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NPO publishes blog articles to inform and to stimulate conversation about issues of importance to NPO's mission.  All blog articles express the opinions of the authors as individuals and do not necessarily reflect the views of National Parents Organization, its Board of Directors, or its executives.  

April 3rd, 2013 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

Some things just boggle the mind.  Even after years of fighting the countless battles for common sense and fairness in family courts, years in which I often feel like I’ve seen it all – some things still simply amaze.  Here’s one (Racine Journal Times, 3/30/13). The article itself is pretty good.  It’s about child support, how hard it is for many fathers to pay and how simply improving fathers’ access to their children would improve things a lot.  The writer doesn’t know a lot about her topic, but she gives it a good effort.  At least she’s not of the “all dads are deadbeats” persuasion.  So it’s in some ways a refreshing read.

That’s even more the case because the article reports that the governor of Wisconsin has proposed a budget that would make the child support industry a bit more sane than it has been.  And that, oddly enough, is what boggled my mind.  Oh, it’s not that I have any reason to be suspicious of Governor Scott Walker or oppose his proposed reform.  Quite the opposite; I think his reform is a good one and long overdue.  But still, you be the judge.

The governor’s 2013-15 budget proposes cutting the annual interest rate charged on arrears from 12 percent to 6 percent as part of a pilot program to attempt to get more child support paid back, according to Andy Smith, a spokesman for the Department of Children and Families.

That’s right.  Up to now, the State of Wisconsin has been charging non-custodial parents an astonishing 12% on any arrears that accumulate.  Twelve per-cent!  Now I ask you, where on the planet does anyone get that type of return on an investment?  Ask Warren Buffet where he gets 12% on his money.  Nowhere.  Nowhere in the world.  Twelve percent is Bernie Madoff territory.  The junkiest of junk bonds don’t pay that.  But when it comes to fathers, working to pay support in one of the worst economies since the 1930s, the State of Wisconsin casually tags them with 12% interest on every dollar they owe.

Needless to say, it does so because it can.  After all, who’s going to speak up for a “deadbeat” dad who’s so callous as to fall behind on his payments?  Not a soul, that’s who.  And of course that’s because non-custodial fathers have been maligned for decades as uncaring about their children and, in any case, looking for any excuse to not support them.  So say the media, which is one reason the Journal Times piece is a breath of fresh air.

It should be obvious enough that demanding 12% of these men has little or nothing to do with child support and everything to do with keeping them in hock to the state.  As we all know, the more the state collects from non-custodial parents, the more it gets from the U.S. government.  So what’s the incentive for states to make sensible rules and regulations regarding child support?  None; the more they owe, the more the states can collect and the more they get from Uncle Sam.  And if hundreds of thousands of fathers are ground into poverty, so what?  Remember, it’s all for the kids.

Did the guy lose his job in the Great Recession?  That’s his problem.  Sure he’s lived on the margin even when he had work, but now that he doesn’t, the state expects him to hire a lawyer, pay a filing fee and go to court to try to modify his payments.  Even if he can do that, the judge may not grant the modification if he/she thinks the man can find another job or has assets somewhere.

What about access to the child?  Plenty of social science (often cited by child support enforcement agencies like the Texas Attorney General’s Office) points out that fathers who get to see their kids are much more likely to pay than those whose exes restrict or deny access.  So what does the State of Wisconsin do to ensure those visitation orders are complied with?

If Wisconsin is like other states, the answer is “little or nothing.”  Judges routinely shrug off motions to enforce visitation, and that too turns out to be a matter of money.  For one thing, while the U.S. government richly rewards states for collecting child support, it all but completely ignores the issue of access, even though the two are intimately related.  As I’ve reported before, the U.S. Office of Child Support Enforcement doles out $5 billion a year for child support efforts, but a paltry $10 million to enforce visitation.

And even that often goes elsewhere.  So when Texas Attorney General Gregg Abbott sent out a message ballyhooing the $500,000 the state had received to enforce vistiation, he made the mistake of mentioning some of the organizations that were to receive the money.  Sure enough, more than one of them publicized their efforts at child support enforcement.

If that’s not bad enough, the meager sums sent by Washington to the states for visitation enforcement are specifically prohibited from being spent to hire lawyers.  So fathers who are being cut out of the lives of their kids have to somehow find the money for legal representation themselves.  Meanwhile, any mother in the country who wants to get paid her child support has no such burden.  She can call up the Attorney General or whatever state agency is charged with the task and she’ll have a small army of attorneys and a huge bureaucracy working for her free of charge.  Funny how that works.

Meanwhile, back in Wisconsin, I didn’t mean to leave the impression that Gov. Walker was actually proposing long-term reform of an obviously abusive interest charge on child support arrears.  No, he’s only proposing a pilot project.

The budget proposes cutting the interest rate from January 2014 to June 30, 2015, although the Legislature could extend it.

I suppose I don’t have to mention that this has nothing to do with treating non-custodial fathers fairly.  It doesn’t.

The idea is that this will benefit families who receive child support because research shows noncustodial parents are more likely to make payments toward their child support debt when interest rates are reduced, Smith said. Receiving those payments, in turn, also helps save taxpayer money by having custodial parents rely less on government assistance, Smith said.

Then there’s the little matter of why one parent should have primary custody at all.  Given the fact that children do better with two parents in their lives and that much research shows that equal parenting not only benefits children but ameliorates conflict between divorced parents, you’d think that the problem of how courts apportion parenting time would be front and center in any debate about child support.  In fact, it’s seldom mentioned, but, to her credit, the Journal Times writer sought comment on the issue.

More also needs to be done to get equal custody for parents, said Tom Pfeiffer, the executive vice president of the nonprofit Wisconsin Fathers For Children and Families. Since child support is based on the number of nights a child is with each parent, if both parents had equal custody, support payments wouldn’t need to be so high for one parent, or exist at all, Pfeiffer said.

Of course states resist any move that would reduce what non-custodial parents owe (see above).  What matters is what brings in the money and the fact that children and fathers suffer due to absurdly flawed public policies is just one of those collateral consequences of the, er, greater good.

Hey, it’s enough to boggle the mind.

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