questioned, and urged to tell all that she could recall or had heard about her husband's early life, his tastes and peculiarities. Among other things the Bureau learned that the man's father had died in America years ago, having come here to make a home for the family left behind in Russia. The boy had grown up in ignorance of the place of his father's death and burial, and, as the eldest son, he felt it his duty to find his father's grave. Filled with this idea he came to America as soon as he was grown and landed in New York, but his few poor clues availed him little against the difficulties of poverty and a new and complex environment. In the end he gave up the search, married, and settled down on the east side. After the sudden quarrel which led to his leaving home, his wife thought it possible that his old obsession might have reawakened. The Bureau, supplied with the clues in question, had little difficulty in discovering the father's burial place in St. Louis; and the cemetery authorities promised to send word if the missing husband should appear. Sure enough, a short time afterward he arrived, and, after visiting the grave, returned, not unwillingly, and took up his family duties again under the supervision of a probation officer.

The flexibility of method and the readiness to see and utilize new resources which are displayed in the foregoing account are great assets to the one who must institute search for a missing husband and father.

The thing that sets desertion cases apart in a class of peculiar technical difficulty for the case worker is not simply that the man is away from his family. There is no man to deal with in a widow's family, but widows' families present comparatively simple problems. The deserter, though absent, is still not only a potential but also a real factor in the family situation. The plans of the family are often made with one eye to his return; he is the unseen but plainly felt obstacle to much that the social worker wants to accomplish. The children look forward to his reappearance with dread or with joy (for many deserters have a way with them, decidedly, and are welcome visitors to their children). In short, he is usually at the key point in the situation. No plan can safely be made that leaves him out, but—there's the rub!—you cannot include him at once for he is not to be reached, certainly not at the outset. The discovery of the deserter's whereabouts is not only the first but the most urgent of the problems that confront the worker who tries to deal with a deserted family. Unless he can be found the whole plan rests upon shifting sand.

A prompt and vigorous effort to find the absentee is therefore a first requisite in dealing with family desertion. Unfortunately, many case workers, having started bravely and exhausted the first crop of clues, become discouraged and fall back on the supposition that the man is permanently out of the scene, and that it only remains to make plans for the family. Numberless case histories attest the unwisdom of this assumption. It is not making an extreme statement to say that, as long as the family remains under active care or until the missing man is proved to be dead, the effort to find him should not be abandoned. Mr. Carstens, in discussing this point, says:

To carry on this search persistently is the great safeguard. It is rare when in the course of a few months the true state of affairs will not have been revealed, though it may have been quite hidden at the start.[18]

This is not to say that time must be spent unprofitably in going over the same ground, or that out-of-town agencies must be badgered to reinvestigate old clues. But the frame of mind that pigeonholes the whole matter as having been attended to must be shunned by the social worker, who should be always on the alert for new clues and prompt to follow them up. An example of a vigorous and persistent search for a deserter is taken from the files of the National Desertion Bureau.[19]

Adolph R. deserted his wife and their six little children on September 1, 1912. He was traced to Philadelphia, but had left there the day before the tidings reached New York. Information was obtained from fellow-employes which led to the belief that he had gone to Tampa, Florida. Inquiry was directed to the rabbi in that city, but again the information was disheartening, since it disclosed the fact that once more R. had "left the day before." The rabbi telegraphed that the deserter had evidently gone to Lakewood, Florida, and that he could be found in that place. Immediately the Bureau dispatched a telegram to its representative there, only to find that R. had merely passed through Lakewood en route to Bartow, Florida. When the inquiry reached Bartow it was learned that R. had left a few days before, and that he was on his way to Memphis, Tennessee. The Jewish Charities of Memphis made investigation at the cigar factories of that city, but reported that no person bearing the name of R. or resembling him had been seen in their city. No further clue to his whereabouts could be secured.

Months later R. applied to the Jewish Charities of Louisville for transportation to New York, making an entirely false statement about his family.

This statement was telegraphed to the Bureau and no time was lost in securing a warrant. Louisville was notified by wire to arrest, but again a telegram came: "Adolph R. left city. Learned from Cigarmakers' Union headquarters he went to Cincinnati. Wire Joe Rapp, 1316 Walnut Street, Cincinnati Union Headquarters. Man said he was going to Cincinnati or Indianapolis. Man joined union Richmond, Va., November 19, 1911, and reports to union in all cities." The Desertion Bureau immediately telegraphed to Cincinnati and Indianapolis. The United Jewish Charities of Cincinnati working together with the labor union lost little time in effecting his arrest.

Many theories about family desertion have suffered a change in recent years. One of these relates to the "collusive desertion." Social workers in training used formerly to be taught that the first place to look for the deserter was around the corner, where he could slip back into the house and partake of charitable bounty or, at the very least, keep close watch of his family and return if any serious danger threatened them. Although the collusive desertion seems to have been a frequent happening in the past, there is almost unanimous testimony from case workers at the present time that it is not common. "I don't come across an instance once a year," said one case worker.

Another, after searching her memory, recalled what seemed to her one instance of real collusion. A woman, pregnant and seeming to be in great destitution, applied to a family social work society in a small city for help. Careful search did not discover the man's whereabouts—he seemed to have disappeared without leaving a trace, and his wife professed ignorance. Some two weeks after this the visitor, calling late, met a man on the stairs who proved to be the missing husband. Times were hard and he was out of a job, so he had taken to the attic of their house, and had kept so strictly incommunicado that not only the society but the neighbors had been deceived.

Out of twenty or more case workers in different cities whose experience was sought on this point, nearly all felt that the warnings against possible collusion which used to be given to young workers no longer needed to be emphasized. Testimony in the other direction is, however, advanced by the National Desertion Bureau, which found that about 10 per cent of the applications made in 1910 to the United Hebrew Charities of New York for relief because of desertion were collusive.

It should be said, however, that one form of collusion is common to the experience of case workers—that of the wife who knows where her husband is, or has a very good idea, but does not want him to return and so keeps her knowledge to herself. "In two of our regular allowance families," writes the case supervisor of a family agency, "we discovered—one quite incidentally, one after the allowance had been discontinued for other reasons—that the wife had had reports regarding the man which we might have followed up had we known of them earlier. It could hardly be called collusion—it was mere indifference." A probation officer writes:

"At the present time we have under investigation a family where the man has been away from home for two years and his whereabouts during the last year have been known to his wife. He has been living in a suburb of the city and working steadily during that time. The woman has received adequate aid from public and private organizations. She has been content to accept that rather than notify the authorities and have her husband required to meet the responsibility. The man on his part was aware that his family was being supported, and while there was no agreement between the parties regarding it, nevertheless the arrangement apparently met with mutual approval."

To guard against this and similar omissions on the woman's part, more than one agency which deals with family desertion requires the deserted wife to sign an affidavit that she has given all the information she possesses.

Although in practice the possibility of a collusive desertion is not the first and most important thing to keep in mind, it is frequent enough not to be entirely forgotten. And for yet other reasons it is well to keep a watchful eye upon the neighborhood in which the family is living for reports about the man. Often obscure impulses seem to bring him back; jealousy of the wife or a desire to show himself in a spirit of bravado, or even sometimes a fugitive affection for the children he has abandoned may cause him to appear in the neighborhood. "The deserter, like the murderer, harks back to the scene of his misdeeds" was the generalization of one district secretary.

Even when he does not appear in the flesh the deserter may seek news of his family. "One deserter was found through the Attendance Department [of the public school system] to which he wrote after a three years' absence asking the address of one of the children of whom he was especially fond."

There is little in the literature of the subject covering methods of discovering deserters, nor do case workers generally appear to have developed a special technique. The decided reaction against detective methods which has been apparent in the profession during later years may help to explain this fact. Most social workers feel a subconscious sense of injustice in having to do this work at all, since it is properly a function of the police. Prosecutors and police officials generally take very little interest in following up deserters, and have little idea of giving any treatment to the deserter who has been found other than arraignment and conviction. It is difficult for the probation officer or the family case worker to hold up the machinery of the law, once it has been started, and to do this long enough to find out whether some other form of treatment best suits the case. For these reasons the social worker usually prefers to do or else is forced to do the work of the detective in desertion cases up to the point where arrest is in his judgment necessary.

A probation officer in D—— found that he could not work through the local police in searching for a certain deserter, because the missing man's political affiliations made them friendly to him. The probation officer knew in a general way that the man was likely to be in the city of S—— in the same state, so he secured a warrant and sent it with such slight clues as were at hand, to a probation officer of that city who was successful in the search. Avoiding the usual procedure, the warrant was served by the police in S——. "Several instances of this kind have occurred lately," writes the probation officer at D——.

The necessity of doing the detective's work raises at once the question of how far the social worker can afford to adopt the detective's methods. If reformation of the man is the end sought it would seem an axiom that he must be given from the first every reason to believe that the social worker will play fair. "We are very careful never to break a promise we have made to a man," says an agency which deals with many deserters. The same agency, as illustration of its own methods in seeking deserting men, instances the case of a man who was being shielded by his sister, but was discovered by an officer who scraped acquaintance with her little boy and asked innocently, "Where's your uncle Jack now?" In another case the officer learned of a man's whereabouts through his relatives by representing himself as a lawyer's clerk calling about a legacy which had been left the man. In still another case, reported by a different agency, a man who had deserted his family was known to be receiving mail through the general delivery of another city. It was ascertained that he was writing to a woman in his home town. A letter was sent to him in care of General Delivery asking him to meet the writer (who was represented to be the young woman with whom he was corresponding). The wife was sent to that city and she and the local probation officer met the man and served the warrant.

There is, of course, something to be said in favor of the use of such methods. The protection of the weak and helpless may justify, in certain circumstances, any subterfuge. But the detective who arrests the criminal in ways like these is seeking his punishment and nothing else. There is no thought in that case of establishing personal relations and effecting the long, slow process of reformation. When social workers use such methods it should be in the full realization that they are foregoing any future advantage of straight dealing with the man. To capture a man by a trick is to declare war on him; and, in his mind, the social worker and the policeman then stand in the same place, "I'd have him there to meet you," said a deserter's chum to a woman visitor, "if I wasn't sure, in spite of your straight talk, you'd have a bull waiting behind a tree."[20]

If it is a first desertion, or if there is room for doubt whether an accident may have befallen the man, police and hospital records should be looked up.

A woman with four children applied to a charity organization society, saying her husband had disappeared. There was a rumor that someone had seen him fall off the dock while intoxicated, but no attempt had been made to confirm this and the family was treated as a deserted family for some months, until the man's body was found in the river and identified.

If there have been previous desertions, it is extremely important to secure their history. The reasons that moved the man once are likely to do so again, and he is apt to return to his former haunts and be seen by former friends and acquaintances.

The deserting man, unless he elopes with another woman, generally goes to some cheap lodging house or, if of foreign birth, he may seek out the quarter where those of his nationality reside and become a lodger in a family in which his native tongue is spoken. Hence, a canvass of the lodging houses—armed with a photograph if possible—is a desirable first step. All of the social worker's casual acquaintance with the foreign quarters of his city comes into play in the search. If the man is in the city some "landsmann," some "paesano" has seen him, and knows where he is to be found. It may even narrow down to finding the particular house on the particular street where the immigrants from a particular village in Sicily or Galicia have their abode. The pool-rooms and saloons of the district can often be made to yield information, especially if a man visitor can canvass them. In dealing in this way with mere acquaintances of the man, it is usually not necessary for the social worker to tell who he himself is or to state the purpose of his inquiry. In talking with relatives or close friends, however, it is often best to lay all cards on the table and convince one's listener first of all that the man sought will have fair treatment and a chance to state his side of the case before any proceedings are begun against him.

Even a relative who has never been seen may sometimes be induced to act effectively.

A man who deserted his wife and family was reported to have gone to his brother in another city. Nothing definite was known of the brother except that he was a telephone lineman. No address could be secured through the company, but they agreed to forward a letter to this relative. He never answered; shortly, however, the deserter reappeared, having been persuaded to return voluntarily by the brother to whom the letter had been addressed.

During the war local draft boards were of the greatest assistance in finding deserting men. Election records too have been of real value in the case of men who were voters. Passports and immigration records may in some instances yield information helpful in establishing whereabouts. Where there is actually a warrant out for the man's arrest, the active co-operation of the postal authorities can sometimes be secured in furnishing return addresses on envelopes delivered to persons with whom the culprit is known to be in correspondence.

Problems of family desertion involving men in service during the war were in the main handled by the Red Cross Home Service. Before the war, private case working agencies had learned that the regular Army and the Navy often seemed desirable havens to would-be family deserters. The difficulties of finding them there were great, owing to the fact that they often enlisted as single men under an assumed name. It has usually been possible to gain excellent co-operation from the military authorities if there are any clues whatever.

The desertion bureau of a family social work society learned that a deserting man had expressed a desire long before he left his family to enlist in the Army. Several letters were exchanged with the War Department, and the man was finally found to be with a company serving in the Canal Zone. As he had made misrepresentations when he enlisted, the War Department was willing to transfer him from Panama to a camp within the limits of the city where the desertion had taken place and there discharge him. This brought the absconder within the jurisdiction of the local courts and made it possible to arrest him as soon as he was outside the bounds of the camp.

It will repay the visitor to make not only a careful study of the deserting man's employment history but also to learn something about the trade he follows. A cloakmaker, for instance, who deserts in New York City is likely to be found in Cleveland, for these are the two centers of the cloak branch of the garment trade. Certain seasonal occupations give the periodical deserter a great opportunity. Among these are hop picking, berry picking, and lumbering. The amusement parks near the large cities also furnish occupation for the seasonal deserter. The case worker cannot be expected to have such knowledge at his finger-tips, but he can go to people who know about the fluctuations of particular trades—to employers, union officials or fellow-workmen who may throw light on a deserter's movements. The story of Adolph R.[21] is an excellent illustration of the help that may be obtained from trades unions and from fellow-workmen. A family welfare bureau in a western city writes:

"In one instance a blacksmith's union published the picture of the deserting man in its official journal and asked that information regarding him be sent to the local unit here. This proved successful. In another instance a union gave us access to its books and helped us to trace all the men of a given name listed there. By this means we found the man we were looking for. One man, a vaudeville performer, we traced through the Bill Board (a trade paper) by discovering the movements of the show with which he had been connected."

Another society succeeded in getting a certain trade union to post a description and photograph of a missing man on its bulletin boards. This aided in finding the man. Fraternal orders may be; used in the same way, though for many reasons they cannot be so helpful as the trades unions.

Employment agencies should not be forgotten in seeking to trace a man through his industrial record. The extension of the federal employment service, with free inter-city communication, should be of assistance in getting upon the track of deserters.

The co-operation of newspapers can be secured to good effect in tracing missing men.

Herbert McCann, who had been doing railway construction in Russia, returned to this country and disappeared while en route from an eastern city to his home in Canada. There was reason to think that he might have left the train in an intoxicated condition at an important junction point; and the family social agency of that city was asked to trace him. No information was secured from the police, lodging houses, employment agencies, etc., and finally the following advertisement was inserted in the local paper: "Information Wanted—Anyone knowing the whereabouts of Herbert McCann, Montreal, who returned from Russia in June, will confer a favor upon his family by notifying Social Service Building, 34 Grand Street." Six days later a reply was received from a man in a nearby town, and McCann was found at work in a factory there.

More than upon any other method the National Desertion Bureau depends on the publication of pictures and short newspaper paragraphs. As this Bureau deals entirely with Jewish deserters, it works chiefly through the Yiddish newspapers. Its "Gallery of Missing Husbands" is a regular weekly feature in some of the better known of these journals, and attracts increasingly wide attention. The Bureau estimates that 70 per cent of the deserters which it finds are discovered through the publication of pictures. It should be remembered, however, that this Bureau is dealing with a selected group, who know a great deal about one another, live closely together, follow in the main only a few trades, and read only a limited number of foreign-language newspapers. Whether anything like the same results could be obtained by the same methods applied to deserting husbands of many different national and social backgrounds is open to question.

Since most deserters leave the city, if not the state, the social worker who is dealing with the family problem is often not the same person to whom is delegated the task of finding the man. This fact makes necessary the most careful and sympathetic co-operation between the social workers or agencies, which must work together at long range upon the problem. In the case of Herbert McCann, just cited, not less than four family social work societies were concerned—three in the United States and one in Canada. This necessitated keeping in the closest touch, by letter and telegram, so that each was informed of the doings of the others. Such a piece of work calls for a common body of experience and technique among the workers concerned, amounting almost to an unwritten understanding as to how the work should be done. Nothing makes more fascinating reading than the record of a quick, touch-and-go investigation, such as is presented in the finding of a deserter conducted by skilled case workers who are accustomed to work together. Much can, under these circumstances, be taken for granted or left to the discretion of the worker or agency whose help is being sought. There are instances, however, where no such common understanding exists, and where the home-town agency has to work through people with little social training or with training of a type which definitely unfits them properly to approach the deserting man. It is a distressing experience to know that a man has slipped through one's fingers, been frightened off or alienated, by poor work at the other end. Are there any ways to reduce the number of these mischances?

Even with the closest co-operation among case workers of ability in different cities the results are not always as favorable, for obvious reasons, as if the person who knows the family were the one to find and interview the man. More and more it is realized that money and time spent in going to nearby cities to do one's own investigating is well spent. There used to be a feeling on the part of the kindred society whose territory was thus invaded that this action argued lack of confidence in its work; but as the importance of the personal contact has been more widely recognized this feeling has disappeared. It may be said that a worker who goes to a strange city is handicapped by her lack of knowledge of local conditions. This is of course true, and it may easily be a question of how great an advantage will be gained by the journey. The worker from the man's home town can, however, go far toward overcoming the handicap of unfamiliarity with the place, as well as toward dispelling any sense of injury in the mind of a professional colleague, by calling first at the office of the local agency and talking the problem over thoroughly, consulting the map and getting what hints the local agency may be able to furnish. The first question to ask oneself, therefore, is "Will it not be worth while to go myself?"

If for geographical or other reasons this is impracticable, the next thing that should receive careful consideration is the type of letter to be written. If the situation is very emergent (as in the case of Adolph R. cited earlier), the request may have to be sent by telegraph; but even in a telegram it is possible to convey some detail. To try to save money by confining oneself to ten words is unwise. If time admits, a letter is more desirable, and the principle of its construction is as simple as the Golden Rule—give the other person all the information you would like to have if you were receiving the letter. Where the correspondent is not a trained social worker, very specific suggestions and directions should be given as to how you wish the man dealt with if found.

There might also be laid down a Golden Rule for recipients of requests from out-of-town that missing men be traced. "Give the request right-of-way over your regular work, and send back as prompt and as full a reply as you would wish yourself" might adequately cover the case. A reply which contains a history of actual steps taken as well as results gained, is more satisfactory than one which does not. Good case workers believe in reciprocity and treat their neighbor's problem as their own. "We heard that a man we were interested in was in the vicinity of a certain city, and in the effort to trace him wrote to the charity organization society in that place, but without success. Several months later the charity organization society saw an item in a newspaper to the effect that the man had been interned as an enemy alien, and notified us. (This shows no cleverness on our part, but good work by the other society.)"


[17] The National Desertion Bureau, 356 Second Avenue, New York, acts in a legal advisory capacity to Jewish organizations in matters of domestic relations; it also seeks out Jewish family deserters, with a view to assuring their rehabilitation or, failing this, their punishment.

[18] C.C. Carstens, Proceedings of the Fifth New York State Conference of Charities and Correction, 1904, p. 196.

[19] See p. 65, footnote.

[20] This paragraph was submitted to the two agencies which furnished the illustrations. Their replies are in part as follows:

Agency A.—"Your criticism ... is purely theoretical and has no basis in fact. The deserter is a knowing violator of the law, and while he does not welcome it, he regards his arrest as only a question of time. He is playing the game of 'hide and seek,' and he is applying every trick and subterfuge to avoid detection. He is not disturbed if he has been caught in a police trap. Our experience has been that in such cases where he has tried to outwit the police, and the police finally have 'beaten him to the game,' he compliments his captor. This is a common characteristic of the criminal, a sort of negative bravado, When the deserter is arrested, all he can hope for and expect is a fair deal."

What are some concrete suggestions, developed from the experience of case workers, as to how to proceed in searching for deserting men? A full and careful talk with the wife is the first requisite, supplemented by equally thorough interviews with any near relatives who can be reached. The case worker should be familiar with the Questionnaire on the Deserted Family in Mary E. Richmond's Social Diagnosis. A description and if possible a photograph of the man should be procured. Where several out-of-town clues are to be followed, copies of the photograph can be cheaply made, and at least one bureau for dealing with desertion cases makes this part of its routine procedure.

Agency B.—"I have seen very few individuals in the course of my experience who could not be brought to see the right viewpoint if they were intelligently approached, even though the probation officer had considerable to do with their arrest. It is in my opinion not altogether important what occurs before the man's arrest but how he is treated after he comes within the jurisdiction of the probation officials."

[21] See p. 69.



It is evident that the need of finding the man strongly influences the course of this type of investigation, especially in the early stages. Are there other considerations, however, that modify the technique of inquiry into these desertion cases?

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