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Saturday, March 25, 2000Pilloried, broke, alone
Divorced fathers get a bad rap for not supporting their children. The truth is, many can't. And, tragically, some are driven to desperate measures, including suicide
Whenever fathers and divorce are discussed, one image dominates: the 'deadbeat dad,' the schmuck who'd rather drive a sports car than support his kids. Because I write about family matters, I'm regularly inundated with phone calls, faxes, letters and e-mail from divorced men. It's not news that divorced individuals have little good to say about their ex-spouses. What I'm interested in is whether the system assists people during this difficult time in their lives, or compounds their misery. From the aircraft engineer in British Columbia, to the postal worker on the prairies, to the fire fighter in Toronto, divorced fathers' stories are of a piece: Though society stereotypes these men relentlessly, most divorced dads pay their child support. Among those who don't, a small percentage wilfully refuse to (the villains you always hear about).
In his suicide note, Jim, the father of four children, protests that "not all fathers are deadbeats." Jim hanged himself because he couldn't see any alternative. Even now, his children are unaware of the circumstances of their father's death.
Meeno Meijer, National Post
George Roulier is fighting to regain money wrongfully taken from his wages by the Ontario child-support collection agency.
Chris Bolin, National Post
Alan Heinz, a Toronto firefighter, has gone bankrupt fighting for the return of his daughter, 3, from Germany. No one will help him, but German authorities are trying to collect child support from him.
What you haven't been told is that the other men in arrears are too impoverished to pay, have been ordered to pay unreasonable amounts, have been paying for unreasonable lengths of time, or are the victims of bureaucratic foul-ups.
Today, and on Monday and Tuesday, the National Post will tell you the stories of fathers who have been driven to suicide by a system deaf to their pleas. We'll introduce you to a man who is still paying child support for a 23-year-old employed daughter. We'll tell you about an executive with take-home pay of $7,455 a month who is left with $302 after handing over child support and alimony to his ex-wife.
Their lives are being devastated by courts and governments who consider no measure too punitive in their war against "deadbeat dads."
Last July, in a run-down part of Regina, a 39-year-old divorced father tied a rope around his neck and hanged himself in his basement.
His children, ages eight, nine and 11, and an older adopted child, have not yet been told how their father died, so his family has requested that his real name be withheld. We'll call him Jim.
Jim was tall and thin, with dark eyes and hair. He worked as a mechanic at an auto dealership, specializing in transmission repair. In addition to four fatherless kids, he left behind grieving parents, two sisters and a brother.
And a neatly written, two-page suicide note: "The last five years has been very difficult emotionally and financially for me, since the separation I tried my best to support my children and make a living," it reads. "The end result was that it forced me into bankruptcy ... This is the only solution because I just see absolutely no light at the end of the tunnel."
Jim is not the only divorced father driven to desperate measures. Last week, police recovered the body of Darrin White, 34, of Prince George, B.C. Mr. White hanged himself after being ordered to pay $2,070 a month in family support -- even though he'd told the court he was on stress leave from work and had a take-home pay of about $1,000 a month. Despite doing everything in their power to live up to their obligations, many divorced men receive little sympathy.
In his letter, Jim protests that "not all fathers are deadbeats" and expresses his anguish at being stripped of "the right to parent" his children after his former wife was awarded sole custody.
"Twice in the past five years I wanted to take my own life but because of the love and the good times I had with my kids I could not go through with it," he wrote. "I hope someday my kids will understand and forgive me for leaving them."
In October, 1995, Andrew Renouf of Markham, Ont., left a similar suicide note. Describing how the Ontario government had seized all but 43 cents from his bank account on pay day three days earlier, he wrote: "I have no money for food or for gas for my car to enable me to work." Although he had tried to explain his situation to the child-support enforcement office, he said, "their answer was: 'we have a court order' several times. I have tried talking to the welfare people in Markham, [but] since I earned over $520 in the last month I am not eligible for assistance."
Mr. Renouf said in his note that he had no contact with his daughter in four years. "I do not even know if she is alive and well," it reads. "There is no further point in continuing my life. It is my intention to drive to a secluded area near my home, feed the gas exhaust into the car, take some sleeping pills and use the remaining gas in the car to end my life. I would have preferred to die with more dignity."
Hazel McBride, a Toronto suicide researcher and psychotherapist, says she has encountered a number of such cases since the early '90s. One involved a small businessman who'd faithfully made his child-support payments until the recession hit. After the support-enforcement office seized money from his business bank account, his business went under, his house was repossessed and he suffered a heart attack. Eventually, he blew his head off with a shotgun.
"These are not unusual cases," she says. "I had a man who came to see me, and he had cancer and had to leave his job as a long-distance truck driver. Being self-employed, he had no long-term disability. His wife had remarried and was living quite well, and she had the children. The only thing he had left was a house that he had inherited from his parents. Not a very big house. And once he made his support payments, he had no money for heat.
"It's one of the reasons I stopped doing the clinical work," says Dr. McBride, "because the stories were so terrible and there was so little you could do for people. This man said, 'I want to go out and kill myself. It won't get better.' And he was right, it wasn't going to get better."
Fathers pushed close to the breaking point rarely attract media attention because everyone assumes they are deadbeat dads. Government fact sheets call men whose support payments are in arrears "delinquent parents" who "hide from their child support debts" and need to be "forced to live up to their obligations."
The Ontario government claims that such parents owe $1.2-billion in outstanding support in that province alone, and that only 24% of registered support payers are in full compliance. A damning portrait of all divorced fathers has been painted.
But the issue is far more complicated. For starters, support-enforcement records are notoriously unreliable and out of date. Last year, Wayne Sagle of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., was told he owed $51,000 in arrears.
Only after the National Post contacted Mr. Sagle's former wife did the government admit the $51,000 was an illusion. With the former wife acknowledging the children had lived with their father since 1990, it became clear the real problem was out-of-date paperwork.
In another instance, months after a support payer committed suicide, Ontario's enforcement agency continues to send notices to one of his previous mailing addresses, and, no doubt, to count his arrears in the total tally of money owed. (One U.S. study found that up to 14% of the men listed as deadbeat dads in state records were, in fact, dead.)
In some Canadian provinces, men who religiously pay support every two weeks on pay day are classified as being in arrears for half of each month -- because the enforcement agencies' bookkeeping is based on a monthly cycle.
No research is available on Canadian child-support payers, but studies elsewhere indicate the vast majority of divorced men meet their obligations -- and that those who don't often have good reasons.
According to Roger Gay, an internationally recognized child-support expert based in Stockholm, the only meaningful child-support statistic is the percentage of support ordered by the courts that actually gets paid. In the U.S., he says, "fathers overall pay between 70% and 80% of what is due."
What's more, the highly publicized garnishments, suspension of drivers' licences, revocation of passports and jail sentences have accomplished little. Despite the efforts of the 50,000 people employed by the U.S. child-support collection bureaucracy -- which costs $4-billion a year -- Mr. Gay says the percentage of child support paid hasn't changed since the mid-'70s. "We've let too many years go by without admitting to the public that these measures have been a failure."
The difficulty in collecting the remaining 20% to 30% is due largely to the fact that the war against deadbeats is really a war against the poor -- against men who have always been economically marginal or have been impoverished by the divorce process itself.
According to the Institute on Poverty, half of non-paying fathers in Wisconsin earn less than $6,200 a year and only one in 10 earns more than $18,500 annually. Other research shows the unemployment rate is one of the most accurate predictors of child-support compliance. (Although even then, half the men who were out of work in one sample still managed to pay the full amount of support.)
In 1996, an Oklahoma child-enforcement officer, writing in the Christian Science Monitor, accused politicians "hungry for the perfect scapegoat," of demonizing non-paying fathers. "Most deadbeat dads are frightened, angry and depressed men," wrote the official, who admitted to putting hundreds of them behind bars.
"Not only are many deadbeat dads destitute, it is often their failure as providers which led their ex-wives to divorce them. I prosecuted one deadbeat dad who had been hospitalized for malnutrition and another who lived in the bed of a pick-up truck. Many times I prosecuted impoverished men on behalf of ex-wives who had remarried successful men and were living in comfortable conditions."
Yet the stereotype of the divorced father with scads of money who mean-spiritedly refuses to hand it over persists -- and negatively influences the courts.
In the words of Pauline Green, a Toronto family lawyer, "Some judges think men have gotten off much too easy in the past with things like child support. [Their position is:] 'that's it, I don't care what anybody says, I don't care what the excuses are.' "
Adds Susan Baragar, a Winnipeg lawyer and feminist: "There isn't equality within the family court. I mean, there's a standard joke among us family lawyers. We say: 'If you're the guy, just put on your helmet and duck.' There are injustices that go the other way, on a case by case basis. But generally speaking, I know if I represent the woman it's going to go easier for me in court."
While society insists that divorced fathers be "held accountable" some researchers are asking whether our desire for accountability results in persecution.
In Throwaway Dads, co-authors Ross Parke and Armin Brott present a litany of horror stories -- including the case of a janitor wrongly accused of murder. After spending nearly a decade in Texas prisons, the man was released, only to be handed a $22,000 bill for child-support arrears that accrued while he was behind bars.
Support payers are also automatically assumed to be in the wrong. In late 1997, George Roulier's former wife, Carol McIntosh, signed a sworn statement claiming he was in child-support arrears by $1,220. Five weeks later, the Ontario government instructed Mr. Roulier's employer to begin garnisheeing his pay cheque.
Rather than conducting an investigation, the enforcement agency appears instead to take support claimants at their word. "They told me they tried to send me a letter," says Mr. Roulier. "I said 'Okay, please send me a copy of that letter.' And they said, 'No, we won't do that.' "
Seven months later, when Mr. Roulier presented a judge with his cancelled cheques for the period in question, the judge declared he had paid "everything owing up to 31 Jan. '98 directly to Carol McIntosh" and that "there were no arrears of support."
Mr. Roulier is still trying to get a full refund for the arrears collected that the judge said were not owed. In September, 1998, the enforcement agency sent him some of the money.
But in October, David Costen, acting director of the agency that had failed to verify information before acting on it, washed his hands of the matter. "The question of whether or not the recipient has misinformed the plan or failed to provide accurate information," he wrote to Mr. Roulier, "is a legal matter between you and the recipient."
At the same time that society is demanding divorced dads pay up, our courts, governments and social services fail to recognize the huge effect losing daily contact with one's children has on men's ability to earn a living.
"No government and no court should be allowed to take a child from a parent unless there is a very, very, very good reason," says Dr. McBride. "Because to have a child ripped from you, it's the same as a child dying. It's absolutely uncivilized, barbaric and devastating for any parent. It's not uncommon for these people to suffer depressive breakdowns."
And while a large, expensive system exists to collect child support from divorced fathers, no parallel system helps ensure children's and father's rights to close and frequent contact.
After his marriage broke down in late 1997, Toronto firefighter Alan Heinz's wife told a court three job offers awaited her in Germany. He reluctantly agreed to her relocation there with the couple's daughter, who is now 3, but became disturbed when she went on welfare shortly afterward.
While no one in authority will help Mr. Heinz secure his daughter's return, the Youth Welfare Office in Neuss, Germany, is trying to collect child support from him in an attempt to recoup the social-assistance costs.
Mr. Heinz has gone bankrupt trying to fight a legal battle that has spread to two continents. At 41, he now lives in his parents' basement.
Edward Kruk, a professor of social work at the University of British Columbia who has studied divorced fathers for the past 15 years, says that despite the more active role many contemporary fathers take in their children's lives, "fathers today are less likely to obtain custody if they contest it in court than they were in the '70s."
In other words, society's message to divorced fathers is that the only thing required of them is money. It's a message some of them find too difficult to bear.
Among Jim's personal papers are documents indicating that, in the year prior to his death, his financial situation had worsened. In late 1998, he missed nearly three months of work due to a back injury. In mid-November of that year he received a letter from the Saskatchewan Worker's Compensation Board advising him his compensation benefits were being garnisheed.
According to an affidavit Jim signed a few months before his death, between August, 1998, and January, 1999, his expenses consistently exceeded his earnings by more than $100 a month.
Paying a modest $460 plus utilities for accommodation, he had spent only $40 on clothes in the past year, and only $52 on tools -- even though mechanics are expected to make regular tool purchases as a condition of their job.
George Seitz, a friend, says Jim lived in "a very rough neighbourhood, a place in Regina that I would not live, ever" because rents were cheap. When the two men got together with their children, Mr. Seitz rarely remembers Jim eating. "I think because of his financial position, he would buy his kids something and he wouldn't have anything himself."
As Jim's affidavit notes, out of a monthly take-home pay of about $1,650, "My most significant monthly expense is the [$800] support payments I make in relation to my children." But that wasn't good enough.
Although Jim had owned the matrimonial home prior to his marriage, which lasted five years, a judge granted his ex-wife a half interest in it when the couple divorced. Based on a formula that valued the house higher than it actually sold for, Jim was ordered to pay his former wife more than $8,000 and was held responsible for a $3,400 credit-card bill.
Arguing that he had no conceivable way of raising these funds, Jim attempted to declare bankruptcy. In March, 1998, Judge Maurice J. Herauf ruled that the amount of money in question "is not large and should be paid in full." He added, "It has to be made clear to the bankrupt that he will be held responsible for his actions."
In June, 1999, the same judge denied Jim's appeal, declaring that his "intransigence toward paying anything to his ex-wife on the property judgement is as apparent now as it was at the time of the discharge hearing."
At both these hearings, an extra $500 -- to cover the legal fees of his ex-wife, who vigorously opposed his bankruptcy -- was added to Jim's debt. The judge decreed that the now nearly $13,000 Jim owed would be deducted in $100 instalments from every pay cheque for the next six years, leaving him about $650 a month to live on.
Less than two weeks after he lost the appeal, Jim's family buried him in a Regina cemetery. Neither his former wife nor his children attended his funeral.
Three years after Andrew Renouf asphyxiated himself in his car near Markham, Ont., because he, too, could see no way out, a small group of people held a memorial service outside the provincial support-enforcement office.
During his sermon, Rev. Alan Stewart, of Toronto's Westview Presbyterian Church, made the following remarks: "The terrible reality of this story is that everyone lost. A daughter lost her father, a former wife lost her support, society lost a good and productive member and Andrew lost the most precious thing: his life. Surely a system that makes everyone a loser has got to be wrong."
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