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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.  

October 24th, 2012 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
Existing laws on child support and its collection are flawed in so many ways, it would take a book to describe it all.  Child support is often set at levels the non-custodial parent – the father in 84% of cases – cannot pay and the child doesn’t need to live.  The Office of Child Support Enforcement acknowledges this.  When the father inevitably falls behind, loses his job, becomes disabled, etc., the state lifts nary a finger to help him adjust his support obligation.  Unlike custodial mothers, the state doesn’t provide him an attorney to modify his order.  He must hire a lawyer himself, but of course if he could do that, he probably wouldn’t have fallen behind in the first place.

Even if he manages to get a motion before the court, he’ll have to wait months before it’s heard, during which time he’ll be falling further and further behind in his payments.  All that time, he’ll be accruing interest on the indebtedness.  It’s even possible for the arrearage to become so great that, even if he starts making the court-ordered payments in full, he still falls further and further behind.

The Office of Child Support Enforcement also acknowledges that some 63% of fathers in arrears report earnings of $10,000 or less.  In other words, it’s the lowest of the lower class that is hit hardest by our draconian child support laws.

Once behind, fathers learn that the state has a number of means at its disposal to ensure that he can never catch up.  Those include things like taking away his license to drive, professional and occupational licenses and of course, prison.  State officials will shout to the skies that it’s all about responsibility for children, while everyone else knows that a man who can’t operate a motor vehicle, work as an electrician, plumber, etc., will have an even harder time coming up with the money than he otherwise would.

Prison of course makes earning anything impossible, so once he’s behind bars, he’s sunk and so is his kid.

The evil genius behind these and so many more laws regarding child support (like the imputation of income), is the notion that fathers don’t like their kids and will do anything in their power to avoid supporting them.  That huge amounts of social science – like the work done by Dr. Sanford Braver, Dr. Kathryn Edin and the data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing project – show that to be false troubles neither state legislatures, attorneys general nor family court judges in the least.

Nor does it trouble the United States Congress.  That’s the body that gives the OCSE a whopping $5 billion each year for child support enforcement and a mere $10 million to help dads enforce their visitation rights.  It does that in face of the fact that fathers are far more likely to pay child support at all and pay in full, when their visitation rights aren’t obstructed.  The stark sexism of that funding is bad enough, but the fact that the Congress does so even though it means children will get less boggles the mind.

All of the above is well-enough known.  What’s remarkable is that, according to this op-ed, the State of Maryland is actually taking some constructive steps to rectify some of the more flagrant wrongs of the child support system (Baltimore Sun, 10/21/12).  What’s also remarkable is the downright sanity of the article; you just don’t see its type very often.  It makes some of the obvious points – that the child support system tends to bar fathers from the workforce – and some not-s0-obvious ones – that in doing so, it facilitates the trade in illegal drugs.

Maryland Chips Away at Child Support Debt

It then moves on to what Maryland is doing to change things.

At the Center for Urban Families, we understand the system because so many of our clients face this barrier every day. At the core of the solution is one simple idea: Treat child-support arrearages like bad national bank debt. Reduce its value and write it off the state balance sheet.

In Maryland, the Child Support Payment Incentive Program is already taking small steps to chip away at this mountain of bad debt. The program allows noncustodial parents with incomes below 225 percent of the federal poverty level, who have made 24 months of consecutive child-support payments on their current obligation, to have their arrears reduced to zero.

Maryland recently took another step in the right direction: Thanks to the work of the Job Opportunities Task Force, a Baltimore-based nonprofit that advocates for increased employment opportunities for Maryland’s low-wage and low-skill workers and job-seekers, new legislation will automatically suspend child-support orders for anyone sentenced to 18 or more months in jail and lacking the financial means to pay. Starting Oct. 1, the new law will help noncustodial parents reenter the workforce — and the lives of their children.

Programs like this must be expanded and strengthened; for example, the payment incentive program would be significantly more successful if it allowed some leeway for men who work seasonal labor jobs and are unable to make payments for a few months of the year, or who are otherwise laid off. Allowing for flexibility when the father’s income decreases or disappears would ensure that men don’t get hopelessly behind.

The reasoning is simple: Writing off child-support arrearages gives the “dead-broke” dad a break without removing the mechanisms that hold “deadbeat” dads who simply refuse to pay accountable. To accomplish this, we must better manage the collection process and collections agencies, so child support doesn’t become a life sentence.

It’s time to bring these young men out of the underground economy, and we need the public’s support. If we, as a country, can write off mortgage debt for banks with balance sheets the size of small countries, why can’t we write off child-support arrearages for young men who have found stable employment, who have relationships with their children, and who keep up with current child-support obligations? Why not help these guys get ahead?

The child support system is dangerously dysfunctional.  The proverbial intelligent space alien might well conclude that its rules are designed to separate fathers from children and place the burden of childcare on mothers to their great financial detriment.  You won’t hear a state legislator admitting any of that, but the facts bear it out every day, many times a day.  Congratulations to the State of Maryland for taking a few tentative steps toward sanity in child support legislation and to the Baltimore Sun for printing a refreshing bit of truth on the subject.

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