Almost every day that Commissioner David Cowan takes the bench in Department E in the Santa Monica Courthouse he is faced with paternity cases that are the result of two people getting together and making a child. Those cases, and the thousands like them around the county, are kept mostly confidential. The names of the parties are generally not identified, the files are not accessible by the general public and, if a party asks, the bailiff will clear the courtroom so the proceedings are kept private.
This is a public policy decision that is a throwback to the days when children born out of wedlock were considered illegitimate. There was great shame to be attached to all the parties and hence the thinking was that in order to protect the child we had to keep the files private.
Times have changed and today more than 50 percent of the children born to women under 30 are born out of wedlock. In times past they would have been shunned and seen as a threat to the very moral fiber of our society, but now they are the subject of television shows like MTV’s “Teen Mom,” and having a child out of wedlock is seen as normal by more and more people.
Is this good or bad? I’m not sure. I know the studies show that marriage is good for children in that children desperately need both parents to be active and engaged in their lives. I see this on a daily basis in my family law practice where we handle paternity cases for primarily the fathers who are being shut out of their children’s lives.
Children can adapt to having two households relatively quickly and easily, once the family unit has reached a place of stability. Numerous studies show that it is not the divorce or breakup that causes the permanent damage to children, it is the constant and pervasive fighting that causes damage and leaves the lifelong scars.
I know from my own experience that my parents’ divorce is not what emotionally harmed me, it was the years of emotional and physical abuse that I witnessed them do to each other that caused the pain.
Children need a loving environment more than they need the Ozzie and Harriet fantasy land of television idealism that never really existed anywhere anyway. That loving environment can be in one or two households, with one, two, three or four adults teaching and loving them, in any combination of genders or gender identification.
Which is why I have grave concerns about how our society is using public information and the ease with which it is published. There are websites now that use the public information of arrests as the basis for their existence. On the one hand it is making life easier for those who do background checks, on the other this ability also has the potential to do great damage.
For example the latest trend in law enforcement efforts to reduce prostitution is the public shaming of men who are arrested for hiring prostitutes. Across the country municipalities have begun publicizing the names of those arrested for trying to hire hookers. Not the convicted, but the arrested.
Well, considering the ease with which someone, anyone, can be arrested on almost any charge, I find this a dangerous path to go down, as the public shaming on an adult can quickly be used to shame their children.
If we want to continue to protect children from the sins of their parents we should consider deeply how much information we allow to be publicly disseminated and what protections we need to put in place.
I recognize the reason for the public shaming is to, at least theoretically, reduce the incidence of prostitution, but I’m not sure that shame is the way to go. In a society that is as conflicted about sex and sexuality as ours, we probably need to do a complete overhaul of our views and actions.
It seems hypocritical to want to protect the children from public scorn and shame, while at the same time using scorn and shame to modify behavior on a societal level. This sounds to me like a lot of “do as I say, not as I do” behavior and we know how well that works.
David Pisarra is a Los Angeles divorce and child custody lawyer specializing in father’s and men’s rights with the Santa Monica firm of Pisarra & Grist. He welcomes your questions and comments. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (310) 664-9969. You can follow him on Twitter @davidpisarra