All images: Stills from Where's Daddy official trailer

‘Where’s Daddy?’ Casts Light on America’s Dysfunctional Child Support System

This is a hard-hitting (and highly recommended) documentary about the ties that bind us and the laws that might just separate us.

Where's Daddy?
Rel Dowdell
Breaking Glass Pictures
06 Feb 2018

Since 2012 this column has explored the connections between films and the tapestry that links films in often unexpected ways. At times we need to take a step outside of the fiction, however, and pay attention to reality. Reality is not always as nice, easy or logical as a Hollywood film. Reality doesn’t always have a happy ending.

Enter Rel Dowdell, a filmmaker and educator who has made socially conscious movies with strong messages. I can vouch for the quality of his fictive but realistic films. Because of this quality, I want to introduce you to his most recent project. Recently, Dowdell has stepped out from behind the camera and out of his fictional universe into the realm of reality to offer his first documentary, Where’s Daddy?, which he wrote, directed and appeared in.

As all documentaries should, Dowdell’s film starts with a question and in his case that question goes right to the title. This true life feature explores a timely topic from a very different perspective than one that we, the public, are generally given. Where’s Daddy? is a documentary that takes a bold look at the child support system in America, specifically surrounding the way this system can penalize fathers and separate them from their families. The documentary asks many questions and comes away with no answer more resounding than “the system is broken”. That title question may seem like the kind that would come from a child. However, in terms of this documentary, there are few more adult questions to ask than simply Where’s Daddy?

Just bringing up the subject of child support and custody invites discussion of the reviled term “deadbeat dad”. Nobody likes a deadbeat dad. We see examples of these bad fathers all the time. Tabloids and day time television talk shows are packed with these “you are the father” moments showing men, and often black men, running away from their responsibilities as parents. What is this teaching society? Are there really so many deadbeats out there?

Let me get this out of the way right now. Dowdell’s Where’s Daddy? is not a film about deadbeat dads. Where’s Daddy? is also far from a “men’s rights” diatribe about unfairly treated, selfish misogynists out to push an agenda or avoid responsibility. Dowdell would no more be interested in giving a platform to that sort of speech than I would be in writing about such a film. Indeed, Where’s Daddy? is not that “boy’s club” kind of work. Dowdell feels the same way about deadbeat dads as you probably do.

Instead, this is a documentary that asks a new question: “What if the dad in trouble is not a deadbeat?” What if that father never runs away from his responsibility and does everything he possibly can for his children but falls behind financially? What if falling behind financially means, as it often does, falling behind on child support?

The simplest answer is one of the most chilling of this film. Often a father who has fallen behind on his child support will face jail time. While behind bars paychecks cannot be earned as work cannot be attended. The meter does not stop running just because a father is in jail and owed money continues to accrue. Thus a father, even if he is lucky enough to keep his job once released, has less money to pay the outstanding child support. Thus, the father faces jail time again, may or may not keep his job, and most assuredly falls behind on child support payments even further. And the vicious cycle continues.

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Rarely are special circumstances taken into account by the courts. For example, the documentary shows us that if the father’s health prevents him from working, he must go to court to prove that fact. This requires court costs and lawyers and further money owed on child support — as again, the meter keeps running. In the eyes of the courts all fathers who fall behind on their child support responsibilities are deadbeat dads. There’s little distinction made.

For those readers thinking that I just spoiled the big reveal of Where’s Daddy?, let me assure you that this is only the tip of the iceberg. Where’s Daddy? is much more than a film about fathers who face jail time, although the specter of this threat is always in the background. Instead, this film is about the child support system on the whole and how and where it is broken and unfair.

Dowdell has many more rarely investigated questions relating to this topic to ask and many more answers to expose. For the first time in one of his films, Dowdell steps in front of the camera, completing his transition from fiction to fact, to focus on the African American community and how child support laws impact families. To this end, Dowdell interviews a series of men who have been impacted by the system surrounding child support in various ways, from financial hardships all the way to prison.

Where’s Daddy? is a thoughtful, intelligent film about families and the (possibly once well-intentioned) broken system that further separates family members; a system that treats a complex issue as a simple binary. In this film, unlike in “reality”, a distinct line is drawn between parents who cannot keep up with payments and want to and those who simply abandon their families.

Nor does Dowdell merely focus on “Daddy’s” side of the story. Instead, Dowdell takes the time to interview the mothers of some of the children. This includes those mothers who sometimes have felt compelled to take the fathers to court. At no point does Dowdell denigrate or minimize the reasons these mothers are shown to have had. Dowdell’s writing, interviewing and directing shows a deep care for the mothers and what they and their children are going through. After all, the mothers are just as much parents as the fathers are, often struggle more, not least because women in America are paid less for their labor than men, and may be falling behind financially for the self-same reason the fathers have. Raising a family is never inexpensive or easy and Dowdell not only knows this but avoids pointing the finger at anyone caught up in this debt trap. Nothing is so simple to answer and the issues are much more complex than what we see on the surface. Regardless, the results are the same: Where Is Daddy?

Dowdell brings a sympathetic and interested, yet questioning and even, at times, skeptical voice to his interviews while doing his best to leave no stone unturned. What causes a parent to fall behind in child support payments? What was that parent’s upbringing like, especially when it comes to their own parents? Were their fathers present in their lives? What health concerns might be involved? What social mores might influence the situation? Most importantly, Dowdell investigates what the impacts are when something like this happens to a family. These impacts are not only felt by those directly involved with each case, but also society at large.

What is the answer? Where is the fix? Surely there must be some laws to govern child support. Without legal intervention child support would most certainly go away. Dowdell seems to agree. This isn’t an institution the film seeks to eliminate. Instead, this documentary loudly calls for reform. To this end the film does not explore a single answer, but investigates a myriad of possible alterations that could save families, financially and emotionally, and keep fathers in the lives of their children. Suggestions are made for non-jail penalties that allow for fathers to continue working, more consideration for special circumstances, and further regulations on what can be done with child support dollars.

Dowdell is also careful to ask the right questions and to avoid bias in his investigations. Yes, our host is attempting to tell a rarely told side of the child support but he does not come in with any axe to grind. This is a balanced and carefully represented piece.

The women interviewed in this film have their own viewpoints but are also aware of the ramifications of this sort of family fragmenting. For example, psychologist Dr. Kathleen Walls has seen both the fathers’ and mothers’ side of the child support and custody debate. In her interview here she explores the impact upon society that family fragmentation has had. These range from the perpetual cycle of poverty that harms the entire family to a steady degradation of the father’s role in the family. From a psychological standpoint, Dr. Walls discusses the impact of absent fathers on women. Some are even shown to seek out mates who are unreliable and absentee themselves. As she discusses her life one woman describes how she never had a father around and thus sought out men who were never around. This is similar to the cycle of abuse that we see when children are abused and grow up to be abusers. The same discussion reveals that sons of absent fathers can also be impacted negatively and become absent fathers themselves. Indeed, the symptoms of a broken system in a flawed society are explored in depth with consideration to both parents.

To keep this balance Dowdell also interviews both male and female lawyers who specialize in these cases, representing both men and women in their cases. That said, as evidenced by the title, there are more men interviewed than women, a fact that might be of concern to some viewers. In addition, Where’s Daddy? by definition focuses on broken families led by men and women. In today’s society there are many differing family types. Same sex couples, for example, are not explored in this documentary. This is not to say that such couples are dismissed; however, the thesis of this work focuses largely on the courts’ siding almost automatically with the mother in a child custody or child support case. As child custody and support constitutes a very large topic for debate, further documentaries could conceivably address more. Here, while remaining balanced, Dowdell does focus on his thesis, specifically exploring the child support system as it impacts black families and often ostracizes and alienates black fathers from their children.

As to the “daddies” of the title, the men in this film are hardworking and clearly love their kids above all else. Writer/ director Dowdell interviews everyone from a recycler to a customer service representative to a four times published author and journalist to educators to a minister to a doctor to Philadelphia Eagle wide receiver Fred Barnett to the successful rapper Freeway.

One man is moved to tears when recalling the story of his own custody battles and relates the importance of parents in a child’s life to the history of his own single mother bringing him up years ago. Another father recounts being sent to jail with not only murderers and rapists but other fathers who have fallen behind on child support payments with as little owed as $700.

Dowdell proves to be serious about investigating and reporting the stories that impact families on many financial levels. The question must be asked why these more successful men have trouble paying child support. This question is not ignored and the answers may surprise you. The documentary shows us that the larger the bank account the larger the penalties can be. For example, Freeway tells the story of being levied with fines of $100 per day by the courts for reasons he claims were never fully explained. As the stories are told, not a single one of these dads proves to be a “deadbeat”. Dowdell seems to truly see and feel the pain and damage these families have experienced and works to tell a seldom told, true tale.

Dowdell’s newness to the genre never gives the impression of inexperience. With a friendly, yet determined screen presence and voice, he’s unafraid to ask the tough questions and to get to the heart of each matter. Dowdell proves to be a skilled interviewer with a desire to find the truth wherever it may be found.

With his film, Dowdell shows us that there’s more to the important reality of child custody and child support cases than most realize. Our host takes the time to investigate and to explore but also to learn and edify himself in the process. Never does the film avoid revelation in favor of confirmation bias. Dowdell, the educator and filmmaker, is not only using the documentary format to teach, but also to take us along with him on a journey of learning.

Because of this thoroughness the audience can see the complexities of the issues surrounding the child support system. So often blame is placed or we look for who is the good guy and who is the bad guy in each of these cases. Often that “bad guy” is the “deadbeat dad”. Where’s Daddy explores and exposes the fact that the answers to this child support and custody debate are much more complex than who is right and who is wrong or who is good and who is bad. Quite simply, it’s not quite that simple. Further, at no point does Dowdell forget that each of the people he speaks to are human beings, that this is a human issue and that humans are complicated and imperfect.

By that same token with this many opinions being explored there are bound to be some complicated and imperfect people here that the audience won’t necessarily agree with. This is a sign of the balancing act seen in this documentary. Dowdell asks many questions and allows a large group of people to give opinions all in the name of finding the answers. The opinions expressed here might not necessarily be the opinions of Mr. Dowdell but are presented objectively with a trust in the audience to interpret the content of Where’s Daddy? for themselves.

Rel Dowdell was born and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where Where’s Daddy? was filmed. He graduated Magna Cum Laude from Fisk University with a degree in English before earning his Master’s Degree in Film and Screenwriting from Boston College.

Dowdell’s first film, the hard-hitting Train Ride was released by Sony Pictures in 2005 to great acclaim and awards. The film stars MC Lyte and Wood Harris and features the final appearance of Esther Rolle (Good Times, Maude). Rolle’s scenes were completed before her death in 1998 and her powerful performance resonates to this day. Train Ride is dedicated to Rolle’s memory.

Dowdell followed Train Ride in 2012 with the drama Changing the Game starring Sean Riggs and a special appearance (in two roles) by the great Tony Todd. Since its theatrical release, Changing the Game has earned more acclaim and honors for Dowdell and has become popular in its runs on the BET Network.

Where’s Daddy? was filmed in 2017 and will be released by Breaking Glass Pictures on 6 February 2018 in celebration of Black History Month. Where’s Daddy? is one of those quality documentaries that takes a seemingly simple subject and exposes the underlying complications most never see. At core this is a complex, human story told very well by a skilled and concerned filmmaker.