The Respondent

Family Matters

Family Matters 1920 1080 Greg Ellis

The last two months have been a whirlwind of activity as I’ve worked around the clock to launch The Respondent video series and finish the related book due out soon. Of course, all of this intense focus comes amidst global confusion and fear around COVID-19, and an explosion of social strife on the streets of America. Given the 24/7 media scrutiny these expansive challenges demand of me and all of us, it’s a little surprising that a conversation between Mikhaila Peterson and her father, Jordan Peterson, has cut through the clutter to lodge itself into my psyche.

In the video, Mikhaila and Jordan recount the profound medical issues Jordan has endured in the last year since he left the public spotlight. The details of this harrowing journey I’ll leave for anyone who wants to watch the video. But what struck me was the raw emotion between father and daughter as they walk through the extraordinary efforts of Mikhaila and others to be a bridge over his very troubled waters. Nakedly on display in just a few minutes of video are all the unspoken bonds of family.

The level of commitment, faith and love brought to the task of ushering Dr. Peterson through his difficulties is understood not just in the words father and daughter say, but in how they say them.

These tender moments of their struggles laid bare made my heart burst for them, but also opened up my living grief about the loss of my own family that is at the core of my book. And it bolstered my conviction that The Respondent multimedia conversation will be an aid to others who have lost their foundational family nest to entirely avoidable circumstances and a cold-hearted and broken family law system.

Marriage on Life Support

I am dismayed at the tenor of much of the discussion about the nuclear family. Marriage is on life support and many seem downright ecstatic about it. Even while a backbone narrative of this pandemic we’re living through involves families hunkered down in quarantine, the statistics reveal a rapid decay of marriage as a foundational institution. As I write this, The Wall Street Journal reports that the US marriage rate has plunged to 6.5 new unions per 1,000 people, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, the lowest level since the government started keeping score since 1867. Of course, a plunging quantity of marriages says nothing of quality, and one might argue that fewer good marriages is better than a greater number of bad ones. But the trend speaks to the dwindling belief we hold collectively that marriage is a social institution that leads to a better outcome for children.

Canceling the Nuclear Family

Celebrated New York Times writer David Brooks recently wrote an essay in The Atlantic theorizing that the nuclear family is obsolete. He points out that the image of the halcyon days of 1950 dinner-table families we mythologize is actually a fantasy that in reality was nothing more than an anomalous blip, and that it needs to be retired in favor of something grander and more inclusive to a greater number of people. But he discusses in the same essay how the forces that have steadily dismantled the larger extended families of the first half of the 20th century (multiple generations living under one roof, and brothers and sisters living close by with their own families) have moved on to chipping away at the nuclear family unit, breaking it down even further to single parent homes.

“We’re likely living through the most rapid change in family structure in human history. The causes are economic, cultural, and institutional all at once,” Brooks writes. And later he concludes: “It’s time to find ways to bring back the big tables,” referring to construction of a new sort of big family not restricted to biology, and reminiscent of the utopian dream peddled in books like Hillary Clinton’s seminal 1996 book, It Takes a Village.

Brooks’ thinking might be summarized as “blood might make you related, but loyalty makes you family.” Yet I believe replacing blood families with something else will be a trickier project than Brooks and Clinton imagine. But whatever shape larger extended “families” of the future take, I don’t believe we will get there without a healthier nuclear family seeded at the center. If there is one thing Brooks and I agree on, it’s that the current skeletal, single-parent collective community grouping America is moving toward will not bring us to the promised village. After all, when a child loses a parent, they lose a whole village of people who love them: aunts, uncles, cousins, grandmas and grandpas.

While Brooks doesn’t couch his ideas in feminism, antipathy toward the family unit is elemental to Third Wave feminists. At the root of much modern feminist thinking, clearly stated in black and white in their foundational literature, is the idea that the “traditional” family is an outdated, sexist vessel that perpetuates the parochial, patriarchal oppression of women that must be dismantled. Brooks’ essay is just more evidence of how pervasive the concept has become within the mainstream.

The Fatherless Epidemic

I concede that the nuclear family was long overdue for serious reform by the middle of last century. But the crack in extreme feminist views on family is the same that runs through any dogma that reduces human relations to a battle between two opposing groups fighting for the upper hand. I would argue it’s exactly this kind of one-dimensional thinking that’s driven us to create legally-binding power differentials in family law; to build a divorce industry with this binary thinking at its core.

My book makes the argument that as society has, rightly, opened up the institution of family to be more inclusive, the traditional role of a family patriarch has been severely denigrated. For 30 years, the virtuous and binding thread that fathers have served as in a healthy Western society has increasingly been pulled out of the modern tapestry.

The numbers tell the story. As the appreciation of fathers has dwindled over the last 30 years, fatherlessness has indisputably grown to epidemic proportions that few are willing to admit.

In 1960, eight percent of children lived in a home with only their biological mother and today more than 23 percent do, according to Child Trends, a leading research organization focused on improving the lives of young people. According to dozens of official sources, including the CDC, these children are at a greater risk of having more difficult lives according to just about every measurable metric. 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. They are seven times more likely to become pregnant as a teen. Children who grew up with fathers in the home have stronger cognitive skills, better health, more confidence, and—counter to the story we’re fed—more empathy.

In these times of international pandemics and domestic crises, I often hear the refrain: Let’s not have a cure that is worse than the disease. That is compounded in the age of Trump, where I frequently hear and read this: We get the leaders we deserve. I would argue that in our effort to try and modernize divorce we have created a cure far more destructive than the disease. And I believe if we are now going to advance the cure to something that is actually remedial, we are going to need new voices with new ideas.

We need to deeply question how we built a divorce system that so callously breaks down our core relationships and principles and blocks the pathways to redemption and apology. As a society, we need to ask ourselves some difficult questions about the ever-diminishing valuation we are placing on fatherhood and family, and why—in the name of progress—we have built a family law system that so readily obliterates families that might only have needed repair or quiet dissolution. Families sometimes break down, but they need never explode. A child should never lose a parent to entirely avoidable circumstances. A father should never lose the love of a child. None of should lose that core inter-generational glue that binds us to our place in the world, to a shared understanding of where we came from and a support system to help carry us to our futures. Yes, there may be a replacement for a nuclear family populated with members imbued with a collective commitment to survival that is beyond question. But I don’t know what it is.

Jordan Peterson | Carlos Osorio/Getty Images

In his article last year Jordan Peterson & Fascist Mysticism’ Mishra attacked the famed Canadian clinical psychologist and author of the number 1 best selling book ’12 Rules Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos,’ calling Dr. Peterson “the latest in a long line of eggheads.” Peterson’s been busy saving lives.  Mishra’s too busy hurling insults to notice.

Jordan Peterson has worked tirelessly for decades illuminating these ideas of responsibility. After watching him with tears in his eyes (and mine) thanking his daughter for not giving up on him, thanking her for the uncommon manifestation of her unshakeable commitment, I am grateful on this Fourth of July that she so selflessly practiced what he has long preached. Family Matters.

This Sunday I hope you’ll join me for episode 3 of The Respondent featuring Bettina Arndt.

Greg Ellis

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