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June 2020

The Respondent

Introducing The Respondent

Introducing The Respondent 1170 658 Greg Ellis

Nothing tells the story of what  fathers are facing more starkly than suicide statistics. American men kill themselves almost four times more than women in regular circumstances. But fathers who have become ensnared in the divorce system kill themselves eight times more. Yes, you read that right. For every child who loses their mother to suicide during or after divorce, eight children lose a father.

re·spond·ent : a person who is called upon to issue a response to a communication made by a petitioner. The term is used in legal contexts and in psychological conditioning.

Masculinity in Modern Society

There is a lot of public commentary on the unrealistic demands placed on modern women, and the “social control” of the so-called patriarchy. Rarely do you hear the other side of the story. Increasingly, normal male behavior is being pathologized and men are considered defective if they talk about their feelings less than women. Those who do express their feelings must keep them within the socially-approved spectrum while those who are emotional in arenas like family court are castigated and pigeonholed.

The laudable original objective of improving upon traditional manhood has warped into an all-out assault on everything masculine. We are seeing a stripping away of empathy for modern boys who are asked to carry a burden every bit as heavy as young women. Views that all men are only capable of hegemonic masculinity and toxic masculinity have become mainstream.

Recalibrating Modern Manhood

We’ve entered an ice age in which empathy for our fellow man is slowly freezing to death as we watch on. On social media, we pander to faux friends and “cancel” people in crowdsourced witch hunts. “Social murder”, and social media shaming, rates are at an all-time high. Redemption is considered a quaint luxury most of us don’t deserve while lives and careers are routinely destroyed for decade-old tweets.

While the sanctity of marriage diminishes daily, we are told social binds like family are dusty ideas of an era best forgotten.

Is it #TimesUp for #MeToo?

A long overdue reckoning came with the #metoo movement. The ascendancy of women as they break through the last of centuries-old barriers to true equality is a beautiful thing to experience. Yet we must look at the other side of the coin which is the necessary and important recalibration of masculinity. When it comes to the dwindling importance of fatherhood, and a legal system that practically promotes family dissolution, something has gone completely haywire.

For so many of us, the relationship between men and women has become strained to the point of breaking. We need to ask ourselves where we are headed in the culture war. We need to ask ourselves whether we are picking the right heroes to speak for us.

I am skeptical of any ideology. #MeToo insists that half the population be quiet and “sit this one out.” To the contrary, I don’t think there has been a moment in my lifetime when it’s more important for both men and women to be participating passionately in the discussion. It’s critical each side is reminding each other that love and family are not a zero-sum game.

Most of us are vaguely familiar with stories of family breakdown as we have a friend or family member who endured a bad break-up. It’s a common trope in our dramatic and comedic entertainment and reliable fodder for TMZ and supermarket tabloids. When it comes to celebrity relationship implosions, if you’re like I was not so long ago, you might have thought where there’s smoke there’s fire. If we all just trust the legal system to do its thing, everything will bend toward justice, right?

But the truth is, at a time when modern fathers are bombarded by messages about the deeply corrosive effects of “toxic masculinity,” we are confronted with a institutions psychologically conditioned now to think masculinity is toxic. Mans kindness is extinct. Chivalry a bygone notion. The family law system is rife with outdated gender ideas every bit as sexist as those faced by women in other arenas, past and present.

Has the pendulum swung too far on feminism?

More Responsible Divorce

The members of the more than 800,000 families that break down each year in America are living through an overcorrection in divorce law. The no-fault divorce laws that swept through most of Western society in the 1970s and ‘80s made divorce much easier, fairer and safer for women. But in our zeal to make things better, we overshot. Many experts now say divorce systems throughout the Western world are gender biased from top to bottom in favor of mothers. This is what makes it possible for some parents to game the system in ways as egregious as the false allegations I am living through.

The American system doesn’t even answer to the Supreme Court and is needlessly adversarial, promoting uncivil war that the unwitting participants are powerless to stop. Family law justice is not blind, courts presiding over divorce and child custody are not neutral, abuses of power shielded by judicial immunity are not often checked, and no one is held accountable.

I also expose this state-sanctioned Armageddon for children.

Today, an estimated one in three American kids live without their biological father in the home. These children are at a greater risk of having more difficult lives according to just about every measurable metric. For example: they are more likely to misuse drugs, experience abuse, or go to prison, they are twice as likely to drop out of high school and live in poverty, and they are seven times more likely to become pregnant as a teen. The impacts on mental health are a concern.

The story isn’t much better for the parents of divorce, and the effect on fathers is the most dramatic. My family breakdown brought me to the brink, and I’m not alone. Today in family law, tools built as shields for women are too easily fashioned into bullets that are literally killing men. Nothing tells the story of what fathers are facing more starkly than suicide statistics. American men kill themselves almost four times more than women in regular circumstances. But fathers who have become ensnared in the divorce system kill themselves eight times more. Yes, you read that right. For every child who loses their mother to suicide during or after divorce, eight children lose a father. With this book, I present an honest account of the conditions driving such despair.

The Respondent will also offer an overview of solutions many are working tirelessly on, so that our sons and daughters won’t have to endure such a ruthless system.

The bedrock of a marriage, or any relationship, is trust. Trust—as precious as it is fragile, a basic biological necessity that can only be built slowly with consistency over time. We cannot act effectively without the comfort of being able to trust how others will respond. When trust breaks down in a relationship, our partner can suddenly and shockingly become our adversary, fear grips the nervous system and takes control of the mind. Petty disagreements grow into violent communication, the fight or flight mechanism kicks into gear, and reason buries its head in the sand.

When onto this backdrop arrives the tragedy of a family dissolution, a perfect storm can develop for men; a Catch-22 circling like a hurricane. Men who can’t express vulnerability suddenly find themselves in a court showdown at high noon, back to back with their ex-partner in a society in which victimhood has become a powerful currency, and within an unforgiving legal system where the one willing to communicate their victimhood quickest and loudest gains a massive and sustaining advantage. The soon-to-be ex-couple walk their paces, and the one to draw on their victimhood first becomes the almighty Petitioner (the legal term for the initiator of a formal legal action). For reasons I will explore, women are simply a faster draw and the man/father almost always winds up eating dust as the Respondent (the legal term of the one called upon to issue a response).

The cruel irony is that this system, the stated purpose of which is to resolve conflict, has become diseased and more often perpetuates the fight now. Pitting two desperate people against each other and kicking any sense of responsibility or mental health impacts down the road. When victimhood is rewarded, responsibility will never follow.

The Respondent is a cautionary tale, covering this and many other aspects of modern masculinity. It’s also a mystery that explores the conditions, both internal and external, that bring people to such a desperate place in such a dysfunctional institutional system. And it’s also a scathing critique of ideologies eating away at the foundations of modern manhood. My mission with this book is to provide some solace for forsaken fathers, forgotten husbands, and fallen men of the courts. And, also, to document the pride before the fall, and the shame and inescapable psychological terror of becoming The Respondent.

I want to help others in their disconsolate quest for enlightenment and redemption as they try to exorcise the unrelenting demons of grief that come with missed milestones, lost childhoods, stolen moments, broken promises, disillusioned unions, all the skeletal remains of bygone days.

I also aim to provide a practical psychological roadmap to those who haven’t yet visited dystopia, so that they might unravel their own mysteries, navigate the bumpy roads of modern relationships more successfully, and better respond to the challenges facing them and the love offered them. Snaking through this commentary is my own harrowing odyssey as I battle for my children in the dungeons of family court and head ever closer to an outcome still coming into focus, even as I write.

The Respondent is a pleading for all of us to take the necessary steps toward becoming more humane. It is a reminder that we are all children in need of protection, and maybe even rescue. The Respondent is my petition to the lost child in me and my own lost children.

One of the core themes of my upcoming project The Respondent is family, and more specifically how and why our familial tapestries seem to have become so torn. As a father with two young sons I became increasingly concerned about the effects the system is having on them.

Greg Ellis

We are all born with little monkey toes.

 

Walter Scott’s Murder Examined

Walter Scott’s Murder Examined 1686 1090 Greg Ellis

George Floyd and Walter Scott were both killed by police officers. George suffocated with a knee on his neck while Walter was peppered with bullets in the back.

After the death of George Floyd, more than a dozen police agencies in California are banning the use of carotid neck restraints. However, long after the killing of Walter Scott, law enforcement in America are still armed. Now the #blacklivesmatter movement has galvanized public support and there are fervent calls to #defundthepoilce.

In the United States, the use of deadly force by sworn law enforcement officers is only lawful when the officer ‘reasonably believes’ the subject poses a significant threat of serious bodily injury or death to themselves or others.

What most people aren’t aware of, or knowingly turn a blind eye to, is that in the case of Walter Scott, his killer had an accomplish. A powerful branch of the law that’s been targeting men, predominantly fathers, across America, and profiteering from their suffering. And black fathers, especially in the south, have become all too easy pickings for them.

Thus far, main stream media have been reluctant to report the identity of this institutional accomplice. Which is surprising, given that the financial web of this legal Ponzi scheme is operated in broad daylight and targets American families when they are at their most broken and vulnerable. Why don’t the press care? Perhaps it’s because reporting on the migrant families being separated at immigration check points at the border is more important to them. Or more profitable…

With just a modicum of research, I was able to discover the identity of this institutional accomplice, and found out that they have almost blanket immunity from any culpability for their brazen crimes against fathers, husbands, and men in general. Fatherhood, it would seem, has been under attack for quite sometime.

The system didn’t fail Walter Scott simply because he was black, it failed him because he was a father.

The sharp rise in single parent families — young boys and girls growing up without a father in the home, or even visiting — is a trend that should concern us all. Our younger generation of kids are being robbed of their basic human right – to have both parents present to raise them. One predominant legal branch of governance is responsible for this collective culling of fatherhood, and I believe that it assisted in the murder of Walter Scott. It may not have pulled the trigger, but it was the smoking gun that’s had fathers like Walter in the crosshairs for decades now. 

Dead Man Running

On April 4, 2015, in North Charleston, South Carolina, Walter Scott was shot and killed by a police officer by the name of Michael Slager who had pulled him over following a daytime traffic stop for a non-functioning brake light. 

Slager was charged with murder after a viral video surfaced that showed him shooting Scott from behind while Scott was fleeing. Slager doctored his police report and was convicted of murder. The media and public pronounced that the justice system had worked. Case closed.

Yet after digging a little deeper into Walter Scott’s ‘criminal’ history it’s clear that he was on life support long before his fateful encounter with Michael Slager. If you read the myriad of news articles from that time, the media circus focused almost entirely on race – Scott was black, Slager was white – and inexplicably failed to mention that long before he was pulled over by police, and before he fled on foot from the police officers, Walter Scott was already a dead man running.

Walter Scott

He’d been desperately trying to escape recapture yet this gnawing, merciless specter had been hot on his heels for years. Less lethal than a police officers bullet, but just as deadly, it’s been quietly crushing families, culling good fathers, crucifying ex-husbands and killing decent men of all ages, races and socio-economic backgrounds for over fifty years. (Ironically, one of the biggest groups at risk, aside from black fathers, are male police officers.)

Try as he might (and I sense he tried with all of it) Walter Scott could never outrun this legal foe. A state sanctioned super predator so illusive, so devious, so authoritatively cunning, it’s super powers so limitless, because it’s ceded into the very fabric of our legal system. This clear and present danger had been haunting Walter’s waking life for weeks on end until that fateful day back in April 2015. He was in the grip of an existential threat that terrified him. And he had good reason to be worried. 

The local police, the county, the federal government, the legal system, the state bar, were all in on it. They’d already had him arrested and sent him to prison three time before for his ‘crime.’ 

Officer Slager fired the fatal shots into Walter’s back but the silver bullets in the chamber were predestined to kill him. The gun had already been smoked. I contend that his murder was premeditated. And his crime? What was Walter Scott guilty of?

Walter Scott was guilty of being an American Dad. 

Pre-slain by the Wild West of family law – the colorblind nemesis of forsaken fathers, forgotten husbands and ‘deadbeat dads’ all across the United States.

Dead Broke Dad

Walter Scott owed more than $18,000 in child-support payments and had a bench warrant for his arrest when he was pulled over that fateful day. 

Court records show that in late 2008, he spent six months in jail over $6,800 in back child support. He also spent single nights in jail in both 2011 and 2012 for missed payments.

In an interview with TODAY, Scott’s parents said they believed the reason their son fled from Slager is because he feared being sent back to jail again over the missed payments. “I believe he didn’t want to go to jail again,” Walter Scott Sr. said. “He just ran away.” Some dad’s are deadbeat. Some are just dead broke. Walter Scott was the latter.

Walter Scott’s family

Skip Child Support. Go to Jail. Lose Job. Repeat.

So goes the headline of a 2015 New York Time’s article by Frances Robles and Shaila Dewam.

By his own telling, the first time Walter Scott went to jail for failure to pay child support, it sent his life into a tailspin. He lost what he called “the best job I ever had” when he spent that two weeks in jail. Some years he paid. More recently, he had not. When his debt reached nearly $8,000 and he missed a court date, a warrant was issued for his arrest. The amount more than doubled, to just over $18,000.

The warrant, the threat of another stay behind bars and the potential loss of yet another job caused him to run, his brother, Rodney Scott, said. Walter Scott was a broken man trapped in a broken system. 

What is also known is that Scott had previously sought help to catch up on his child support payments by entering the Father to Father project, a North Charleston-based program that seeks to help dads reconnect with their children and make up missed payments.

So why are fathers across America on the run?

It’s indisputable that there are many patriarchs that hide from the responsibility of raising their children. Yet far too many hard working, responsible fathers, trying desperately to make ends meet, pay check to pay check to provide financial support for their children post-relationship break down with the mother, are kafkatrapped in a modern day debtors prison. And for most of them, there’s no escape from the living nightmare. 

‘Black Child Support’

The modern child support system around the country is inherently flawed. However, the situation is even worse in South Carolina. It’s so bad that some attorneys in the state call it death by ‘black child support’ – a slow, psychologically excruciating death where the ‘deadbeat dad’ realizes chillingly fast that he will never outlast the inescapability of his mounting financial burden, the unrelenting trauma of the legal system and the living grief of knowing his days of fatherhood have run out and any ability, legal or otherwise, to be a meaningful presence in their child’s life, has been extinguished. (How many mothers owed child support do you think will take their children to visit dad in prison when he ended up there because he owed them money?)

Men like Walter sink deeper and deeper into debt. They experience a slow dread filled realization that life is, and soon will become even more, unbearable. Many lose the will to live. And when all hope is gone, life is extinguished.

“Survivors of Japanese POW camps in World War 2 who were brutally beaten, malnourished and clung to life, although greatly emaciated and at death’s door, reported that the biggest killer in the camps was not the disease or starvation, it was the loss of hope.” 

An MSNBC investigation revealed that it takes just five days of a non-custodial parent falling behind on a payment to result in a civil contempt hearing that could result in up to a year of jail time. Generally, there is no set number of days in which a debtor automatically faces a contempt hearing.

Unlike some states, South Carolina does not allow any modifications to the amount of child support owed if the parent is incarcerated. That results in many parents leaving jail and facing tens of thousands of dollars of debt that has accumulated while they were incarcerated.

Libba Patterson is a law professor at the University of South Carolina and a former director of the South Carolina Department of Social Services. She has been active in an effort to reform the way in which the state punishes those who owe child support.

Patterson explained to Huffington Post editor Christopher Mathias how dire the situation is in the state. Here’s some of the sobering statistics she laid out back in a 2015 article:

  • According to a 2009 survey of South Carolina county jails, one out of every eight inmates, or 13.2 percent of the inmate population, was in jail for contempt of civil court for falling behind on child support payments. The number was 15 percent in Charleston County, where Scott owed his support.
  • A 2010 study revealed that 98 percent of parents being held in contempt for non-payment of child support did not have legal counsel.
  • Ninety-five percent of parents held in contempt were sentenced to jail, with an average sentence of three months.
  • Seventy-five percent of the parents were currently or previously unemployed or having difficulty finding work.
  • Patterson previously penned a brief supporting Michael Turner, who in 2008 appealed a court’s decision to send him to jail for failing to pay child support. He argued his constitutional right to due process was violated since he did not have legal counsel during the civil contempt hearing. (South Carolina is one of just five states that refuse legal representation to indigent child support debtors.)
  • The case went all the way up to the Supreme Court, which in 2011 ruled in a 5-4 decision that the right to counsel applied only to criminal cases.

So to summarize, when someone accused of criminal action faces any sanctions from the state, they have the right to a state-appointed attorney if they can’t afford one themselves. But no such right exists for a parent accused of owing child support.

Criminals have more rights than fathers?

Fatherhood is Under Attack

All of this leads to, as Patterson put it, “a modern day debtors’ prison for poor noncustodial parents who lack the ability to pay support.”

Perhaps most frustrating about all of this is the fact that federal data shows absolutely no evidence that these punitive measures work at all. South Carolina is below the national average in every metric of how effectively it collects child support funds.

The system didn’t fail Walter Scott because he was black, it failed him because he was a man. This is why Walter Scott was running. And all for the state’s love of money. Putting profit over paternal love. Walter Scott lost his life and Miles Scott lost his hero. His dad.

Clutching a framed photo of his father, his voice shaky, Walter’s grief stricken son bravely delivered his victim impact statement at the sentencing hearing in the packed federal courtroom of US District Judge David Norton. “I miss my father everyday. I miss spending time with him. I miss watching football with him. I cry all the time. He loved me to death and he was always there for me.”

He loved me to death.

Let those five words sink in…

Miles sat next to his mother as he read the statement. Other members of the Scott family wept. Slager’s wife Jamie looked down as Miles talked about his father missing his football games and graduation. “Your honor, I miss my dad so much I can’t sleep at night,” the young man said.” As I get older my dad will never see me or his future grand kids. I never thought I would lose him at a young age and I still can’t believe he is gone.”

Looking scruffy and unshaven and wearing a gray-and-white-striped prison jumpsuit, former police officer Michael Slager sat still and stared straight ahead as the son of the 50-year-old unarmed man he killed, Walter Scott, choked back tears.

Scott’s family received a $6.5 million out-of-court settlement. The North Charleston police officer, Michael Slager was convicted in December 2017 of second-degree murder and sentenced to 20 years in prison. 

Michael Slager is currently inmate No. 0001514468 residing in cell 1140B at the Charleston County Detention Center.

Slager’s wife Jamie gave birth to their first child Isaac two weeks after her husband was arrested. 

Isaac is being raised without his father. 

Walter Scott is dead. 

And Miles Scott lost his father. His “one and only father”. 

I imagine how he will grow up haunted by the tragic loss of his dad. In writing this blog I do not seek to add to his unimaginable pain, yet a fuller picture of how brutally he was killed, who else was responsible, and the driving forces that led him to flee from police that tragic day need to be shared. Black father’s matter. As do the families left behind when the merciless family court system fails them.

The Slager and Scott families will be forever inextricably linked by the trauma bond of their respective nightmares, although incomparable, and the inconvenient truth that the biased family law system had already sentenced Walter to death will likely never ever be challenged in court.

The origin of the phrase ‘scot-free’ is ‘not subject to the payment of scot’.

Walter Scott did everything he could to make his reparations, his ‘black child support’ payments to the state, to support his children. And yet, like so many other dead broke dads before him, the cold blooded system finally caught up with him, showed no mercy and gunned him down in cold blood.

Eight silver bullets rapid fired from the chamber of Slater’s gun. Somehow Walter managed to stay on his feet as the first four bullets ripped into his back. When the fifth bullet struck, he stumbled to the ground lifeless. 

I wonder if the civil servants at the modern day debtors prison – known as the child support collection agency – feel any remorse over his death. Unlikely. Walter Scott was probably just a faceless money making opportunity for them. Nothing more. They cared not for the color of his skin – just the color of his money. 

Race? Race had little to do with it. The system didn’t fail Walter Scott simply because he was black, it failed him because he was a father.

How should men respond?

Last weekend I drove through Los Angeles the morning after the looting and rioting. I compiled a video of some of the peaceful protests, civil disobedience, news footage and milestone events of that two day period and called it the States of America.

Post protest/riot – Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles 5/30/2020, photo courtesy of Dani Brubaker

It was my artistic response to the awful scenes playing out across the US right now, where George Floyd’s tragic death has become so politicized that using the wrong hashtag on a tweet can cause the mob to virtue signal their disgust and criminal activity so normalized that not speaking up is considered a hate crime.

At the heart of this is fear, of our institutional systems no longer working. And trust. With the communal collective as well as with our private relationships. When trust breaks down in a relationship, our partner can suddenly and shockingly become our adversary. Fear grips the nervous system and takes control of the mind. Petty disagreements grow into violent communication, the fight or flight mechanism kicks into gear, and reason buries its head in the sand. 

When onto this backdrop arrives the tragedy of a family dissolution, a perfect storm can develop for men; a Catch-22 circling like a hurricane. Men who can’t express vulnerability suddenly find themselves in a court showdown at high noon, back to back with their ex-partner in a society in which victimhood has become a powerful currency, and within an unforgiving legal system where the one willing to communicate their victimhood quickest and loudest gains a massive and sustaining advantage. The soon-to-be ex-couple walk their paces, and the one to draw on their victimhood first becomes the almighty Petitioner (the legal term for the initiator of a formal legal action). Women are simply a faster draw and the man/father almost always winds up eating dust as the Respondent (the legal term of the one called upon to issue a response).

The cruel irony is that this system, the stated purpose of which is to resolve conflict, has become diseased and more often perpetuates the fight now, pitting two desperate people against each other and kicking any sense of responsibility down the road. When victimhood is rewarded, responsibility will never follow. 

One of the core themes of my upcoming project The Respondent is family, and, more specifically, how and why our familial tapestries seem to have become so torn. As a father with two young sons I became increasingly concerned about the effects of the annihilation of fatherhood. One of the complex joys of fatherhood is how best to prepare our sons for the challenges of manhood, yet in this information ‘Age of Unreason,’ with young men and boys of all socio-economic backgrounds being bombarded with multiple misandrist messages of ‘all men bad,’  ‘toxic masculinity,’ and ‘smash the patriarchy,’ todays younger generation of boys needs encouragement and advocation now more than ever.

The Respondent is a cautionary tale, covering this and many other aspects of modern masculinity. It’s also a mystery that explores the conditions, both internal and external, that bring people to such a desperate place in such a dysfunctional institutional system. And it’s also a scathing critique of ideologies eating away at the foundations of modern manhood.

My mission with this project is to provide some solace for forsaken fathers, forgotten husbands, and fallen men of the courts. And, also, to document, as best I can, the pride before the fall, and the shame and inescapable psychological terror of becoming The Respondent.

Walter Scott was The Respondent. We are all The Respondent.

The Respondent premiers on Thinkspot on Sunday June 21st.

Listen 🎧 Divorce and The Silver Bullet