July 15, 2013 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
We all understand child support, right? When two people have sex, both know they may produce a child. And if a child is conceived and carried to term, both Mom and Dad are under a legal obligation to support little Andy or Jenny. That’s partly because adults should be responsible for the consequences of their own actions, partly because it takes money to support a child and partly because the state doesn’t want to do the job. Indeed, at least in the Anglo-American world, the very concept of child support originated in England about 400 years ago solely to remove from the populace the onus of caring for “bastards.” Prior to that, single women who bore children could leave them at the local orphanage or work house, from which time they’d be supported (and none to opulently) by the people of the parish. Think Oliver Twist.
Soon enough, it was considered right and proper that men who fathered said children should be made to pay for them. That was based on the notion that the mothers were innocents who had been defiled by unscrupulous and uncaring men who wanted nothing but to “have their way” with the women and then flee. If any of that sounds like the laws on child support today, it’s no surprise. Essentially every assumption made by those laws is based on the idea that every man who fathers a child is dead-set on having nothing to do with it, evidence to the contrary be damned.
Still, the basic premise is sound; mothers and fathers should support the children they and they alone decide to bring into the world. Enter the federal government that provides incentives to states to distort that simple concept and guess what. That simple concept becomes twisted beyond recognition.
Bryan Sheffield can tell you all about it. Read about him here (Omaha World Herald, 7/14/13). He’s an Alabama native; he’s an honorably discharged Air Force Sergeant who served one tour of duty in Iraq with a service-related back ailment to show for it. Back in 2000, he married Calinda Cook in Georgia and they had two children who are now ages nine and six. In 2009, they got divorced and of course Cook got custody. When she decided to move to Nebraska, no court prevented her even though the move meant the kids wouldn’t see their father.
But Sheffield wasn’t deterred; he moved right along behind his ex and settled nearby just so he could keep seeing his children. I know his behavior contradicts the assumption that fathers don’t want anything to do with their children, but there it is.
The problem was that, having moved several states away, Sheffield couldn’t support himself the way he used to. But he’s a can-do sort of fellow, so he used his veteran’s benefits to go back to school and work toward a degree in human resources management. Good for him, but his income was still much below what it had been, so he asked the court for a reduction in the $1,072 per month he’d been paying. Despite his lowered income and despite the fact that he was diligently trying to improve his earning ability, the court refused to lower his payments. (It did knock off about $100 because Cook’s income had gone up.)
But Sheffield soldiered on. He went right along making his payments to his ex, just as before. And that’s the problem. He’s paid every penny he owes and can prove it, but the State of Nebraska says he owes almost $11,000. Why?
It seems that, when the two lived in Georgia, Sheffield paid Cook directly every two weeks. He owed her $1,072 per month, so he paid her $536 every two weeks. He paid her by check, she received them, endorsed them and deposited them to her bank account. When Cook moved to Nebraska, he continued the same practice. When Sheffield followed, he did the same thing.
But what was fine with the State of Georgia turns out to not be acceptable to the State of Nebraska. According to its Department of Health and Human Services, payments made directly to Sheffield’s ex-wife aren’t payments at all. Never mind the fact that he has the cancelled checks. Never mind that they’re made out to Calinda Cook or that they’re designated for “child support.” And never mind that on each check, Cook’s endorsement appears. No, none of that is good enough for the State of Nebraska. The only thing good enough for the State of Nebraska is for Sheffield to pay the state that would then disburse the money to Cook.
Now, where was that old basis for child support again? You know, the one that says parents are bound to support their children because the children need it and we want parents to be responsible for the children they bring into the world. Sheffield’s done all those things. He’s responsible enough to drop everything he was doing and move from Georgia to Nebraska just so his children wouldn’t lose their father. He’s paid every cent he’s ever been told to and his ex-wife received the lot of it.
So what’s got Nebraska’s knickers in a knot? Well, it seems it’s not enough to support your kids; you have to do it through the Department of Health and Human Services. Sheffield’s got the cancelled checks. He’s showed them to numerous bureaucrats, his state senator and even the governor. No one cares. No one cares that he’s clearly done what the law requires. No one cares that he’s in fact supported his children. It’s not good enough. He didn’t do it the right way, which, according to Nebraska DHHS is the way it’s done in Nebraska, not the way it’s done in Georgia. Of course no one told Sheffield that, but I guess now he knows.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why Nebraska doesn’t take cognizance of actual child support payments made outside the state system. That’s right, it’s the federal government that’s at fault. The federal Office of Child Support Enforcement pays states hefty sums every year for, among other things, all child support collected in the state in the previous year. But if that support isn’t paid through the state system, the feds don’t pay, so state officials are at pains to make sure everyone pays first to the state that then pays the custodial parent. The OCSE doesn’t care that the support was paid; it only cares that it was paid to the state.
So Bryan Sheffield has to go to court to prove he’s paid. No one in the state child support bureaucracy will credit him with having paid what he owes. He can show them all the cancelled checks he wants, but it’ll make no difference. Not a soul will pick up the phone and call Calinda Cook and ask her if she received the money. The only person with a magic wand is a judge. He/she can look at Sheffield’s checks and pronounce the obvious – that Sheffield has paid.
But of course that means Sheffield has to go to court. It also means he has to file the proper pleading, show up and give the proper testimony and hope and pray that the judge will see what any 10-year-old could. The trouble is that Sheffield is a poor man. He has no job, only a small disability check from the Air Force to live on. He doesn’t have the money to hire an attorney to do what needs to be done in court. In short, despite having paid every cent he owes, despite being the most loving and responsible of dads, Bryan Sheffield is a hair’s breadth from jail. One false procedural move and he’ll find himself behind bars with an utterly fraudulent judgment for $11,000 against him.
Astonishingly, the DHHS pretends its hands are tied. It claims that only a judge can decide whether Sheffield has paid or not. That’s complete bunk. Bureaucrats in the DHHS make those calls every day. They decide whether or not to turn a matter over to the state’s Attorney General for prosecution, and they do so based on their assessment of whether the father has paid or not. Likewise, they have the power to report a father to the State Department to have his passport revoked. The same is true for deciding whether to revoke his driver’s license or other professional or occupational license. Those decisions are all based on whether the guy has paid or not.
But in Sheffield’s case, they’re pretending the matter can only be decided by a judge. Nonsense. They’re taking that line for one reason only – that Sheffield paid outside the system and therefore denied the state its precious reimbursement from the feds.
Here’s what should happen in court. The judge should look at Sheffield’s cancelled checks, do the arithmetic and conclude that he’s paid everything he owes. Then he/she should ask the DHHS why on earth this case is in court, wasting the judge’s time and everyone else’s. Then the judge should make DHHS pay Sheffield’s attorney’s fees, costs of court and a little extra for making everyone jump through hoops that have always been unnecessary.
Have the children received what’s due them? Of course they have. But despite what anyone says, that’s not enough. The best interests of the kids have been taken care of all along. It’s the best interests of DHHS that Bryan Sheffield neglected. And for that he’s paid dearly.
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