The Salt Lake Tribune

Money Is Not All That Should Be Considered in Child Support Cases

Sunday, October 3, 1999
BY LOWELL JAKS
Salt Lake Tribune

Twelve-year-old Alexandria Stuart of Greenwood, Indiana, has her father back.

But he's not like other kid's daddies. He must wear a monitor anklet 24 hours a day so the police know where he is.

He can't go outside. He can't mow the lawn. He can only leave the house to go to work. The police can enter and search her home any time they choose, at any time of day, like they did only this morning, threatening to arrest her mother and send her father back to jail unless she let them enter. Is Alexandria's dad a drug pusher, or perhaps a sexual predator? No. Her dad is but one of the hundreds of thousands of parents who are caught in the web of new laws that make falling behind in your child support a criminal offense.

Her dad's job as a salesman doesn't pay very much. He draws $5.25 an hour against commissions. Of that, the state takes $50 per week against child support arrearages and $60 per week for current child support for a daughter who turned 21 Aug. 8, 1999. He is also required to pay $40 per week for the privilege of wearing the monitor anklet while under house arrest.

That's an improvement over last week when Alexandria's dad was incarcerated in a large pole barn along with approximately 100 other inmates who are provided with a bunk but no meals. Inmates at this county facility are allowed to leave only to go to work. For this Alexandria's dad was charged an additional $100 per week. That, when added to the child support deduction, amounted to nearly 100 percent of his earnings. At least now he's home.

This year has not been easy for the Stuarts. Lynn, Alexandria's mother, lost her job due to a reduction in force. Gordon, Alexandria's father, suffers from a heart condition in addition to sugar diabetes and degenerative vascular disease for which he is under a doctor's care. Alexandria suffers with a seizure disorder. Currently she experiences from five to six seizures a day. It's a full time job for Lynn to take care of her.

On July 6, 1998, soon after Alexandria's father was released from the hospital for vascular bypass surgery, he was found in contempt for failure to pay child support and sentenced to 180 days in jail. Incarceration was suspended contingent upon his compliance with any and all court orders regarding the payment of child support. Gordon complied with the orders. He did, however, appeal the ruling which included $12,000 in undocumented medical expenses and a retroactive award of college expenses for the previous three years as well as current expenses.

Due to his lawyer's failure to file a brief in a timely manner, the appeal was thrown out. The stay against the jail sentence was lifted, and Gordon was immediately arrested and incarcerated in a work release facility. This, despite the fact that he had been making the court ordered payments. His lawyer then pleaded with the court for reconsideration, since Gordon's family was now destitute. On Sept. 6, 1999, the court relented, allowing him to keep the $60 a week for his family that he saves by wearing a monitor anklet instead of sleeping in a pole barn. He must wear the monitor anklet at all times, even when he calls on clients for his sales job.

It is troubling to me, as I know it is to many Americans, that Family Law has been criminalized to the point where parents can be incarcerated and have their wages garnished in order to collect child support and college expenses for a 21 year old "child" while the children of their second family are left to suffer. I am also concerned with the growing invasion of privacy and erosion of the Constitutional rights of parents.

Turning parents like Gordon Stuart into criminals does absolutely nothing for our nation's children. It is certainly not helping little Alexandria. Stuart's house arrest is nothing more than an insidious 21st Century version of debtor's prison. Furthermore, the mere replacement of debtor's prison with house arrest, or a ball and chain with a monitor anklet is hardly indicative of an advanced civilization.

A growing number of Americans are justifiably troubled by what this says about our society. It is one thing to apply blind justice to rapists and murderers. It is quite another to do so to parents in Family Court. In Mr. Stuart's case, the court is already guaranteed its money through the garnishment of his wages. What more does the court expect?

The wearing of a monitor anklet may be appropriate for a sexual predator. However, it is most certainly not appropriate for a father supporting a family with a 12-year old girl at home. What does degrading Mr. Stuart by in effect leashing him tell Alexandria and the millions of other children like her about our system of justice? My own organization, Alliance for Non-Custodial Parents Rights, receives hundreds of letters each week from people just like the Stuarts, who are reeling under the financial and psychological stress of child support awards that have little connection with the actual costs of raising a child and at the same time give absolutely no consideration to the needs of the children of second families.

The hard line taken by family courts nationwide is motivated by reports of uncollected child support that are as high as $50 billion. However, our analysis has discovered that the high estimates of uncollected child support are inflated by the practice of over reporting by the individual states who have been given federally sponsored financial incentives to establish high child support awards, no matter what the cost.

Studies indicate that as many as 44 percent of the orders in states' databases are either duplicate orders or are uncollectible due to the incarceration or death of the obligor. Using government figures, combined with studies conducted by Florida and Colorado child support enforcement agencies, ANCPR estimates that the actual money that can be collected amounts to no more than $5 billion nationwide, or an average of $1,400 per obligated NCP. This begs the question: Is what our government is doing to people like the Stuarts really necessary?

All the demagogic debate and inflated statistics about how much child support is uncollected and what should be done about it have little relevance for little Alexandria Stuart and her mother. Their concerns are more pressing and immediate.

As Alexandria's mother wrote in a letter to ANCPR, "My daughter is being denied her father's participation in this 12th year of her life. They are very close. What can we do? We can't live like this. How can I get him out of jail? What has become of this country?"

Lowell Jaks is president of the Alliance for Non-custodial parent rights.

© Copyright 1999, The Salt Lake Tribune.