For many, the Adrian Peterson child abuse case spanning Texas to Minnesota has been tough to grasp as, up until several weeks ago, he was viewed by most people who knew anything about him as a good man, not just a great football player for the Minnesota Vikings. Compounding matters is that the charges against him have exposed a parallel universe of baby making and child rearing that most Americans don’t get to see every day. But when they do, most find it hard to fathom.
It’s not irrelevant to matters at hand that Peterson has fathered at least four children with perhaps four different women, including one who’s now his wife. At least one (unconfirmed) report saying he has sired as many as seven children with an unspecified number of women. And it’s decidedly not irrelevant that one of his children—a two-year-old son who he had known nothing about—was murdered last year by a boyfriend of the child’s mother.
To coin a cliché, how could Peterson even begin to be there more than every once in a while for so many geographically dispersed children, no matter how much money he is capable of sending their mothers every month or so? This is but one of many pivotal questions when it comes to scattered seeds, and not just those of a running back in this instance.
Ron Mincy is a professor of social work at Columbia University who has spent decades researching and writing about families in distress. I first met and worked with him in the 1990s in regards to the then-nascent fatherhood movement. More recently, he was one of 40 men and women from across the country I interviewed for a new book. Here’s what he says about “multiple partner fertility.” I had just asked him how he would rate family fragmentation as a national problem.
“Oh, I think it’s huge,” Mincy said. “It has dimensions that policymakers and others are just getting their minds wrapped around, especially when it comes to what I call ‘multiple partner fertility.’ We’ve historically focused on what might be considered ‘first families.’ But we’re increasingly focusing on subsequent childbearing with subsequent partners. These behaviors are creating family complexities which we haven’t figured out yet.”
For an example of such complexities, Mincy cited child support payments, an area in which he has done a lot of work.
“How should we think about establishing child support payments? It gets really, really complex when you recognize that the non-resident father of a child actually has another family, and another family, and another family. How should he be made to divide up a portion of his income across his multiple children?”
Even if Peterson never plays another game in the NFL, he presumably won’t have problems making decent child support payments until his kids grow up and are off on their own. But this is far from true for other men with multiple children with multiple women who may not have any income to pass around.
“Then there are all the children,” Mincy went on, “growing up with half-siblings. What’s the nature of those relationships? How are parents dividing up their parenting resources across all the children in the same household, and not just when it comes to money?”
Mincy added something about child support payments I had never heard before.
“When my son graduated college,” he said, “I was astounded by the number of other young men who were graduating with child support orders.” Mincy acknowledged the tiny sample size, but he had been taken aback—longtime and distinguished scholar though he may be—by how much of the graduates’ new earning power already had been spoken for. Concerns are exploding about college students taking on debilitating debt to pay for their educations, diplomas from which may or may not lead to good-paying jobs. But unquestionably, many child support responsibilities are bigger and lengthier financial obligations than those posed by college loan burdens.
Decades of research has consistently demonstrated that the safest environment for children is to live under the same roof with their two biological parents. In contrast, children who live in situations in which men move in and out of mothers’ beds are dramatically more likely to be abused, sexually and in other ways, as well as sometimes killed. None of this should be the smallest surprise. Just one extraordinarily ugly statistic: Although boyfriends contribute less than two percent of non-parental childcare, they commit half of all reported child abuse by nonparents.