June 24, 2013 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
I agree with this article’s opposition to a new initiative by President Obama, but at the same time I’m glad he’s doing more about fatherlessness than just pointing the finger at dads and then walking away (The Hill, 6/16/13).
President Obama sometimes takes the opportunity on Father’s Day to draw attention to the problem of absent fathers. The president’s recently proposed FY’14 budget includes a new Child Support and Fatherhood Initiative. The initiative would require states to seek child custody and visitation orders in court for fathers who must pay child support to the state. The initiative’s goals are admirable. If fathers pay child support more regularly, childhood poverty may be reduced. If fathers participate more actively in their children’s lives, children may less often suffer poor educational performance, incarceration, drug abuse, teen pregnancy, and other problems more often experienced by children raised by single parents.
I say that, despite its flaws, I’m pleased not only at what Obama is proposing, but at the assumptions underlying his proposal. For years now, presidents have used Father’s Day as an excuse to (a) note the importance of fathers in family life, (b) excoriate absent fathers and (c) ignore the many reasons beyond their control that they’re absent. The hypocrisy in all that was that those in a position to do something about the many causes of father absence did nothing, preferring to call absent fathers irresponsible. But of course it was those presidents, including Obama, who were being irresponsible by not attempting to change the many legal and social impediments to fathers’ involvement in their kids’ lives.
But what underpins the Obama initiative is the realization (finally!) that if a father is so poor his kids are on welfare, he’s likely too poor to hire a lawyer to assert his rights to custody and visitation in family court. That’s nothing but fair and obvious, but no president has previously proposed that we do anything about it.
What President Obama wants to do is to provide those fathers legal representation, paid for by state governments (who would, I assume, receive reimbursement from Washington), to bring custody cases regarding their children. Failing custody, they’d get visitation orders assuming they’re fit parents. Of course this only applies to fathers with children whose mothers received welfare benefits under the Temporary Aid to Needy Families Act.
When that happens, states are required to establish paternity and child support orders in family court. As a practical matter, that child support money goes first to repay the state for TANF funds paid to the mother. When that’s paid off, and only then, do Dad’s child support payments actually start flowing to the mother for the child.
Obama’s proposal would, if enacted, only affect those fathers. Fathers repaying TANF benefits would see that most miraculous thing ever witnessed – government-paid lawyers going to bat for their parental rights. If it comes about, it’ll be a sight to behold.
I’ve often kvetched about the fact that currently, the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement receives from Congress about $5 billion annually to establish paternity and enforce child support. Congress gives that same agency a piddling $10 million to enforce visitation rights of non-custodial parents. As if that’s not bad enough, none of that $10 million can be used to hire attorneys for fathers who’d like to see their kids occasionally. Custodial mothers get free lawyers to enforce child support. Non-custodial fathers get zip to enforce visitation.
So what Obama would do is to provide money for state-employed lawyers to go to bat for poor fathers. The intention is to help those dads overcome some of the systemic obstacles to a relationship with their kids. As far as I know, it would be the first such initiative ever in this country.
What’s not to like? Just one thing. Those family court interventions would be mandatory, and about that, I agree with the article. According to Obama’s initiative, in every single case, state lawyers would have to file the appropriate motions seeking custody and visitation. Put frankly, that’s a waste of time and resources. Is a non-custodial parent in prison? Is he/she a known child abuser? Or are there other clear reasons why custody or visitation won’t be granted? Too bad, taxpayer-funded lawyers will be required by law to file the appropriate motions, walk into court, tell the judge the motion is a non-starter, hear the judge deny the motions and walk out again. There’s no reason for that to happen.
What should happen is for us to spend our money more wisely and more effectively. That means states should be required to contact the father (or mother if she’s the non-custodial parent) and ask him if he wants to pursue custody or visitation. The state should be required to inform him that he won’t bear the cost of doing so. If he says ‘yes,’ the attorney must follow through. If he says ‘no,’ then it’s on to the next case.
Making it voluntary on the part of the father would make the program less expensive and less wasteful of state resources. That would in turn free up public money to do what should have been done a long time ago – establish a program to assist fathers with insufficient funds to assert their rights to custody and visitation.
After all, the Obama initiative would only assist fathers if a mother received TANF benefits. To say the least, that in no way helps all the dads who need it. There are countless fathers who want to see their kids but who are hamstrung by their lack of income. If they want to establish or enforce a visitation order, if they want to try to get custody from an unfit mother, they have to foot the hefty bill themselves. They have to hire a lawyer, go to court and probably pay GAL fees, fees for mental health professionals and the like. In the vast majority of cases, there’s no way a father can do that.
And mothers know it. They know they can deny contact between father and child with impunity. They know he doesn’t have the money to pursue the matter and even if he did, the court won’t give him any satisfaction, so why allow him to see his child?
What Obama ought to do is drop the mandatory provisions of his initiative and use the money saved to set up a program to provide attorneys to the poor to assert their rights in family courts. All those parents would have to do is meet a certain income requirement (say, twice the poverty rate) and the program would provide them a lawyer, pay filing fees, GAL fees, etc. That of course would assist impecunious fathers. Actually it would do more than that. If mothers knew fathers had some ability to assert their rights, many of them would see the wisdom of not blocking access to the child in the first place.
Whatever happens with Obama’s initiative, the good news is that the most prominent person in the country has acknowledged publicly that it’s not just fathers who are at fault for fatherlessness. It’s the system of family courts and family laws that often prevents even the best of fathers from having real contact with their kids. Until we fix that, we’ll continue to see the scourge of the absent father damaging our children and our future as a nation.
I never thought I’d say it, but, President Obama, thank you for making a start.
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