It's the sort of story that had to happen sooner or later: A Detroit judge is sentencing delinquent dads to watch the "Maury" television show. If you're not a fan, that may strike you as a violation of the Constitution's provisions against cruel and unusual punishment. But this punishment does fit the crime.
Judge Wade McCree of the Wayne County Circuit Court doesn't sentence all of his dads who fall behind in their child support payments to watch the syndicated daytime talk show hosted by Maury Povich. Some are too far beyond redemption, he says, to benefit much from force-fed video therapy.
But he insists that some others have benefited from exposure to the show's famously raucous focus on paternity issues, especially Povich's special eleven-year-old franchise called "Who's Your Daddy?" Men who either deny paternity (or who want verification that they really are the daddy) are given DNA tests and the results are revealed on the air.
"Some of these men in my court watch the show and see how ridiculous some of the deadbeats look, and then they realize it's them," McCree told the Detroit Free Press.
Indeed, the audience make their thumbs-up-or-down judgment vocally apparent. An apparent scoundrel dad or hoochie mama can touch off a frenzy of head-shaking, finger-wagging boos, catcalls and screams as if someone released live mice in the studio.
During the few times that I have seen the program over the years, I have been drawn to the same conclusion about the moms and alleged dads that an American official once famously said about the Iran-Iraq war: The pity is that one of them has to win.
Alleged daddies who are exonerated by DNA results may jump up and down in celebration like winners of a Powerball lottery, while the tearful mom runs off behind the curtains, chased by cameras as she bawls her eyes out for the little mouth she must continue to feed alone.
A particularly sad feature is the repeaters, the determined mommies who return a dozen times or more with a new suspect in tow and insisting, "I know he's the father," the same as they insisted of the previous dozen. Someone needs to tell our young women, "Ladies, if he really loves you, he'll wear a condom."
But what keeps audiences coming back, I imagine, is the occasional heartwarming sight of a young father who, after his paternity is confirmed, humbly vows to do what the judge hopes all fathers will do, "man up and be responsible."
I wish the judge success. I don't want to join the angry mobs in stacking the deck against dads who have legitimate excuses for failing to make their child support payments. But kids need all the support they can get. Despite laudable success by some single moms, fatherless children overall are at a much greater risk of poor nutrition, poor school performance, drug and alcohol abuse, dropping out of school, criminal activity, incarceration and early death.
Judge McCree appeared on Povich's show Thursday, a day after the National Center for Health Statistics reported a disturbing surge in the nation's out-of-wedlock birth rate. More than 1.7 million babies were born to unmarried women in 2007, according to the report. That's a 26 percent rise from 2002 and more than double the number in 1980.
Unmarried women accounted for 39.7 percent of all US births in 2007 up from 34 percent in 2002 and more than double the percentage in 1980.
The rates increased for all races, but they remained highest and rose fastest for Hispanics and blacks. There were 106 births to every 1,000 unmarried Hispanic women in 2006, 72 per 1,000 blacks, 32 per 1,000 whites and 26 per 1,000 Asians, the report showed.
Various specialists have offered a variety of reasons for the surge. They include a general relaxing of the social stigma associated with unmarried motherhood, growing numbers of financially independent women, and an increase in couples delaying or forgoing marriage. Similar trends in Scandinavian countries, which have more generous government health care and child support programs than the States, have led to out-of-wedlock birth rates as high as 50 percent.
Since the U.S. is unlikely to join Scandinavia's generous state-sponsored child support approach, I was happy to hear that Povich is teaming up with an organization called The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. It may sound like a cynical public relations ploy, since the organization's success theoretically could deny Povich future guests. But the real problem is not the "Maury" show asking "Who's Your Daddy?" The real problem is that too many kids don't know the answer.