It’s not unusual for Jamarhl Crawford to make a lot of noise about police brutality. And about law enforcement officer misconduct in general. But the Roxbury activist (and occasional contributor to DigBoston) also wears some other hats, and in addition to being an MC, poet, and lecturer, Crawford advocates for dads. As in fathers, especially those caught in the crosshairs of the probate and child support system, as he was many years ago.
“The court is supposed to be the place where you seek justice and where truth and facts are determined,” says Crawford, speaking on behalf of the group For Fathers, which organized a march for Tuesday, June 19 at 2:30pm. “The actions of [Suffolk Probate and Family Court] have had a devastating impact on and traumatized the lives of both children and fathers. Children have been placed in potentially dangerous, abusive, and neglectful environments. Fathers who are separated from their children can experience depression and additionally may endure jail or financial ruin during the process.”
We asked Crawford about this lane of his activist work …
You have been involved in a number of causes through the years. How would you say fathers’ rights compares to other issues as far as how hard it is to find sympathetic ears?
It is probably harder. The concocted image of the deadbeat dad is a tough narrative to beat. People view this as an assault on mothers or women. On the contrary, this is a fight for the children and what is best for their wellbeing and future. We are not revisionists or caught in some anti-feminist fantasy, where all men are without blame. There are men who shirk their duties, are abusive and all the rest. What we are saying is that the court must take everything on a case by case basis. All men are not deadbeat dads and all women are not truth-telling saints.
While some may be aware through experiences themselves or the experiences of someone they know, the general public is largely unaware of the injustices prevalent in the probate court and child support system. In today’s political climate it is very difficult to avoid the appearance of attacking women, and states like Massachusetts have a reputation as being pro-woman as opposed to pro-justice. This is the problem. The general public and legislators need to understand this is not a battle of the sexes tennis match. While spectators watch, our children are being swatted from one side of the court to the other. There should be no special favors for men or women. If the purpose is purely the wellbeing of the children, then there must be a unbiased process that is followed. There is no more appropriate place for restorative justice than family court, and the court needs to shift focus from enforcement and punishment to what is best for the child in consideration of all factors.
You personally dealt with courts over custody and visitation rights for many years. Is it easier to do work as an activist on this front now that your own drama is behind you?
No. I don’t feel like this is or will ever be, behind me or my daughter. My daughter and I were both robbed of time that we cannot get back. She was denied opportunities growing up that now impact both her and I. This is in fact the most difficult issue I have ever faced personally or in my organizational life. From my very first interaction with the court, when I just knew I had rights and would be granted some sort of access to my daughter … after all I had done everything right, I was there present and providing and the mother left with no explanation or warning. In fact, if I had done the exact same thing it would be called kidnapping. Same circumstances and actions; only difference is gender.
I cannot accurately describe the trauma that that first court interaction set off and continues to this day. I find it very difficult to even read paperwork from this court or anything related to probate and child support. In organizing around this issue I have to fight back severe depression and I find that simple tasks like basic research that would normally take an hour or so turns into days and even weeks. Dealing with this issue is like escaping a tar pit and then realizing you have to go back in and there is no way to counter the muck or the stench. Organizing while dealing with pain, trauma, and depression around the focal point is hands down the most difficult issue I have had to address publicly or deal with personally.
Fathers are completely powerless, and a case can have a devastating impact based on a judge’s whim or mood of the day. Judges often show disdain and contempt for fathers in open court handing out chastisements with court rulings. This court has the ultimate power. A father has absolutely no power in this scenario and too often it is at the detriment of the child. The court should understand they are not just punishing the father.
What are some examples of the way that judges abuse their power in probate court?
Family court is probably the only place where someone can make a completely unverified, unsubstantiated claim and the judge operates as if it is a fact. Allegations of abuse or criminal activity are often made and without investigation the father is now judged without proof and treated as such. In my own case, the judge blocked my child’s address from me for 10 years based on a vague unfounded allegation. My daughter was 15 at the time. When alerted to the error, the judge responded angrily and kept that order intact until this day. This damage cannot be undone and no one is held accountable even in hindsight when proven wrong.
With so much outrage over ICE separating kids from their parents, where do you think the disconnect is on the home front that results in less general concern about the breaking up if families right here in America?
I have been watching this unfold in the media and thinking about why so often here in America we view tragedies differently depending on proximity and media trends. If a story about hunger comes out, then everyone is all of a sudden concerned about hunger, but yet they walk by hundreds of hungry people per week on their way to work or school. After the suicide of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade, everyone is concerned about suicide, but that does not translate to actual concern for their own loved ones, family members, friends, and neighbors.
What can be done about any of this? What are the goals of this protest? Of this movement?
We seek to change legislation as it relates to probate laws and fathers’ rights, particularly addressing children born out of wedlock. We hope to bring to light the gender disparities that exist for all men and disproportionately affect low-income and Black and Latino men. There has to be some remedy for fathers to address erroneous court orders and payment issues like garnishments, arrears, liens and levies. Studies have shown and scholars agree that the financial and legal process is antiquated and needs a modern lens taking into account new factors such as poverty, employment, cost of living, etc.
If the legislature and the general public were aware of horror stories and injustices prevalent in the system, and the damage done to children and fathers, I don’t think anyone in good conscience can say that this is the best that can be done and we are satisfied with the outcomes. The entire system needs to be studied and revamped to benefit families equally and impartially.