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Bastards No More In Louisiana

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In the year 1967, I was a newly minted Louisiana lawyer, still wet behind the ears, but scrapping out a law practice in my newly adopted hometown of Ferriday.  One of my first cases was representing a young mother whose child was killed when a truck ran off the road and into the family driveway.  It seemed like a pretty cut and dried wrongful death case and I was waiting for the insurance lawyer to send me a settlement offer.  He called one morning and said quite bluntly: “We’re not paying nothing.  The kid was a bastard.”

Unfortunately, his conclusion was right, at least as far as the law goes.  Not just in Louisiana, but throughout the entire country.  If you were an illegitimate child, your parents had no constitutional recognition or protection for any type of legal recovery. 

Forty years ago this week, the US Supreme Court, in a landmark decision, repealed centuries of settled law by granting parental rights where children are born out of wedlock.  And it was a Louisiana case that brought about this significant change. 

Before this Louisiana decision with national repercussions, any child throughout the country born outside of marriage was fillius nullius, or the child of no one.  In fact, as reprehensible as it sounds, in early America it was a lesser crime to kill a person who had been born to an unmarried woman.  If you went into a courthouse to check on a child’s birth certificate before 1965, it was often stamped “bastard.”Â 

Shotgun weddings were often the norm, particularly in the white community. Many young girls were sent off to “homes for unwed mothers,” where quiet birth was given, and many new babies put up for adoption.  The climate of tolerance did improve as the 60s wore on with the advent of birth control and changing values post-Vietnam. 

But Louisiana led the fight to the bitter end, defending its laws of what legitimacy meant.  In the state’s brief before the US Supreme Court, Louisiana officials firmly stated: “Louisiana’s purposes… are positive ones: the encouragement of marriage as one of the most important institutions known to all, the preservation of the legitimate family as the preferred environment for socializing the child… Since marriage as an institution is fundamental to our existence as a free nation, it is the duty of…Louisiana to encourage it.  One method of encouraging marriage is granting greater rights to legitimate offspring.” 

Forty years ago this week, Louisiana began the changing process.  In the years that followed, the US Supreme Court reinforced this direction, requiring nonmarital families access to public benefits and giving all children a right to financial support from their parents.  A few years later, all fathers, not just married ones, were given a constitutional right to a relationship with their children.  This seems pretty obvious today, but it was part of a major changing pattern across the country that all began right here in the Bayou State. 

The problem today is not giving legitimacy rights to children of unwed parents.  That is a settled issue.  Now, these same kids are often abandoned by their fathers.  Absent fathers are pervasive in Louisiana and throughout American culture. Father absence is pathological and severely affects the abandoned child’s capacity for self-esteem and intimacy. 

So the child gains legitimacy from one source, but loses it in another by the dad that went away.  And no judge can compel parental responsibility.  A child born out of wedlock and being raised in one or even no parent homes is a growing fact of life in Louisiana. And the social consequences burden not just the child, but the whole community.   

Too often, the blame for the failures of so many kids is directed at teachers, the schools and government.  But it all begins and ends at home. And no Supreme Court is going to find a solution for this enormous problem that is at the root cause of so many failures in our society today. 

How proactive should governors and presidents be in proposing new programs that require government intervention?  How far do you go in telling parents what their responsibilities are, and creating consequences for those that do not follow the rules set by government? 

A Maryland school district has ordered parents of more than 2,300 students to court next week for failure to immunize their children. The parents could face fines and jail time if they do not appear.  Is this just governmental intervention? 

Several jurisdictions are considering fining and even jailing parents whose children continue to skip school.  How about the juvenile who commits a crime at two o’clock in the morning?  Is the parent responsible for seeing that this young person meets curfew requirements?  Do you terminate a juvenile delinquent who continues to disrupt classes a regular basis?  What happens when you kick this kid out of school?  Is he back on the street heading towards much more serious crime? 

You can make a solid argument that education in general, and dealing with an underclass of kids who have little parental involvement in their lives, should be the single major focus of more backward states like Louisiana that have so far to go just to catch up.  Whatever the accolades that are presently being directed towards the new governor and the legislature, their success or failure will ultimately be determined by what hard choices they make in addressing these complicated and difficult issues involving parental responsibility.  Yes, any way you cut it, it all begins at home. 


 “There are no illegitimate children – only illegitimate parents.” 
~Leon R. Yankwich 

4 Responses
  1. Chuck

    Reminds me of one of my first professors at Loyola Law School in the 60’s. On the first day of class he was explaining “bastards” in La. law. He mentioned several types,e.g. miscegenous, incestous, etc. He then said that by the end of the course that we would refer to him as a ” revolving bastard”, a bastard any way you look at him!!!
    He was correct.

  2. Don W.

    Right on Jim!
    I have stated this to my friends so often, that the
    social problems we face today
    begins in the home. We have too many females raising children alone, and too many
    children trying to raise children. If we solve this,
    educational, and crime problems will greatly decline in Louisiana, and in America.

  3. DeWayne Guice

    here is a question in regards to raising children or should I say comment. I had a daughter who went out with friends and got into a minor scrape with the law. At the time she was 17 yrs old and I thought under the protection of a parent and a minor. when I went to pick her up at the police stations I told her to get in the car to go home. When she refused I told her she had no choice, but the officer told me that since she was 17 she did not have to.. that she can make her own choice. when I asked if she got in trouble who was the responcible party he told me I was because I was the parent. Is this true and if so is it fair? I thought she was a minor till she was 18.

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