Insight Magazine

Q: Is court-ordered child support doing more harm than good?

Yes: This engine of the divorce industry is destroying families and the Constitution.

By Stephen Baskerville
Insight Magazine

Geoff came home one day to find a note on the kitchen table saying his wife had taken their two children to live with their grandparents. He quit his job as head of his department in a university and followed. He was summoned to court on eight-hours' notice and, without a lawyer and without being permitted to speak, was stripped of custody rights and ordered to stay away from his wife and children most of the time. Because he had no job, no car and no place to live, his mother cancelled a pending sale of her house, and he moved in with her. Geoff and his mother now pay about $1,200 a month to his wife and her wealthy parents, and he is left to live and care for his two children on about $700 a month. A judge also threatened him with jail if he did not pay a lawyer he had not hired. When his temporary job ends, the payments must continue, and he is not permitted to care for the children while unemployed. He also expects to be coerced into paying more legal fees. He has never been charged with any wrongdoing, either criminal or civil.

Geoff's experience increasingly is common. In fact, it is epidemic. Massive numbers of fathers who are accused of no wrongdoing now are separated from their children, plundered for everything they have, publicly vilified and incarcerated without trial.

About 24 million American children live in homes where the father is not present, with devastating consequences for both the children and society. Crime, drug and alcohol abuse, truancy, teenage pregnancy, suicide and psychological disorders are a few of the tragic consequences. Conventional wisdom assumes that the fathers of these children have abandoned them. In this case the conventional wisdom is dangerously wrong. It is far more likely that an "absent" father is forced away rather than leaving voluntarily.

In his new study, Divorced Dads: Shattering the Myths, Sanford Braver of Arizona State University has shown conclusively that the so-called "deadbeat dad," one who deserts his children and evades child support, "does not exist in significant numbers." Braver confirms that, contrary to popular belief, at least two-thirds of divorces are filed by mothers, who have virtual certainty of getting the children and a huge portion of the fathers' income, regardless of any fault on their part. The title of Ashton Applewhite's 1997 book says it succinctly: Cutting Loose: Why Women Who End Their Marriages Do So Well.

Other studies have found even higher percentages of divorces filed by mothers, and lawyers report that, when children are involved, divorce is the initiative of the mother in virtually all instances. Moreover, few of these divorces involve grounds such as desertion, adultery or violence. The most frequent reasons given are "growing apart" or "not feeling loved or appreciated." (Surveys consistently show that fathers are much more likely than mothers to believe parents should remain married.) Yet, as Braver reports, despite this involuntary loss of their children, 90 percent of these deserted fathers regularly pay court-ordered child support (unemployment being the main reason for nonpayment), often at exorbitant levels and many without any rights to see their children. Most make heroic efforts to stay in contact with the children from whom they are forcibly separated.

The plight of unmarried inner-city fathers is harder to quantify, but there is no reason to assume they love their children any less. A recent study conducted in Washington with low-income fathers ages 16 to 25 found that 63 percent had only one child; 82 percent had children by only one mother; 50 percent had been in a serious relationship with the mother at the time of pregnancy; only 3 percent knew the mother of their child only a little; 75 percent visited their child in the hospital; 70 percent saw their children at least once a week; 50 percent took their child to the doctor; large percentages reported bathing, feeding, dressing and playing with their children; and 85 percent provided informal child support in the form of cash or purchased goods such as diapers, clothing and toys. University of Texas anthropologist Laura Lein and Rutgers University professor Kathryn Edin recently found that low-income fathers often are far worse off than their government-assisted families, "but economically and emotionally marginal as many of these fathers are, they still represent a large proportion of low-income fathers who continue to make contributions to their children's households and to maintain at least some level of relationship with those children."

Yet the voices of these fathers rarely are heard in the public arena. Instead we hear the imprecations of a government conducting what may be the most massive witch-hunt in this country's history. Never before have we seen the spectacle of the highest officials in the land -- including the president, the attorney general and other Cabinet secretaries, and leading members of Congress from both parties -- using their offices as platforms from which publicly to vilify private citizens who have been convicted of nothing and who have no opportunity to reply.

Under the guise of pursuing deadbeat dads, we now are seeing mass incarcerations without trial, without charge and without counsel, while the media and civil libertarians look the other way. We also have government officials freely entering the homes and raiding the bank accounts of citizens who are accused of nothing and simply helping themselves to whatever they want -- including their children, their life savings and their private papers and effects, all with hardly a word of protest noted.

And these are fathers who are accused of nothing. Those who face trumped-up accusations of child abuse also must prove their innocence before they can hope to see their children. Yet now it is well established that most child abuse takes place in the homes of single mothers. A recent study from the Department of Health and Human Services, or HHS, found that "almost two-thirds [of child abusers] were females." Given that male perpetrators are not necessarily fathers but much more likely to be boyfriends and stepfathers, fathers emerge as the least likely child abusers. A British study by Robert Whelan in 1993 titled Broken Homes and Battered Children concluded that a child living with a single mother is up to 33 times more likely to be abused than a child living in an intact family. The argument of many men legally separated from their families is that the real abusers have thrown the father out of the family so they can abuse his children with impunity.

In Virginia alone the state Division of Child Support Enforcement now is "pursuing" 428,000 parents for up to $1.6 billion, according to its director, Nick Young. In a state of fewer than 7 million people, the parents of 552,000 children are being "pursued." That is the parents of roughly half the state's minor dependent children. HHS claims that almost 20 million fathers in the nation are being pursued for something close to $50 billion. We are being asked to believe that half the fathers in America have abandoned their children willfully.

These figures essentially are meaningless. If they indicate anything it is the scale on which families are being taken over by a destructive and dangerous machine consisting of judges, lawyers, psychotherapists, social workers, bureaucrats and women's groups -- all of whom have a direct financial interest in separating as many children from their fathers as possible, vilifying and plundering the fathers and turning them into criminals. The machine is so riddled with conflicts of interest that it is little less than a system of organized crime. Here is how it works: Judges are appointed and promoted by the lawyers and "custody evaluators," into whose pockets they funnel fees; the judges also are influenced with payments of federal funds from child-support enforcement bureaucracies that depend on a constant supply of ejected fathers; child-support guidelines are written by the bureaucracies that enforce them and by private collection companies that have a financial stake in creating as many arrearages and "deadbeat dads" as possible. These guidelines are then enacted by legislators, some of whom divert the enforcement contracts to their own firms, sometimes even taking personal kickbacks (as charged in a recent federal indictment in Arkansas). Legislators who control judicial appointments also get contracts (and kickbacks, again the case in Arkansas) for providing legal services at government expense in the courts of their appointees. And, of course, custody decisions and child-support awards must be generous enough to entice more mothers to take the children and run, thus bringing a fresh supply of fathers into the system. In short, child support is the financial fuel of the divorce industry. It has very little to do with the needs of children and everything to do with the power and profit of large numbers of adults.

For their part, politicians can register their concern for fatherless children relatively cheaply by endlessly (and futilely) stepping up "child-support" collection while creating programs ostensibly designed to "reunite" fathers with their children. Even some fatherhood advocates jump on the bandwagon, attacking "absent" fathers while holding their tongues about the judicial kidnapping of their children. Though almost everyone now acknowledges the importance of fathers, for too many there are more political and financial rewards in targeting them as scapegoats than in the more costly task of upholding the constitutional rights of fathers and their children not to be ripped apart.

There is no evidence that endless "crackdowns" on evicted fathers serve any purpose other than enriching those in the cracking-down business. With child- support enforcement now a $3 billion national industry, the pursuit of the elusive deadbeat yields substantial profits, mostly at public expense. "In Florida last year," writes Kathleen Parker in the Orlando Sentinel, "taxpayers paid $4.5 million for the state to collect $162,000 from fathers"; and the story is the same elsewhere.

Instead of the easy fiction that massive numbers of fathers are suddenly and inexplicably abandoning their children, perhaps what we should believe instead is that a lucrative racket now is cynically using our children as weapons and tools to enrich lawyers and provide employment for judges and bureaucrats. Rather than pursuing ever greater numbers of fathers with ever more Draconian punishments, the Justice Department should be investigating the kind of crimes it was created to pursue -- such as kidnapping, extortion and racketeering -- in the nation's family courts.


No: Child support fights poverty for millions of kids and helps families get off welfare.

By Geraldine Jensen

How important is child support to American mothers? Consider the testimony of a single parent who wrote to me: "After the divorce, my minimum-wage job wasn't enough to support my children. I got behind on the house payments and the bank began foreclosure proceedings. The utilities were shut off. We ended up on welfare, reliant on the government to collect child support. The bureaucracy was slow to act and difficult to work with. It took two years to get my case to court. We collected $250 a month in current support and $50 a month in back support as payments on the $12,000 in arrears. I thought these payments were too low, but I was told that the average child-support payment in the U.S. is about $3,700 year. Even though the payments were not a large amount of money, when added to my wages, it was possible to get off welfare. Now my sons see that you work for a living rather than rely on welfare. Also, enforcing the child support got the father's attention. Finally, he is spending time with his sons."

In 1995, the U.S. Census study of children growing up in single-parent households showed that 2.7 million children received full payments, 2 million received partial payments and 2.2 million who had support orders received no payments. About 6.8 million children received no payments because they needed paternity or an order established. About 32 percent of the families who do not receive child support live in poverty. In single-parent households, 28 percent are white children, 40 percent are black children and 48 percent are Hispanic children.

There are now millions of children owed more than $41 billion in unpaid child support, according to the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement's 21st Annual Report to Congress. If we truly are serious about strengthening families and promoting self-sufficiency rather than welfare-dependency by making parents responsible for supporting their children, it is time to get serious about setting up an effective national child-support enforcement system. Taking care of the children one brings into the world is a basic, personal responsibility and a true family value.

Due to the nation's 50 percent divorce rate and the fact that 25 percent of all births are to parents who are not married, 60 percent of the children born in the nineties will spend part of their lives in a single-parent household. As far as the impact on children is concerned, the child-support collection system is second only to the public-school system. We need a national enforcement system where support payments are collected just like taxes, instead of a 50-state bureaucracy full of loopholes and red tape.

Republican Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois and Democratic Rep. Lynn Woolsey of California have proposed HR1488, legislation designed to set up a federal/state partnership to collect child support throughout the nation, even when parents move across state lines. These interstate cases make up almost 40 percent of the caseload and are the most difficult to enforce. State courts or government agencies through administrative hearings would establish orders within the divorce process or through establishment of paternity and would determine the amount to be paid based on parental income, modifying orders as needed. Enforcement would be carried out at the federal level by building on the current system in which employers deduct child-support payments from their payrolls. Instead of the state-government agencies in each state having their own system to enforce child-support payments, the new law would withhold payments in a manner similar to federal income taxes. Withholding would be triggered by completion of a W-4 form and a verification process. Self-employed parents would pay child support quarterly, just like Social Security taxes. At the end of the year, if all child support due was not paid, the obligated parent would be required to pay it just like unpaid federal taxes or collection would be initiated by the IRS.

For low-income and unemployed fathers, states could continue to operate fatherhood programs. Such programs offer fathers, many of whom are young, an opportunity to develop parenting and job skills that will allow them to support their children financially. Approximately 40 percent of the children who live in fatherless households haven't seen their fathers in at least a year. Census Bureau data show that fathers who have visitation and custody arrangements are three times as likely to meet their child-support obligations as those who do not. If collection of child support were done through the tax-collection system, local domestic-relations courts would have more time and resources to focus on visitation and custody issues.

The child-support system was established in 1975 as part of the Social Security Act. Although challenged in court, the Supreme Court ruled it constitutional. In 1984 -- when the first group of eligible children was nine years old -- Congress deemed it necessary to enact child-support amendments because the collection rate for children with cases open at the state-government level was only about 20 percent, and 50 percent of the children still needed orders established. When these children were age 13 in 1988, Congress acted again and passed the Family Support Act. This law promised collection of child support via payroll deduction from the time the order was entered in the divorce or paternity decree. It required states to place a lien on the property of those who failed to pay support and set up mathematical guidelines to determine a fair amount of support to be paid. In 1996, with the child-support system's first beneficiaries grown (age 21), only 20 percent of them received child support and 50 percent never did get an order established to collect support. Congress acted again through the welfare-reform laws. Unfortunately, this didn't solve the problem because the infrastructure for an effective state-based, child-support enforcement system does not exist.

State child-support caseloads grow yearly and the amount of support collected increases, but the percentage of families receiving support remains at about 25 percent. Studies cited in the book Small Change by Andrea Beller and John Graham show that income withholding is one of the most effective ways to collect child support. The only more effective method was nonpayment-of-support prosecution, which increased collection 10 percent more than income withholding. However, states rarely use criminal nonpayment-of-support actions, more often using civil contempt proceedings.

Nonpayment of support is a crime against children, a crime that causes poverty and in all states can be punished by jail time. The criminal sanction ensures payment from some negligent fathers. In a court-monitoring project undertaken by the Association for Children for Enforcement of Support, we found that if cases were processed as contempt-of-court charges, the amount collected would be only 10 percent of that collected in criminal nonpayment-of-support cases. For example, in a monitoring project done in Wood County, Ohio, about $20,000 was collected on 20 contempt cases while $200,000 was collected on 20 criminal nonpayment cases. Noncustodial parental rights are protected in contempt- and criminal proceedings due to the Supreme Court having found that anyone who faces possible jail time must be appointed an attorney if they can not afford one.

Some have charged that incarcerating someone for not paying child support creates debtor prisons. This is not true because those who are found in contempt of court are violating the civil-law principle of failing to follow a court order. Those charged with criminal nonpayment are guilty of child abuse and neglect. Terry Adams, author of Making Fathers Pay, studied the Michigan child-support enforcement system of arresting those who fail to pay child support and found that nine out of 10 end up paying child support.

We now have lost a whole generation of children because of a "broken system" -- one that is state-based and different everywhere and in which judges review cases one at a time in a slow, antiquated process designed for the 19th century, when divorce or having children outside of marriage was unusual. For example, in Ohio 600 judges are tasked with more than 700,000 child-support cases to establish or enforce a child-support order. Even if every judge -- from traffic court to the Supreme Court -- worked day and night on child-support cases, they could not handle this caseload.

A recent report from the General Accounting Office shows that states have spent $2.6 billion on statewide automated child-support-enforcement tracking systems. The results are dismal: Only 40 percent of the caseload is accounted for by the computer systems. Most states have experienced numerous hardware and software problems. Some states' systems have crashed as soon as they have gone online. Others have not been capable of handling the current child-support caseload. Still others have not performed according to the requirements outlined by the federal government. For example, California paid a private contractor more than $200 million for a system whose design was so flawed it was unable to perform even basic required functions. With all of these problems experienced within the states, how can we expect these systems to be successfully linked nationwide?

Further, privacy issues associated with passing sensitive Social Security and financial information between many agencies and private contractors hired by government is worrisome. It almost is impossible to ensure confidentiality when states have county child-support agencies and contracts with private collection companies. Any child-support worker in the country could gain access to sensitive financial information that is essential for successful child-support enforcement. The IRS already has information listing place of employment and income and has a proven track record of maintaining confidentiality.

The child-support agencies and courts throughout the country already are overburdened and backlogged. They will not be capable of handling the new tools provided to them by the child-support provisions in welfare-reform legislation. It is time to make children as important as taxes. Congress should act expeditiously to pass HR1488 for the children's sake.

Copyright © 1999 News World Communications, Inc.