The Plight of Black Dads
By Melissa Simpson
Filmmaker Rel Dowdell, whose latest film is the documentary Where’s Daddy?, decided he wanted to challenge the media’s prevailing narrative about Black fathers.
“I had grown tired of seeing how negatively Black fathers were portrayed in the media—us being deadbeats. You watch these shows like Maury Povich and other shows that show African-American males being in denial about being a parent, and how they are in these bitter battles with ex’s and girlfriends—the acrimony that is shown is detrimental to the black community,” says Dowdell. “It’s not about the parents, the bottom line is not whether me and you are not getting along; I still want us to be the best parents for that child.”
Dowdell, who spent much of his early life in Germantown, believes that this imagery is so prevalent that it causes the public to believe that Black men do not actually want to take part in the lives of their children and that this attitude can easily spill over into child-support cases.
“I think that it has a dramatic impact. I think that people are into social media, and media in general,” says Dowdell. “You are consumed with visual media and advertisements saying that African-American men are in these situations. That’s why we saw what happened with Walter Scott.”
For those unfamiliar with the case, Walter Scott was a 50-year-old Black man who was gunned down, while unarmed, by a police officer in 2015. Scott reportedly ran away from an officer during what would have been a routine traffic stop due to a broken brake light because there was a warrant out for his arrest attributed to the fact that he owed nearly $8,000 in back child support. According to court records, Scott had already been jailed three times due to unpaid child-support fees.
As Dowdell further examined the intersections of child support and the African-American fathers in Where’s Daddy?, he found that numerous other men are dealing with harsh penalties including high-payment rates, growing late fees and even jail time.
Thanks to the Child Support Recovery Act of 1992, non-custodial parents, like the late Scott, run the risk of facing jail time if they were to ever fall behind in payments.
It can be argued that taking a parent to child-support court is necessary, especially when the primary caregiver is not receiving support from the other parent. In non-nuclear households, the mother tends to be the custodial parent, which leaves them with more opportunity to request court-mandated child support from the father. While this can be quite helpful for the custodial parent and child, non-custodial parents run the risk of having to pay more than they can afford. Since fathers tend to be the non-custodial parent, the negative effects of child support disproportionately affect men.
According to a report done by the United States Census Bureau, in 2013, 83 percent of custodial parents were mothers. Additionally, mothers were nearly two times more likely to be awarded payments compared to custodial fathers.
“They don’t care if you are involved with the child, how you are going to take care of the child when they are with you, they don’t care about your living situation or how you are going to feed the child or your transportation—they just don’t care,” says Derrick G who was interviewed by Dowdell in the film.
“I remember I went into the Bottom Dollar and I had $13, and I had to feed them that night ,and I had to pack lunch for the next day—it was really rough.”
Child support cases also have the potential to work out unfairly for the non-custodial parent if there was acrimony in the separation. Although many custodial parents are right and just in making the choice to take their lack of financial support issues to court, the unfortunate narrative of a bitterly scorned woman taking the non-custodial father of her child to court just to be spiteful occasionally proves to be true.
Parella Long, a single mother of six who is also featured in Where’s Daddy?, was able to admit that when she initially filed for child support against her ex-husband that it was done out of enmity.
“We weren’t on good terms,” she says. “I was hurting, so I used child support to hurt him. It probably wasn’t the right thing to do, but I reacted off of emotion versus the actual need. I wouldn’t say that he was an unfit father or that he would not do, but he hurt me, so I figured that I would hurt him in his pockets. Eventually, I let go of the order because I filed for all of the wrong reasons.”
All of that rancor is far from what Dowdell experienced growing up, and he believes that coming from a nuclear family helped him to become the successful person that he is.
“Thankfully my parents were always around,” says Dowdell. “They have been together for 45 years. When you grow up in that kind of household, with stability and with a Black man, you take it for granted. But when you get older you see a lot of your friends who didn’t have fathers, and you see them get in a lot of trouble.”
Although Dowdell has never had to deal with Child Support court, he continues to pioneer and give a voice to a demographic that is often overlooked and villainized.
“Let’s show that Black men are loving fathers but have hindrances in doing so. Whether it be the system, lack of education, lack of knowledge about resources, financial strains. I want to show all of those different stories.”